Roman Protasevich: President Lukashenko ordered fighter jets to escort dissident journalist Roman Protasevich’s commercial plane to the country’s capital city. Here’s what both sides are saying. To have stories like this and more delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.
Top Story: Roman Protasevich
In the sitcom Seinfeld, the main character Jerry and a group of friends meet up to see the film CheckMate in Season 4. It’s an unsuccessful night. They get split up and can’t get into the movie, so three of them decide to go see Rochelle, Rochelle: a young girl’s strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk instead.
Although he didn’t depart from Milan, a 26-year-old Belarusian journalist also recently found his way to Minsk after President Alexander Lukashenko ordered fighter jets to escort his commercial aircraft to the capital as it passed through Belarus airspace. Law enforcement arrested Roman Protasevich before allowing the plane to continue its journey from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania. European Union leaders have imposed a new round of sanctions against Belarus and banned its airlines from entering the bloc’s airspace.
Here’s what both sides are saying about Roman Roman: a young man’s strange chaotic journey from Athens to Minsk:
On The Right
Right-leaning outlets and commentators condemn Lukashenko’s decision to detain Protasevich. More broadly, they believe rogue leaders are feeling more confident thanks to a rise in “grayzone” aggression. Conservative voices believe a strong response is necessary to deter something like this from happening again.
Rogue Leaders Emboldened: Citing Lukashenko’s decision to “hijack an Irish passenger aircraft to arrest a blogger who is a political opponent,” The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board says, “The international order isn’t what it used to be.” The editors’ main concern is that this could happen again. “If this is allowed to be a precedent without consequences, expect more such hijackings for the purpose of making political arrests,” they write. “Imagine how Vladimir Putin or North Korea might interpret this as a license to intercept civilian planes.” Additionally, they cite the general danger involved. What “if a pilot refuses to cooperate with the hijacking government’s orders. Will the government then shoot the plane down? After the Belarus stunt, many pilots may refuse to believe claims of a bomb threat in the future.” Ultimately, the writers believe “Rogue nations and their leaders are getting more brazen, and the world is fast becoming a more dangerous place.”
The Rise of Grayzone Aggression: Resident fellow Elisabeth Braw of the American Enterprise Institute characterizes the incident as “yet another example of grayzone aggression, where an unscrupulous country can inflict damage without resorting to war.” This is something to which “the West has been increasingly exposed in recent years.” However, it’s “safe to say that no Western intelligence analyst had considered” this type of plot. Braw writes that “The EU has been weakened by the incident,” adding that this type of “grayzone aggression” makes orchestrating consequences difficult. She says, “Western leaders [must] use the only effective response available: asymmetric retaliation so decisive that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his ilk think twice.” Braw says that simply “declaring outrage” won’t do anything but encourage “Lukashenko and others to avail themselves of the grayzone even more.”
Lastly, Speaking of “declaring outrage,” Jim Geraghty of National Review takes issue with what he calls “Biden’s Toothless Response to the State-Run Hijacking in Belarus.” Keep reading.
On The Left
Left-leaning voices and outlets are furious. They note this move by Lukashenko fits a pattern of increasingly brazen attacks from dictators and autocrats across the world. Liberal commentators are united in the belief that swift and strong retaliation is urgently needed.
Fits a Pattern: Anne Applebaum, a staff writer at The Atlantic, writes that “Even when our most basic civilizational values are in dispute, there are a few sets of rules and regulations that we nevertheless manage to share.” These include “the laws of the sea, for example, or the norms governing the conduct of air-traffic controllers.” Lukashenko, however, “has shattered that basic assumption in a stunt with no exact precedent.” Zooming out, Applebaum says, “This is a story that belongs alongside the Russian use of radioactive poisons and nerve agents against enemies of the Kremlin in London and Salisbury, England; Saudi Arabia’s brutal murder of one of its citizens inside a consulate in Istanbul; Iranian assassinations of dissidents in the Netherlands and Turkey; and Beijing’s kidnapping and detention of Chinese nationals living abroad and foreign citizens of Chinese origin.” Essentially, attacks like these are on the rise, Applebaum writes, and retaliation is necessary. “If Belarus gets away with it, authoritarian dictators around the world will have a new tool of oppression.”
Deterrence Has Thus Far Failed: Similarly, The New York Times Editorial Board asserts that this “State-Sponsored Skyjacking Can’t Go Unanswered.” Echoing Applebaum they see a rise in similar ploys, citing “The vicious attacks on the former Russian spies Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the half brother of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un [which] are among the most notorious such actions.” With these attacks as a backdrop, they note that “Mr. Lukashenko’s action, moreover, falls into the more worrisome pattern of autocrats prepared to throw international norms to the wind to get at their critics.” Ending on a somewhat pessimistic note, they write that “Mr. Lukashenko has gone too far, and the response should be swift.” With that said, “The episode also underscores a troubling reality: Autocrats looking to extend their repressive ways across international borders are increasingly emboldened to do so. Deterrence, in far too many instances, has failed.”
Lastly, Writing for CNN, Frida Ghitis reiterates these sentiments, saying “Belarus’ outrageous ‘hijacking’ needs serious, swift consequences.” If not, travel will become more dangerous for everyone. Keep reading.
Flag This: Roman Protasevich
As is customary in our newsletter, we attempt to tee up multiple perspectives and then let you be the judge. In this case, that includes the response from Lukashenko and Russia, which supports Belarus. Simply put, they think the international community, and the US in particular, are hypocrites. Specifically, they call out when the US and Europe forced Bolivian President Evo Morales to make an unscheduled stop in Vienna, Austria on his way home from Russia. The context matters, of course. At the time, Morales gave an interview to the RT (Russian state-controlled) television network, in which he appeared to suggest an offer of asylum to Edward Snowden. While the details of Morales’ trip are still up for debate, Snowden was in fact not onboard, and the Bolivian president was allowed to continue home. Zooming out, the story above and reactions from both sides represent a rare display of bipartisanship in the current US political environment. Republicans and Democrats agree that forceful retaliation is needed to deter this type of thing from happening again. If the consequences aren’t strong and swift in the case of Roman Roman, Lukashenko may be able to claim CheckMate.
Flag Poll: Roman Protasevich
How do you think the Biden administration should respond to Lukashenko’s decision? Comment below to share your thoughts.