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Biden’s Toothless Response to the State-Run Hijacking in Belarus

A Ryanair aircraft, carrying Belarusian opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich and diverted to Belarus, lands at Vilnius Airport in Vilnius, Lithuania, May 23, 2021. (Andrius Sytas/Reuters)

On the menu today: President Biden issues a — sigh — “tough” statement against the Belarusian state-run hijacking of an Irish airliner, pledges to “develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible,” and follows the European lead. Meanwhile, the lab-leak-theory party gets larger.

Belarus and the Weak, Toothless, ‘International Order’

Americans don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Belarus. It’s been ruled by a Vladimir Putin and Russia-aligned dictatorship for more than a quarter century. As the Editors characterized it with appropriate scare quotes last summer, Alexander Lukashenko “won” his latest “election” on August 9 by “80 percent.” They summarized, “he quickly turned Belarus — which had enjoyed democracy for a scant three years — into a personal fief. He took control of the courts, the banks, the universities, and so on. The Belarusian intelligence agency works for him, strictly. Charmingly, it is the only such agency in the post–Soviet Union to retain the old name: ‘KGB.’”

As noted in yesterday’s newsletter, the Belarusian state-security agents effectively hijacked a flight that was legally flying over Belarusian airspace in order to arrest dissident journalist Roman Protasevich:

The flight took off from Athens, Greece and was initially scheduled to land in Vilnius, Lithuania. However, Ryanair said that the flight crew was informed of a potential threat of explosives on board while flying in Belarusian airspace, and the plane was diverted to Minsk.

Lukashenko gave an “unequivocal order” to “make the plane do a U-turn and land,” according to a press release from his office translated by the New York Times. Belarus’s Investigative Committee, the country’s top investigative body, said it had opened a probe into a false bomb threat after no explosives were found on the plane.

Oh, and a Belarussian MiG fighter jet “escorted” the airliner to Minsk. A fighter jet can’t really do much to stop a bomb on board. But it sure as hell can intimidate the pilot and crew to obey orders to divert to Minsk.

Over at The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum — a few years after demonizing John O’Sullivan as “a combination of boulevardier (jovial, witty, fond of champagne) and James Bond villain” notes that borders no longer matter to authoritarian regimes; they pursue whomever they want, the way they want, whenever and wherever they want, regardless of who gets hurt.

Applebaum writes that:

Authoritarian states in pursuit of their enemies no longer feel the need to respect passports, borders, diplomatic customs, or — now — the rules of air-traffic control. In this new world, dictators are ever more prepared to arrest or murder political dissidents anywhere, no matter what citizenship they might have or which foreign laws or bureaucratic procedures might theoretically protect them. Sometimes these regimes put pressure on other countries to help them. Other times they kidnap people unassisted. The price they have to pay as a result, in sanctions or in bad relations with the outside world, clearly no longer bothers them.

As examples, Applebaum lists “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.”

I’d also throw in the time in May 2017 when the North Korean government assassinated Kim Jong-un’s half brother, Kim Jong-nam, using VX nerve agent in the middle of Kuala Lumpur International Airport, with the female assassin wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan “LOL.” It’s not just that these regimes are ruthless in their use of lethal force against enemies of the regime abroad; it’s that they choose to do so in what seems like the most recklessly dangerous way they can imagine. (VX, polonium, Novichok nerve agent . . . Doesn’t anybody just shoot anybody anymore?)

Applebaum is correct that the trend is worsening, but this era of extraterritorial lawlessness and intimidation did not arise alongside the Trump administration or Brexit or any of the political turning points that Applebaum vehemently opposes. Putin’s regime poisoned Alexander Litvinenko with radiation in 2006. and in the process left radiation trails on three British Airways jets. In 2011, agents of the Iranian regime plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States by blowing up Café Milano in Georgetown in Washington, D.C.; one plotter was recorded saying, “They want that guy [the Ambassador] done [killed], if the hundred go with him, f*** ‘em.”

Why do these authoritarian regimes not fear the consequences of their actions? Because in so many cases, there are no consequences to those actions, or at least not significant ones. The modern “international order” envisioned by the center-left doesn’t really offer any international order.

