May 31, 2021

Responding to a Dictator’s Stunts: A No-Thrill Flight Without a Destination?

A person holds a cartoon depicting Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin outside the Belarus embassy building during a protest in Bucharest, Romania on 30 May 2021.
A person holds a cartoon depicting Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin outside the Belarus embassy building during a protest in Bucharest, Romania on 30 May 2021.

It is quite extraordinary to see a state being rebuffed by Hamas, berated by the Ryanair CEO, admired by a boss of a Russian state propaganda outlet and prompting an immediate response from the EU that goes beyond “deep concern”—all within 36 hours of a major civil aviation incident. Whatever the reaction, we must give it to them: the regime in Minsk played by the “book of rogues” as a deserving and almost exemplary disciple of its big brother in Moscow. Can it be stopped from attempting similar stunts in the future? Probably not, so we will have to be prepared.

The operation to nab exiled opposition activist and journalist Raman Pratasevich was bold, surprising, swift and with an inbuilt element of deniability (until that fake email from “Hamas” turned up), while yielding the desired outcome. It was an intelligence-led interagency enterprise, involving coordinated actions by secret services, civil aviation authorities, military and other agencies. While it certainly constituted a gross and unprecedented abuse of international norms governing civil aviation and potentially endangered many lives aboard the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, it also showed how far the Belarusian regime was prepared to go to punish its enemies.

And it now sends a signal to other opponents of the regime that they are not safe anywhere, and that even Europe cannot protect them from the dictator’s ire.

What Goes Around, Comes Around

What happened, however, was inevitable partly due to the West’s modus operandi—always kicking the can into the bushes. The Belarusian regime had already been using violence against and imprisoning scores of its opponents (a full current list is here) and even killing some of them at home and on foreign soil well before the mass protests over the grotesquely fraudulent results of the presidential elections erupted. Punitive sanctions ebbed and flowed, but this has been too long accepted as “business as usual” by everyone. The oligarchs of Belarus continued trading with the West, and the country remained part of an odd constellation called the “EU Eastern Partnership” as well as NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme, while at the same time becoming an adjunct to Russia’s military machine.

When the dictator became truly unhinged in the wake of the protests last year and significantly escalated repression, he was slapped on the wrist by some largely symbolic “targeted sanctions” and travel bans. The West then moved on almost as soon as the scenes of the protesters beaten up by the dictator’s thugs vanished from their television screens. Efforts by the opposition leader and president-elect Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and her team as well as some individual EU countries such as Lithuania and Poland to keep up the pressure on the regime looked increasingly forlorn. The attention span of the collective West is matched only by that of mosquitoes (does anyone still remember Alexey Navalny’s predicament?).

This has clearly emboldened the regime, which has led to the current security crisis. Its potential global repercussions—that other similar regimes will start forcing regular civilian flights to the ground, with or without false pretexts, if they carry their political opponents—raises grave concerns. So, the Ryanair incident generated one of the few pushbacks we have lately witnessed against the erosion of international order based on universal rules and norms. Still, the West strives to keep any response proportionate and reasonable, particularly out of concern it could hurt ordinary Belarusians, especially the dissidents already languishing under the ramped-up repressions. Yet, the security crisis that erupted as a result of the unconventional aircraft hijacking was probably anticipated by the dictator, and its consequences fully expected and duly accepted. For Minsk, regime survival considerations trump everything else.

Jazz Is Not Symphony

Herein lie two key problems of the West. First, its main actors are invariably reactive, linear and unimaginative in their strategy and tactics when playing against the rogues. They seldom work to develop their own unpredictable and creative means and ways to pursue a set of clear objectives in relation to regimes such as the one in Minsk. The predictability of their responses—falling within the range of expressions of concern to proportionate and limited sanctions—makes it easy to calculate the costs and prepare to absorb them.

With some exceptions such as the elaborate US efforts (now largely abandoned) to prevent the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea, the West keeps showing up in jazz improvisation sessions with the rogues with a well-known symphony script (and even then, due to the lack of political will or consensus, often failing to play a note or two). Next time, Minsk (or Moscow, for that matter) will do something different and again unexpected, catching everyone off guard while bagging the sought rewards. New sanctions will possibly follow—as a show of resolve—but will not be sufficient, so nothing will really change. That is unless those sanctions are so sweeping they start choking the regime financially and turning it into a liability too expensive for Moscow’s patrons to keep in place. (Yet, Moscow is well known for lavishing billions on its proteges, for years on end).

