Roman Protasevich knew why his plane had been forced to make an unscheduled landing in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, even if no one else onboard understood what was going on.
“They’ll execute me here,” the 26-year-old journalist reportedly told some of the other 169 passengers on Ryanair Flight FR4978, which was flying from Athens to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius when it was suddenly intercepted by a Belarusian fighter jet. The heavily armed MiG-29 approached the commercial aircraft in response to a bomb threat that now appears to have been a hoax perpetrated by Belarusian authorities.
The real reason for forcing down a plane that was flying between two European Union countries – and NATO members – was immediately apparent to Mr. Protasevich, a founding editor of Nexta, a social media channel that played an instrumental role in last year’s failed uprising against Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Mr. Protasevich, who had been living in exile, and his 23-year-old girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were both taken off the plane by Belarusian security services. They now face an uncertain fate in a country where the law is routinely bent to suit the interests of Mr. Lukashenko and his regime.
On Monday, Belarusian state television broadcast a video of Mr. Protasevich, still dressed in the hooded black sweatshirt he was wearing a day earlier, “confessing” to his role in organizing mass demonstrations in Minsk. Though he appeared healthy in the video, his mother told Polish officials that she believed her son had been taken to hospital with a heart problem.
The incident was condemned Monday by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as “outrageous and illegal behaviour.” Ryanair chief executive officer Michael O’Leary called it a “state-sponsored hijacking.” Tom Tugendhat, the head of Britain’s parliamentary committee for foreign affairs, went furthest: “If it’s not an act of war, it’s certainly a warlike act.”
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau, meanwhile, described it on Sunday as “a serious interference in civil aviation and a clear attack on media freedom.” He called for Mr. Protasevich’s release.
The question now facing Canada and its allies is what, beyond harsh words, can be done about it. Targeted sanctions have become the standard tool for dealing with rogue regimes, but they clearly no longer have any effect on the behaviour of Mr. Lukashenko or his main backer, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On Monday, the EU said it would instruct all European airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace, and flight-tracking websites immediately showed a sharp drop in the number of planes flying over the country. Ms. von der Leyen said the EU would also bar Belarus’s state carrier, Belavia, from using its airspace and would freeze aid and investment to impose more sanctions against Mr. Lukashenko’s regime.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who said the incident was “a shocking assault on civil aviation and an assault on international law,” announced similar steps.
There were also demands for an urgent investigation by the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization, the United Nations agency that oversees civil aviation issues. NATO ambassadors are set to meet Tuesday to discuss the incident.
None of that will likely come as a surprise to Mr. Lukashenko. The official Belta news service reported Monday that the dictator “personally gave the order” to dispatch a fighter jet to confront the Ryanair plane. The message seemed clear: Mr. Lukashenko knew the move would outrage the West, but he did it anyway.
Underscoring the Kremlin’s support for Mr. Lukashenko, Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote Monday on her Facebook page that it was “shocking that the West calls what happens in Belarusian airspace ‘shocking.’” She compared the situation to a 2013 incident in which a plane carrying then-Bolivian President Evo Morales was forced to land in Vienna shortly after leaving Russia. The flight was only allowed to continue after Austrian officials confirmed that former CIA employee Edward Snowden was not on board.
Improbably, Belarus state media claimed the decision to intercept the plane had been made after Minsk airport received an e-mailed bomb threat Sunday from someone claiming to represent the Palestinian militant group Hamas. The e-mail reportedly called for Israel to cease fire in the Gaza Strip – even though a ceasefire went into effect Friday.
In a statement, Hamas denied any involvement in the affair.
Flight FR4978 was never supposed to land in Belarus, and the plane was already closer to Vilnius than to Minsk when the MiG-29 intercepted it.
Separately, a Lufthansa plane was briefly delayed at Minsk airport on Monday after another alleged bomb threat that Belarusian authorities said eventually proved to be false.
Canada already has sanctions against Mr. Lukashenko, his son Viktor and 53 other members of the regime, making it illegal for any Canadian citizen or company to do business with them. Adding a few more names to that list hardly feels like an appropriate response to such a blatant violation of international norms.
Nor have sanctions proven an effective deterrent to Mr. Putin, whose intelligence services are suspected of having played a supporting role in the arrest of Mr. Protasevich. Six passengers who boarded Flight FR4978 in Athens got off in Minsk: Mr. Protasevich, Ms. Sapega and four Russian nationals.
The list of Russians sanctioned by Canada, the United States and the EU has grown on a regular basis since 2014, when the West first hit Moscow with punitive measures in response to the seizure and illegal annexation of Crimea that year.
Canada now has sanctions in place against 129 Russian nationals and 84 entities, but none of that has caused Mr. Putin to reverse the annexation nor end the Kremlin’s support for “separatist” fighters in eastern Ukraine. Nor did sanctions deter the 2018 chemical weapon attack on former KGB agent Sergei Skripal in England or the recent poisoning and imprisonment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny.
That the 66-year-old Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled his country since 1994, felt so threatened by a single journalist demonstrates how rattled his regime was by the protests that erupted after Mr. Lukashenko claimed victory in an August presidential election. Most Belarusians believe the election was won by challenger Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and tens of thousands took to the streets of Minsk and other cities every day for weeks after the vote, calling on Mr. Lukashenko to resign.
Nexta, which has almost 600,000 followers on the Telegram app and is run predominantly by Belarusian exiles living in Poland, was first with photo and video evidence of how Mr. Lukashenko’s officials had rigged the election. Later, the channel became the go-to source for information about where and when the opposition would gather to challenge the result. When the regime cracked down on protesters, Nexta videos capturing the police violence were used by television networks around the world.
Amid the uprising, Mr. Protasevich and Nexta co-founder Stepan Putilo were added to Belarus’s list of “individuals involved in terrorist activity.” It’s a charge that carries a potential sentence of 15 years in prison, though terrorism and treason also remain punishable by death in Belarus, the only European country that still executes prisoners.
The regime currently holds more than 400 political prisoners in its jails, according to the Viasna human-rights group. Among them are Ms. Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, Sergey Tsikankousky, and her campaign ally, Maria Kolesnikova.
On Monday Ms. Tsikhanouskaya called on the international community to “end the impunity of Lukashenko’s regime.” But with Mr. Putin standing behind him – and the West running out of tools to influence either of them – it’s unclear how that can be accomplished.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.