The UK and the European Union moved to strike back against Belarus after the country forced a Ryanair flight to land in Minsk in order to detain a dissident journalist. UK Transport Minister Grant Shapps suspended Belarus state carrier Belavia’s air operators certificate and has instructed British airlines to avoid Belarussian airspace. This sets the stage for a continent-wide tit-for-tat that could cut off Belarus from Western Europe and the Baltics and force European airlines on circuitous flight paths on North-South routes.
The EU, at the end of a previously scheduled summit in Brussels on Monday, advised the bloc’s airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and will ban Belarusian carriers from overflying European airspace and to bar the country’s airlines from landing in the EU. Additionally, the EU is moving swiftly to impose a raft of sanctions on Belarus and on the individuals thought to be responsible for the incident. The EU also said it supported Latvia’s reciprocal action to expel Belarusian diplomats. On Sunday, EC President Ursula van der Leyen called Belarus’ action “unacceptable,” adding “any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences.”
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations body that governs international air transport, stopped short of saying whether Belarus has violated its rules. “ICAO is strongly concerned by the apparent forced landing of a Ryanair flight and its passengers, which could be in contravention of the Chicago Convention,” ICAO said in a statement referring to the 1944 treaty that set the legal framework for international air transport. “We look forward to more information being officially confirmed by the countries and operators concerned.”
The International Air Transport Association similarly stopped short of calling the action illegal. “IATA strongly condemns any interference or requirement for landing of civil aviation operations that is inconsistent with the rules of international law,” IATA Director General Willie Walsh said, adding that the group is calling for a thorough investigation of the incident.
On Sunday, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko scrambled a MiG-29 fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair flight en route from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, ostensibly because of reports that an explosive device may have been on board the flight. There were also members of the Belarusian security services onboard, according to The Washington Post. The flight was forced to land in Minsk where authorities detained prominent dissident journalist Roman Protasevich before letting the flight resume. The escort forced the aircraft to overfly several closer airport to fly almost 300 km back to Minsk. The bomb threat appears to have been a pretext for detaining Protasevich.
The U.S. condemned the action. “This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. “Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require full investigation.”
Lukashenko has cracked down on dissidents since last August, when nationwide protests erupted after an election widely thought to be rigged in Lukashenko’s favor. The strongman has ruled the country since 1994, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
European airlines avoid Russian airspace on North-South routes and opt to fly over Belarus on routes from Southern Europe to the Baltics. If the EU bans Belarus overflights, flights will have to tack west over Poland, adding time and burning more jet fuel. But the effects, given the relatively short distances between the countries in the region, would be minimal and not as disruptive as the Gulf blockade of Qatar, which ended earlier this year, was to Qatar Airways, for example.
The effect of a European ban on Belavia, however, could be devastating. The airline, although relatively small, operates almost one-third of its capacity to the EU and the UK, according to Cirium schedules. This could further cripple Belarus’ economy, already hobbled by international sanctions after the rigged elections and ensuing violent crackdown.
Ryanair called the action “unlawful” and said it is reserving further comment as it works with NATO and European security agencies on further action. But several governments in the region condemned the action as “air piracy” and vowed a strong response. Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs said the country could ban Belavia and bar Latvian airlines from Belarus overflights. AirBaltic, based in Riga, Latvia, is avoiding Belarusian airspace and is rerouting flights to Georgia and the Ukraine, it said in a statement.
Russia, Belarus’ patron, has dismissed Western concerns over the incident and called it an internal matter for Belarus.
Belarus’ action appears to be unprecedented. Although countries have detained dissidents before boarding or upon landing, this appears to be the first time a military jet has forced a civilian aircraft en route between two other nations to land when overflying its airspace. And it appears to be the first time a country has used the pretext of an unrelated security emergency to scramble military jets to force a commercial aircraft to land. It sets a chilling precedent, raising the specter that countries may search passenger manifests and force airlines from other countries to land — even if en route to a wholly separate nation — whenever a dissident is on board.
UPDATED: This story has been updated with the EU’s decision to ban overflights by Belarusian airlines and to advise the bloc’s airlines to avoid Belarus.
Additional reporting by Airlines Reporter Edward Russell