Belarus faced international condemnation and isolation Monday, a day after President Alexander Lukashenko sent a MiG-29 fighter jet to snatch a commercial plane out of the sky while it was flying over his country’s airspace.
The measures, backed by all 27 E.U. leaders, were an unusually fast and powerful response to the brazen move by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who on Sunday sent a MiG-29 fighter jet to snatch a Ryanair plane out of the sky as it was flying from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, and arrest one of its passengers, Roman Protasevich, the founder of an opposition media outlet. Protasevich faces 12 years or more in prison.
E.U. leaders meeting for a prescheduled summit in Brussels asked the bloc’s foreign policy team to draw up a list of targeted economic sanctions to impose “without delay” and said the country’s national airline would be barred from flying over or landing in E.U. territory. Officials involved in forcing down the plane will also face personal sanctions.
The Belarusian power play set a fearsome precedent for journalists and political dissidents, who must now worry about flying through the airspace of repressive regimes, even if they are moving from one free capital to another.
The detained journalist surfaced for the first time Monday evening in a video posted on a Belarusian Telegram channel, saying in what appeared to be a coerced statement that he was being treated “as correctly as possible” and that “I continue to cooperate with the investigation and give confessional testimony about the fact of organizing mass riots in the city of Minsk,” a crime that can carry a hefty prison sentence.
Wearing a dark hooded sweatshirt and with a pack of cigarettes and a yellow box of matches on a desk in the otherwise barren room, he said he was in Detention Center No. 1 in Minsk, where many political prisoners are held, although there was no way to independently verify the origin of the 29-second video. Nor was it possible to ascertain his condition, although he appeared to have abrasion injuries and bruises on his face.
President Biden in a statement called the diversion of the plane and arrest of Protasevich “a direct affront to international norms.”
“This outrageous incident and the video Mr. Pratasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press,” he said, calling for the release of the dissident and others held by the Lukashenko regime.
Biden welcomed the European sanctions and said he asked his own administration to collaborate on “appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible.”
The Federal Aviation Administration did not issue any new flight restrictions on Monday, but Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN the safety of flight paths over Belarus should be assessed, following the lead of the European Union and Britain, which also announced a ban.
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) sent a letter to Biden urging the administration to prohibit U.S. airlines from entering Belarus airspace.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said in an interview with The Washington Post that he and others would seek “harsh economic sanctions,” far beyond measures currently in place, in a bid to isolate Lukashenko and starve his regime of funds.
“Yesterday I think was the test of the West,” Rinkevics said. “But it was also a show of force and confidence to his own people and the opposition: ‘Look, I can come and get you anyway.’ This is an inter-European flight, from Athens to Vilnius, with a European company performing the flight, with a person who is under European protection because he is an opposition activist. This is a direct attack against Europe.”
Sanctions could include full-scale bans on doing business with Belarus’s biggest companies, state-owned operations that are crucial to keeping Lukashenko afloat. A list will be subject to final approval by E.U. member nations.
Lithuanian authorities have taken the lead on investigating the event, interviewing the Ryanair crew to try to understand the sequence of events that forced them to make a steep banking turn within minutes of the Vilnius airport, which is just over the border from Belarus. The Lithuanians are also trying to verify the identity of three passengers who stayed behind in Minsk, along with Protasevich and the woman he was traveling with, both of whom were forced to remain in Belarus. A spokeswoman for the prosecutor general’s office, Elena Martinoniene, said 126 people were aboard the plane when it departed from Athens, but 121 people landed in Vilnius.
Verifying the identity of the passengers could help Western officials understand whether Belarus pulled off the operation itself, or whether it had help from Russia, a possibility some officials were not ruling out Monday.
“This was a major operation. These were skilled professionals, skilled guys on board,” a senior European official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the details of the investigation.
“It’s as though we are in a very bad movie, with a dictator rerouting a plane because someone is critical of his regime,” Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel told reporters before the Brussels summit. “If we are not able to react to this, we will never have free movement, with a dictator who makes us land with many people on planes.”
All explanations for the forced landing of the plane other than to detain Protasevich “are completely implausible,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters on her way into the meeting.
Fresh accounts of what happened were still emerging Monday.
The pilots had already announced an imminent landing in Vilnius when they suddenly came over the loudspeaker and told everyone to “take their places as quickly as possible,” said Gintaras Mikalauskas, a Lithuanian doctor who was returning from a Greek vacation with his wife.
Suddenly, the plane made a steep, unusual banking turn, Mikalauskas told The Post — one that sharply turned the two-thirds-full plane nearly 180 degrees.
Passengers sitting near Protasevich said he became intensely anxious as he realized that the plane was landing in the Belarusian capital.