Donald Trump was generally soft on authoritarian regimes with human-rights abuses, but he replaced a presidency who, as Human Rights Watch described, “delivered more hope than change. . . . [Obama] often treated human rights as a secondary interest — nice to support when the cost was not too high, but nothing like a top priority he championed.”

Freedom House attempted to catalog all of the cases of extraterritorial intimidation and assassinations from 2014 to 2021, and concluded:

. . . the shifting international balance of power has encouraged states to take greater risks, as democracies and international bodies focused on human rights lose the political will to push back against egregious violations. The erosion of norms is reflected in the lack of accountability for transnational repression. Even when a case is as flagrant as it could possibly be—as with the horrifying and well-documented murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul— leading democracies have failed to enforce accountability. Economic sanctions and visa bans against Russian entities and individuals for a series of assassinations on European soil have not deterred the Russian regime from continuing to kill abroad. In effect, states can now threaten, kidnap, or murder exiles with little fear of punishment.

In some cases, the U.S. government inadvertently cooperates with the intimidation and harassment. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement arrested a Russian dissident living legally in the U.S. who had committed no crime because the Russian government issued an Interpol “Red Notice” — a request to law enforcement worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest a person pending extradition, surrender, or similar legal action. Did it ever cross the mind of Interpol or the U.S. government that a regime such as Putin’s might abuse the authority to issue Red Notices?

Despite a lot of talk on the campaign trail, President Biden chose to waive any punishment for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Yesterday, Biden issued what reads like a tough statement against Lukashenko’s regime . . . but if you read carefully, the U.S. government is waiting for the Europeans to take the lead:

The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms both the diversion of the plane and the subsequent removal and arrest of Mr. Pratasevich. This outrageous incident and the video Mr. Pratasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press. The United States joins countries around the world in calling for his release, as well as for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners who are being unjustly detained by the Lukashenka regime.

I join the many calls for an international investigation to ascertain the complete facts of the case. I welcome the news that the European Union has called for targeted economic sanctions and other measures, and have asked my team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible, in close coordination with the European Union, other allies and partners, and international organizations.

We’ll see if the sanctions make much of a difference. EU countries make up 18 percent of Belarus’s trade. Russia makes up almost half. Trade with the United States is a very small piece of the Belarusian economy, one to five percent of Belarusian exports.

The international order envisioned by President Biden and German chancellor Angela Merkel and most other Western leaders is ultimately toothless. It prioritizes the illusion of stability and order — and attempts to sweep outrageous and dangerous actions such as the Belarusian hijacking under the rug — over the short-term difficult actions that might create genuine stability and order in the long term. The center-left convinced itself that the “cowboy unilateralism” of the Bush administration was the worst possible option, and kept insisting that they alone could wield “smart power” or “soft power” or “lead from behind.” The whole “reset button” ceremony with Hillary Clinton and Russia’s Sergey Lavrov was a formal commemoration of the incoming administration’s naïveté. The “famously stormy” relationship between Condi Rice and Lavrov was not a matter of Rice’s not being diplomatic enough or nice enough or trying hard enough.

The world is full of bullies, who will continue bullying others until they learn a hard lesson about consequences. If someone — maybe the Pentagon’s Cyber Command, maybe the NSA — can shut down the Internet Research Agency in Saint Petersburg for two days in 2018, the U.S. could shut down the Internet for the entire Belarusian government for a day or two. In the run-up to the Iraq War, selected senior officials in Iraq’s army received calls on their private telephone lines, asking them to turn against Saddam Hussein and avoid war. (Unfortunately, the Arabic-speaking agents of the coalition making the request were so fluent, the Iraqi officials thought it was a trick to test their loyalty to Hussein.)

How would Alexander Lukashenko respond to a message of strong disapproval of his actions, arriving on a personal, private phone that he’d believed to be a closely guarded secret?

ADDENDA: The Editors welcome Dr. Anthony Fauci to the party of those open-minded about the possibility that a lab leak set off the COVID-19 pandemic.

Glenn Kessler writes that “the Wuhan lab-leak theory suddenly became credible.” Suddenly! I’ll bet you can guess whose coverage doesn’t appear in his timeline.

If you ever need to go on the run from the mob, become a conservative journalist, because then no one will ever see you.

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