Second, the predictable bandwidth of responses seldom modifies the behaviours of the rogues in ways that make them comply with the demands, particularly if they have recourse to external support (Moscow in the case of Minsk). Even Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda whose country has been spearheading the current European response admitted that the fresh round of imposed sanctions “would not stop Lukashenko from doing what he is doing” (see here from 04:49). If so, then how could one expect this to be a deterrence against future abrasive actions—by this regime or others? We might feel good—tough, resolute, united—about what is being done, but it seems it is hardly shifting the cost-benefit calculus of the target of the sanctions. And it is not resolving the core problem—that the regime on the doorstep of the EU and NATO is shaken but remains entrenched and that the obvious security challenge it poses will go away only if it implodes.

Regime Change, Anyone?

Making the regime implode and then replacing it, however, is a fraught political process. It needs to be pursued through smart and dynamic strategy that persistently applies a combination of means designed to constantly undermine the regime and radically alter the perceptions of its survival chances among its key players and its principal patron. At least until now, the EU or NATO have appeared to be unable to do this. Furthermore, “regime change” is decidedly out of vogue in the “power projection” visions of a West beset by many political dysfunctions of its own.

The process can be led to a successful end only by the Belarusians themselves and, in particular, the coalition of civic forces that have assembled around president-elect Tsikhanouskaya. Only they are able perform jazz in this struggle, not the collective West who can, at best, provide a helping hand and shape some favourable conditions through a much more extensive set of sanctions. The regime is aware of that and targets the dissidents above anyone else. These activists are on a steep learning curve against a dictator who has run a brutal mafia state for three decades, so their chances of success are far from favourable, perhaps even slim. There will be more setbacks, disappointments, disasters and human tragedies on the road ahead. However, the very fact that such an impressive civil society has emerged over the years under the repressive lid means the slow-motion regime change is already underway.

Safer Havens, Not Just Heavens

This coalition, however, must be supported and enabled in every possible way and provided a truly secure base from which to fulfil its mission—from ensuring physical protection and comprehensive awareness about dynamic security risks, to intelligence sharing, counter-espionage and cybersecurity measures. They must be treated as an extension of the national and European democratic critical infrastructure and granted the same degree of recourse to resilience measures that only national elements of this infrastructure usually enjoy. Some of those measures are already in place (e.g. Tsikhanouskaya has close protection officers assigned by the Lithuanian authorities) but need to be scaled up, while others will take a long time to materialise, so they will have to be substituted by other measures.

For instance, Lithuania who provided a home to many fleeing Belarusian activists cannot, as it turns out, do it all alone due to the nature of the threat and due to how the security framework of the EU is designed. And Lithuania will remain vulnerable in its own right to Minsk’s and Moscow’s shenanigans: from military provocations to psychological warfare attacks using the much-feared Astravyets nuclear power plant; from sabotage and disruption by the infiltrated KGB agents (by some estimates, one out of 10 political asylum seekers from Belarus are recruits of the regime’s security services) to tensions and divisions instigated by the political agents of Kremlin’s influence using the “futility” or “self-harming nature” of support to the democratic Belarusian opposition as a leitmotif.

Only vigilance, rigour and imaginative thinking from the national authorities of all EU and NATO countries providing safe havens to dissidents, their effective whole-of-government action and, indeed, whole-of society approach to managing various aspects of the threat to democracy’s critical infrastructure—along with more effective European and trans-Atlantic security cooperation—will ensure such teams as Tsikhanouskaya’s have a truly safe temporary home and eventually be able to achieve their political aims. Keeping aircraft and passengers in the skies safe is hugely important, but let us not forget those brave people who every day face the risk of prison, torture and death at the regime’s hands, because they have been too naïve about the safety of “a Europe that protects” and their hosts have been lacking in imagination about what could happen next.

Buckle Up, It Will Be a Long and Turbulent Flight

The EU and NATO can and should do a lot more to bolster resilience of individual allies at the frontier of freedom and democracy as well as apply much more significant economic pressure on the regime in Minsk. We should, however, lower our expectations of the outcome of doing more of the same in response to stunts such as the incident with the Ryanair flight. Resilience cuts both ways, and if the recent record of ghastly authoritarian regimes that faced popular revolt in places such as Venezuela or even Belarus itself attests, their end will be neither quick nor painless. So, we need to fasten those seatbelts at long last. It should have been clear for a number of years that our security is no longer a no-thrills regular flight to a sunny place but instead a turbulent journey to an unclear destination that will just keep getting worse.


Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).