Lukashenko’s Aggression Should Be Punished

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By intercepting an airliner traveling between two European capitals in order to arrest a critic of his regime, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has violated international law and committed an act of aggression against his neighbors. Initial statements from Western leaders have been forceful but insufficient. The EU should take swift action in response — and make clear to Lukashenko’s patron, Vladimir Putin, that he too will be held accountable if Russian complicity comes to light.

The opposition in Belarus has staged nationwide protests since Lukashenko declared victory in a rigged presidential election last August. The government’s aim in forcing Ryanair Flight 4978 — en route from Greece to Lithuania, both EU member countries — to land in Minsk was to apprehend 26-year-old journalist Raman Pratasevich, the exiled co-founder of a Telegram channel used by anti-government activists to organize and share information. Eventually, the Boeing 737-800 was allowed to depart, but not before Lukashenko’s forces made their arrest.

Belarus has accused Pratasevich of incitement, which carries a potential prison sentence of more than 12 years. If terrorism charges are added, he could face the death penalty. The EU should continue to insist on the immediate release of Pratasevich and his girlfriend, who was reportedly also detained, and investigate who issued the orders and whether Belarusian intelligence officers were present on the flight, as has been alleged.

The West has limited leverage. Belarus has remained in Russia’s orbit since the breakup of the Soviet Union. But the EU and its allies aren’t helpless. The European Council has drafted possible penalties, starting with suspending flights over Belarusian airspace and banning the country’s national airline from landing in EU airports. Sanctions imposed after last year’s crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators should be expanded, including to Russia-based oligarchs and business interests on whom Lukashenko depends for survival. Europe and the U.S. should increase financial and technical assistance to Belarusian civil-society groups and independent media. And the U.S. should invite opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to the White House.

Just as important, the West should send a message to Putin about the costs of indulging Lukashenko’s ruthlessness. Gaining Russian cooperation on issues like climate change and cybercrime might suggest avoiding a confrontation over Belarus — but this is wrong. A more constructive relationship should be tied to the Kremlin’s adhering to international norms. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. President Joe Biden should press Putin to consent to honest new elections and Lukashenko’s removal. Evidence of Russia’s involvement in the arrest of Pratasevich, or other law-breaking by Lukashenko, should bring tougher sanctions against Putin’s inner circle.

Lukashenko is challenging Europe’s security and the values it claims to defend. If Europe’s governments fail to uphold the rule of law, they’ll betray not just the people of Belarus but their own citizens as well.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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