“It was obvious that he was beginning to panic,” Marius Rutkauskas, a passenger who said he was in the row ahead of Protasevich, told Lithuania’s LRT broadcaster. “He said, ‘The death penalty awaits me in Belarus.’ ”
Not long after, the plane landed in Minsk, with no explanation from the plane’s crew, Mikalauskas said. He was in the seventh row, and watched as a uniformed Belarusian official boarded, spoke to the crew and instructed them to tell everyone to get off. What followed was a seven-hour ordeal, as Belarusian security services carefully searched passengers and their baggage repeatedly. Some families were traveling with babies and small children.
“We were asking everyone: ‘What is going on? What is happening?’ Nobody was telling us anything. It was really a terrifying thing,” Mikalauskas said. “We felt like hostages.”
“It’s really hard to believe that in the 21st century, in the middle of Europe, some kind of terrified paranoid terrorist can do something with our freedom,” he said.
Belarusian authorities appear to have engineered a false bomb threat against the airplane.
“It was intercepted, there was effectively warning given to the pilots and crew that there was a security risk on board, and then the plane was escorted by military jet to the Minsk airport, which was not the closest airport,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told Ireland’s RTE radio Monday.
A Belarusian official appeared on state television Monday to read out what he said was a threat that had been received to the safety of the plane, which he said was from “Hamas soldiers” demanding an Israeli cease-fire in Gaza. European officials gave little credibility to the announcement from Artem Sikorsky, the director of the Aviation Department of the Ministry of Transport and Communications.
After all the searching, the plane continued onward Sunday without Protasevich or Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen reported to be his girlfriend who is studying at the European Humanities University in Vilnius. The university said in a statement Monday that she had also been detained “on groundless and made-up conditions” and called for her release.
In a statement posted on the Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s website, spokesman Anatoly Glaz said Belarus would “guarantee full transparency” and is open to receiving experts and presenting materials on what happened.
There is “no doubt that the actions of our competent authorities were also in full compliance with the established international rules,” he said, criticizing the “openly bellicose” statements from European leaders.
Lukashenko on Monday doubled down on his crackdown on dissent, banning live-streaming protests and publishing opinion polls that aren’t officially sanctioned.
Belarus’s heavy-handed ruler since 1994, he has waged a campaign of violence and repression for months. In August elections, he arrested most of his opponents and then, according to Western observers, falsified results to produce a crushing victory against the lone remaining candidate. Protasevich became an enemy for helping to organize protests against the widely doubted win.
Protasevich’s Nexta and Nexta Live channels on Telegram, a popular social media and messaging app, became a main source for news during the demonstrations as Belarusian authorities often moved to shutter Internet and mobile service. Telegram continued to work during the outages, and Nexta, then run by Protasevich, became a resource for where, when and how to protest. It went on to expose police brutality against protesters.
In November, Belarus placed Protasevich and Nexta’s founder, Stepan Putilo, on a terrorist watch list, charging him with three protest-related crimes that could land him in prison for more than 12 years. Protasevich and Putilo were the only Belarusian citizens on the list at the time.
Protasevich and the candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, have been separately living in exile in Lithuania. And he went to Athens to cover her visit there last week.
The E.U. imposed sanctions following the election. But Sunday’s actions — which European officials said they were certain had been approved by Lukashenko — crossed a new line. There appeared to be little precedent for a nation-state to use its military to force down a commercial flight for political ends.
“The air navigation service was misused to aid the state in taking control of an E.U. aircraft,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, “and Belarus used its control over its airspace in order to perpetrate a state hijacking.”
Analysts said further sanctions could drive the Belarusian leader closer to the Kremlin, with which he has had an up-and-down relationship. The Kremlin has long pushed for the two countries to form a unified state — something they agreed to in 1999 but have not fully implemented, in part because Lukashenko has dragged his feet. But Moscow issued a $1 billion loan to Belarus in December. And with additional E.U. sanctions, the Belarus economy may become even more dependent on Russia.
“I would assume that in this circumstance, Russia will help, and Lukashenko relies on Russia to help,” said Artyom Shraibman of Sense Analytics, a Minsk-based political consultancy. “He’s now a very anti-Western actor, and he thinks that these anti-Western actions must be rewarded or covered up by Moscow.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to meet with Lukashenko in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi this week.
A spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, said that “what’s shocking is that the West calls the incident in the airspace of Belarus ‘shocking.’ ” In a statement on Facebook, she listed other aviation incidents that she said drew a muted response.
Franak Viacorka, an adviser to Tikhanovskaya, said on Twitter that he and the former opposition candidate took the same Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius just a week earlier.
“We were lucky we got to Vilnius safely,” he said. “After [Sunday’s] incident, Belarusian airspace must be closed for international flights, the perpetrators — brought to justice.”
Khurshudyan reported from Moscow. Mary Ilyushina in Moscow, Quentin Ariès in Brussels and John Wagner in Washington contributed to this report.