Monday

21st Jun 2021

Column

Ryanair hijacking is an act of war - so how does EU respond?

"It seems that optimal conditions for an effective military subversion require geographical proximity, weak border control, weak counterintelligence, lack of strong allies, easy access to firearms, socio-political divisions, and the element of surprise."

These words could have been written after the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, forced a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk on 23 May.

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  • By acting this way, Lukashenko burned his few remaining bridges to Europe, leaving him with just one option: turn to Russia

All characteristics of military subversion mentioned in this one sentence match with those of this hijacking operation, intended to arrest a dissident, exiled Belarusian journalist who was on board.

But no, this was written before that. It is a fragment taken from a report published in February 2020 by the Rand Corporation, an American think tank, on Russian subversion strategies.

The report seeks to explain why Russia uses subversion to achieve political goals. All elements are there, including the fact that Russia often uses proxies: allies, servile countries from its self-proclaimed sphere of influence, or useful idiots.

Clearly, Belarus was responsible for diverting the Ryanair flight, using a false bomb threat and a MiG fighter plane to force the aircraft to land in Minsk and detain journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.

There is no proof of direct Russian involvement.

But many analysts assume that without Russian coverage, Belarus would probably not have done this. Russia and Belarus have had a union treaty since 1999. They are military allies with deeply integrated air defence systems. Russian security services assist Belarus in clamping down on the pro-democracy protests that have engulfed the country since Lukashenko rigged the elections last year.

By acting this way, Lukashenko burned his few remaining bridges to Europe, leaving him with just one option: turn to Russia.

As Fiona Hill, a former presidential adviser on European and Russian affairs in Washington, said in a podcast of the Austrian think-tank IWM last week, "Lukashenko sold his sovereignty down the river" to Russia.

Last week, UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab said it is "very difficult to believe that this kind of action [the Ryanair hijack] could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow".

The Russian refusal to let Air France and Austrian Airlines aircraft land in Moscow for wanting to bypass Belarus' airspace, points in the same direction.

Moreover, after meeting Russian president Vladimir Putin last week, Lukashenko threatened to flood Europe with migrants and drugs if it introduced sanctions on Belarus, while Putin just noted: "We've been building the union state."

How to respond?

It is important to understand what is going on here, because it will determine how Europe can respond.

The Ryanair hijack does not seem to be an isolated event. According to the RAND study it is part of a pattern of subversive acts by Russia, now copied by Belarus - a form of warfare. Responding seriously will have a price for Europe - in terms of democratic control, money and perhaps human lives.

Others pay that price already. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has used its military to destabilise its former allies Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine and tried to prevent them from getting closer to Nato and the European Union.

Still, RAND's researchers note that Russia has no interest in direct war on its western flank. Nato is strong. Russia's economy is weak. Moreover, Russia realises that a collapse of Nato or the EU would create a large vacuum in Europe, with Russia at risk of being sucked in.

This is why Russia focuses on subversive actions, mostly undercover, which it often denies: cybercrime, poisonings, fake-news campaigns, loans to antidemocratic political groupings, etc. This 'hybrid warfare' or 'grey-zone warfare' undermines Nato and the EU by creating chaos, dividing member states, and sowing anxiety among citizens.

By doing this, Russia hopes to achieve its major foreign policy goals at minimal cost: protect its territory, regime and sphere of influence; gain recognition as a superpower; pursue economic gain; and prevent Nato and EU expansion.

Concentric circles of interference

Russia operates with concentric circles.

In the innermost circle, closest to the 'Motherland', are Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asian countries. Russia controls them and uses them.

Caucasian countries and Moldova are in the next circle, somewhat less close.

The third circle is for the Baltic countries and the fourth for other former Warsaw Pact countries plus the Balkans.

For Moscow, Belarus and Ukraine are good bases for subversive operations. This enhances the surprise element while keeping conflicts away from the motherland - Moscow can always insist these are independent countries over which it has no say. In the future Europe can expect more 'surprises' from Belarus.

According to Ms Hill it "will probably keep doing outrageous things".

How can Europe respond? There are three ways.

First, it must build resilience by beefing up border security; by finally letting secret services cooperate in a meaningful (and really secret) European way; and by introducing robust protection of data and infrastructure.

Second, Europe should strike back. The EU is not good at that.

Foreign policy is intergovernmental, and member states keep defending national interests. Economic sanctions are one thing. Tacitly blocking Russian or Belarusian ships that happen to be repaired in European ports is another. This can be done below the radar, with the advantage that it hurts Moscow or Minsk without public humiliation.

Another way to strike back is to generously offer young Russians and Belarusians – many of whom oppose their leadership – European study visa and grants. This is not discreet. Nothing is asked in return. But the advantage is that it targets and annoys the political leadership and not innocent citizens.

And third, Europe must offer carrots, too. Demanding the release of Roman Protasevich in itself will not work: Minsk will lose face if it releases him under European pressure. What could work is closing land borders with Belarus for vague, phytosanitary reasons, as a means of pressure - and in parallel start negotiations for Protasevich' release behind the scenes.

Europeans are not used to dealing with war anymore.

But we must recognise that subversive acts like the Ryanair hijack are acts of war, just like poisonings or the spread of fake news. This is coming our way and we must respond in a measured, European way. This also means we need budgets and, hardest of all, we need to accept that we might harm others.

This will trigger tough debates throughout Europe. But we have no choice. Our security is at stake.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This column is an edited version of a column in NRC.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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