White House press secretary Jen Psaki called it "a brazen affront to international peace." Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics referred to it as "a direct attack against Europe." To Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, it was "an act of state terrorism."
Dropping diplomatic verbiage, Western leaders called Sunday's event for what it was: a state-sponsored hijacking of a commercial airliner by the Belarusian government in order to arrest an opposition journalist critical of the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus' president who is often called "Europe's last dictator."
The plane, a Ryanair jet flying from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, was ordered to land in Minsk under the false pretext of a Hamas bomb threat. Reinforcing the illegal order was a MiG-29 fighter jet deployed by Belarus. After the emergency landing, Belarusian authorities arrested Raman Pratasevich, a 26-year-old co-founder and former editor of NEXTA, an opposition outlet found on the popular Telegram app. His girlfriend was also taken away, and three other passengers thought to be security agents stayed, too.
The violation of civil aviation norms — and civilized behavior — was "utterly unacceptable," said Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission (the E.U.'s executive body). So the E.U., with unusual quickness and conviction, didn't accept it. The 27-nation bloc blocked Belarusian airlines from flying over its airspace and from using its airports, and urged commercial carriers to avoid Belarusian airspace. Further sanctions, on top of ones applied after Belarus' brutal repression of protests over what was widely believed to be a stolen election last year, are being considered. And the E.U. rightly called for the release of Pratasevich, who was seen in a disturbing 29-second video on Monday, saying that he was confessing to some of the charges against him. His appearance "was not reassuring, given the apparent bruising to his face, and the strong likelihood that his appearance was not voluntary and his 'confession' to serious crimes was forced," a spokesperson for the U.N.'s human rights office told the Associated Press.
"What the E.U. has done is significant and praiseworthy; normally, I think they're slow to react to circumstances like this," John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center, told an editorial writer. "This reflects the fact that you have to go back to the Russian seizure and annexation of Crimea for as blatant a thumb in the eye of the international order as this."
The E.U.'s strong response may move Minsk and Moscow even closer together, but that should not weaken Western resolve — on Belarus and on Russia, which applauded the hijacking through Kremlin-compliant media. Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin are set to meet this week, with Putin expected to press his autocratic comrade for even tighter ties.
An even more consequential summit between Putin and President Joe Biden will now take place June 16 in Geneva. Notably, Biden will be coming from meetings with NATO and G-7 allies. Biden should reflect this Western unity in his meeting with Putin and push for the release of Pratasevich, Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, and all political prisoners protesting Europe's — and in Putin's case, Eurasia's — last dictators.