As we reported last night, it didn't take long for a flurry of condemnations from both EU and US officials in the hours after the Ryanair incident over Belarus, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling for opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich's immediate release. Multiple EU leaders described Sunday's detention of Pratasevich after his commercial aircraft with 170 international passengers on board (including Americans, apparently) was intercepted en route between Greece and Lithuania and a Belarusian warplane forced it to land in Minsk where the dissident journalist was arrested, as tantamount to "hijacking a civilian plane" and “state piracy."
“This was effectively aviation piracy, state sponsored,” said Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, using language that was echoed by a number of other countries. Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said: “It is dangerous, reckless, and naturally the EU is going to act.”
In response, on Monday Russia - which has provided security, diplomatic and financial backing to Lukashenko - accused the West of hypocrisy and dismissed European Union and US outrage at the forced landing. It noted that in 2013 a flight from Moscow carrying Bolivia's president had been diverted to Austria after reports fugitive U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden might be on board.
In a Facebook post, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Western countries were showing double standards in their reaction to the Ryanair plane grounding incident.
“Either the should be shocked by everything: from the forced landings in Austria of the plane of the president of Bolivia at the request of the United States and in Ukraine after 11 minutes of takeoff of a Belarusian flight with an Antimaidan activist. Or they should not be shocked by similar behavior by others”
While we doubt Russia's response was a surprise, the European Union said it will consider further sanctions against President Alexander Lukashenko’s administration when its leaders meet for dinner in Brussels on Monday night for the start of a two-day summit. One threat under consideration is a limit on international air traffic over Belarus and possibly a restriction of its ground transport.
Countries have called for the release of 26-year-old Roman Protasevich, whose social media feed from exile has been one of the last remaining independent outlets for news about the country since a mass crackdown on dissent last year.
The French presidency said a request had been sent to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to suspend international flights over Belarusian air space. Banning the Belarusian state carrier Belavia from European airports would also be discussed, as well as unspecified measures regarding ground transport links.
A Latvian airline, airBaltic, became the first to announce it would no longer use Belarusian air space, and Cyprus-registered Avia Solutions said its Lithuania-based airlines would do the same. Lithuania's transport minister, Marius Skuodis, said Poland's LOT and Hungarian airline Wizzair would follow suit and announced that all flights to and from Lithuanian airports must from midnight GMT avoid Belarusian air space.
Meanwhile, Belarusian activists in Poland - whether with or without CIA funding - appealed to the EU for help. Standing in front of Belarus embassy in Warsaw, Nexta founder and blogger Stsiapan Putsila held a placard reading “SOS,” and said he’s received “more than a thousand threats” since Sunday. “We can’t stay silent,” said Jana Shostak, another activist.
Still, as Reuters notes, the options for Western retaliation appear limited. The Montreal-based ICAO has no regulatory power, and the EU has no authority over flights taking off and landing in Belarus or flying over its air space, apart from direct flights that originate or land in Europe. Belarus has shrugged off previous rounds of EU and U.S. financial sanctions.
After Protasevich was arrested, flight 4978 was allowed to travel on to Vilnius, where weary passengers disembarked. One described the moment when the pilot had come on the intercom to tell passengers they were being diverted to Minsk. Protasevich immediately shot to his feet, knowing his time was up, and gave his laptop and phone to his companion.