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Opinion One more international norm gets busted in the skies over Belarus

The Ryanair passenger plane that was diverted to Minsk by Belarusian authorities. (Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images)
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An earlier version of this column misspelled Elliot Ackerman's name. This version has been corrected.

The 1930s offer the paradigmatic example of the dangers of allowing international norms to erode. In 1931, Japan invaded the Chinese region of Manchuria. In 1935, fascist Italy invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia). In 1936, Adolf Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. In 1937, Japan began a brutal invasion of China. In 1938, Germany annexed Austria and occupied the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 became a foregone conclusion, because Western democracies allowed one norm after another to be violated with impunity.

Which brings us to the Ryanair incident Sunday. An Irish airliner flying from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, was intercepted by a MiG-29 fighter aircraft over Belarusian airspace and forced to land in Minsk. The Belarusian regime claimed there was a bomb on board. But no bomb was discovered. This was a transparent ruse by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko to arrest one of his most influential critics — opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, who was aboard the flight. Now Protasevich faces 12 years in prison on specious charges of terrorism.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is right: “[The] hijacking of a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of state terrorism. It cannot go unpunished.” The need to hold Belarus to account is all the greater because we have been seeing the norms against international aggression steadily eroding in recent years.

In 2008, Russian strongman Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and, after a short war, carved out puppet regimes in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian troops still occupy a fifth of Georgian territory. In 2014, Putin seized Crimea from Ukraine and launched a proxy invasion by Russian separatists of eastern Ukraine that continues to this day. That same year, a Malaysian airliner was shot down by a Russian antiaircraft missile over Ukraine, killing all 298 on board. Just a few weeks ago, Putin was building up forces on Ukraine’s border, raising an implicit threat that Russian troops would expand their assault.

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Meanwhile, Putin’s agents have been committing outrageous acts of aggression in the West. The Czech Republic has blamed a Russian military intelligence unit for a series of explosions at a Czech ammunition dump in 2014. This is the same unit that is accused of using a nerve agent to try to kill a Russian defector and his daughter in Britain in 2018. Lest we forget, Putin also attacked the U.S. elections in 2016 and 2020 — in the former case successfully helping to elect Donald Trump. Putin has also imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

China, too, has been getting away with flouting international law. Its leader, Xi Jinping, is acting as if an international court never ruled that it has no right to exercise sovereignty over much of the South China Sea — a body of water that carries one-third of global shipping. First, China built and fortified artificial islands in the sea. Now it is swarming the waters with nominally independent fishing vessels. In March, 220 Chinese ships anchored around Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands, driving away Philippine vessels even though the area is part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. China has also been stepping up military flights near Taiwanese airspace, raising pressure on an embattled democracy. And then, of course, there are China’s heinous human rights violations against the Uyghurs, which have been described as “genocide” by the State Department, and its crackdown on Hong Kong in violation of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Iran is another country that is doing what it wants — international law be damned. Since Trump foolishly exited the nuclear deal, Iran has rapidly accelerated nuclear enrichment, drawing closer to a “breakout” capacity to build a nuclear weapon in violation of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty. Tehran is also backing Hamas, Hezbollah, the Assad regime in Syria and the Houthis. It is believed to be responsible for a continuing series of Houthi missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, whose crown prince has in turn escaped accountability for the murder of U.S. resident and Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Finally, don’t forget North Korea: Its dictator, Kim Jong Un, dispatched secret agents to murder his half brother with a nerve agent in Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia in 2017.

We are probably not marching toward World War III — although Chinese and Russian aggression raises that risk. (See Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis’s “2034: A Novel of the Next War” for a chilling war scenario.) What we are definitely seeing, however, is a rapid erosion of international norms as rogue states find they can do what they want. That is making the world a more chaotic and dangerous place.

The force-down of the Ryanair flight must be seen in this perspective — not as an isolated incident but as part of a pattern of dictators testing the West with ever-greater brazenness. That makes it all the more imperative that the European Union and the United States do more than issue ritualistic denunciations of Lukashenko’s air piracy. Lukashenko must pay such a high price for this aggression that it will give pause to other tyrants and start to mend the tattered fabric of international law.

Read more:

Vladimir Kara-Murza: Russia just took a big step back toward the Soviet Union

The Post’s View: Russia’s attack on U.S. media has become a test case

Carl Bildt: The U.S. and Europe must be ready to stand up to any Russian aggression in Ukraine

Alexander Vindman and Garry Kasparov: In Russia, it’s not Navalny vs. Putin. It’s democracy vs. authoritarianism.

David Von Drehle: In the South China Sea, Beijing’s claims to power signal danger ahead