Unless EU takes on Putin and his poodle, no one is safe on plane

EDWARD LUCAS: Unless the EU takes on Vladimir Putin and his poodle, none of us will be safe on a plane again

Many of us have not been on an airplane for a long time. But we can, of course, remember the experience — and, starved of international travel, may well be itching to do so again in the months to come.

And how many of us, as we fasten our seatbelts, pause to consider that we will shortly be soaring over dictatorships, war zones, rogue states and shady regimes that we would do everything in our power to avoid visiting?

Very few of us, I suspect. We never fear that our flight will somehow be intercepted in mid-air and forced to land in another country, unless for highly unusual reasons of safety.

Brutal

And yet, on Sunday, in a horrific new example that has rapidly spiralled into a dangerous international incident, a man and his girlfriend were bundled off a Ryanair flight between two EU countries and taken — well, who knows where?

The kidnap of Belarusian opposition leader and dissident journalist, Roman Protasevich, 26, and his 23-year-old Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega — who were on board a flight from Athens to Lithuania’s capital Vilnius that was escorted from the skies by a MIG-29 warplane — was nothing less than piracy in the skies.

Yes, Mr Protasevich is just one brave young man, targeted by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s brutal regime, likely with help from Vladimir Putin’s goons.

Roman Protasevich, who was dragged off a Ryanair civilian airliner and arrested by the Belarusian regime, has said that he is ‘confessing’ to charges of organising protests and cooperating with authorities in a video being circulated on state TV

The kidnap of Belarusian opposition leader and dissident journalist, Roman Protasevich, 26, and his 23-year-old Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega — who were on board a flight from Athens to Lithuania’s capital Vilnius that was escorted from the skies by a MIG-29 warplane — was nothing less than piracy in the skies

But if this crime goes unpunished, can any of us truly consider ourselves safe on a plane again?

At the heart of this case are not only principles of democracy and justice. More urgently, this ruthless and brazen crime has plunged the EU into the most serious foreign-policy crisis in its recent history.

Belarus is a black hole at the heart of eastern Europe. Led since 1994 by the increasingly unhinged Lukashenko — who claimed last year that his benighted people should ‘drink vodka’ and ‘go to saunas’ to ward off Covid-19 — thousands of Belarusians are now believed to have been arrested by the regime, with many held in hard-labour penal colonies.

Witnesses report harsh interrogations, beatings, torture and rape. Since opposition protests last year — in which 33,000 demonstrators were detained — the regime has launched a full-scale crackdown, shuttering media outlets. At least five people have perished in custody.

Though Belarus itself is not in the EU, ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ has long held vital strategic importance in geopolitics, wedged as it is between Poland — an EU state — and Russia.

Putin continues to prop up Lukashenko’s regime with gas, loans, thuggery, propaganda and surveillance technology.

He will stop at nothing to prevent Belarus falling to the forces of democracy like its ex-Soviet neighbours in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

A Belarusian dog handler checks the luggage taken off the hijacked Ryanair flight on Sunday

Since opposition protests last year — in which 33,000 demonstrators were detained — the regime has launched a full-scale crackdown, shuttering media outlets. Pictured: Police officers detain Protasevich after he attempted to cover a rally in Minsk in Belarus in 2017

So the seizure of this young activist is not only a dark hour for Belarus and its 10 million people. It is an even darker hour for Europe.

Yesterday, the EU’s leaders were locked in talks, cobbling together new sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime. Whatever they decide, it is clear they have already failed.

The EU had taken sanctions against Belarus in recent months, but clearly they did not go far enough.

Since last August, when protests erupted in the capital, Minsk, over rigged elections, Brussels has blacklisted 88 individuals and seven companies accused of ‘repression and intimidation’. It has imposed a travel ban for Lukashenko and his son, while also ordering an asset freeze. But as this week shows, that was not enough.

After Sunday’s kidnap, the initial signs were scarcely encouraging, as the EU’s leaders offered verbose and ill-focused comments.

Opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, (pictured after he was separated from other passengers) was hauled off the plane and arrested with his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23, after the flight from Greece to Lithuania made the emergency landing in Minsk

Mr Protasevich is just one brave young man, targeted by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s (pictured) brutal regime, likely with help from Vladimir Putin’s goons

Council President Charles Michel, ‘High Representative’ Josep Borrell and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are all failed politicians installed in their roles by self-serving national leaders Emmanuel Macron of France and Angela Merkel of Germany.

It fell to pint-sized Lithuania, which shares a common history and border with Belarus, to show courage.

Lithuanian prime minister Ingrida Simonyte declared that the Ryanair plane was ‘hijacked’, her government rightly describing this as an ‘attack on the international community’.

Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary also hit the right note, calling the event a ‘state-sponsored hijacking’.

Yet for all the EU’s grandiose ambitions, Lukashenko knew he could act without risking meaningful repercussions.

After all, the EU has for years seen serial abysmal failures in Syria, in the Israel-Palestine conflict, over China and most notoriously in the Crimea.

Lukashenko also knew that the EU — led by Germany and France — is reluctant to stand up to Russia.

In the final months of her career as German Chancellor, Mrs Merkel is seeking rapprochement with the Kremlin, not least to ensure the completion of a gas pipeline that will be able to bring her country cheaper energy.

Mr Macron, meanwhile, has shunned any attempt by Washington to build a global coalition against China, foolishly preferring Europe to go it alone.

Terrorism

Much of the problem is also procedural: with 27 members and a combination of national and supra-national bodies, the EU is too big to make quick, effective decisions.

Votes on foreign policy require unanimity. That means countries such as Hungary, in hock to Russia and China, can block sanctions.

The fears felt by eastern Europeans living under Russia’s shadow can meanwhile seem irrelevant to those in the south of the continent, where people worry far more about migration and terrorism.

All this means that while Europe may be an economic giant, it is a political weakling.

Putin continues to prop up Lukashenko’s regime with gas, loans, thuggery, propaganda and surveillance technology 

Well, it’s high time that it took action. Western countries must now immediately stop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which delivers gas to Germany from Russia. Germany can instead source its gas on the open market.

Dominic Raab, our tough-talking foreign secretary, yesterday instructed British airlines to cease flights over Belarus, while suspending the air permit of Belarus’s national carrier Belavia with immediate effect.

These measures are a start. But they will not scare anybody in Minsk or Moscow.

Yesterday morning, the Belarusian ambassador should have been summoned to the Foreign Office, given 24 hours to pack his bags — and ignominiously sent home by train.

Scarred

Still more effective would be for our Government to curb Russian infiltration in the City of London, justifiably known as the ‘Laundromat’ for its role in processing the ill-gotten gains of Putin’s cronies.

The weakness of Europe’s politicians — especially the blitherers and ditherers in Brussels — is emboldening the predators that circle Europe to the east and south.

We all pay the price for this. But the greatest cost is to the most vulnerable.

Belarusians are still scarred by World War II, in which a quarter of all Belarusians died.

We can only imagine the terrors Mr Protasevich and his girlfriend are experiencing as they join the many people detained by this brutal regime.

Opposition journalist Roman Protasevich’s girlfriend Sofia Sapega who was also detained

The bleak truth, however, is that Lukashenko has the guns, the money and the friends he needs to stay in power.

The fairytale era of 1989, in which flag-waving demonstrators toppled tyrants’ statues at the close of the Cold War, is long gone.

We are in a far more vicious and ugly world now, where might is right.

Well, if Russia wants to stand by its poodle’s crimes, it must expect censure — and punishment — for doing so. That is now the EU’s most crucial test.

Words are cheap. But principles are costly — or fatal, as the gallant campaigner now languishing in Minsk may find. Oh that more of his fellow Europeans shared his courage — or paused to think of him the next time they get on a plane.

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