In a geopolitical context of tension between Russia and the European Union (EU), the issue of the Ryanair flight deviated over Belorussia on May 23, 2021, followed by the detention of Roman Protassevitch, a dissident of the regime of President Lukashenko, points to the great principles of aviation law such as aviation sovereignty and freedom.
The deviation of Ryanair flight FR4978 from Athens to Vilnius—cities in two EU Member States—was condemned by the international community. Regardless of the specific context of international relations between Belorussia and the rest of the world, this incident—classified as a hijacking, piracy and even air terrorism—is legally tied to a balance between the principle of national sovereignty over airspace and the freedom of the air deriving from the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation held on December 7, 1944.
The EU also has its own rules that are applicable in this case insofar as the Ryanair flight was between two EU States. Justified by the imperatives of security—that is, the prevention and suppression of illicit acts against civil aviation—, the interception of civil aircraft must be reconciled with the principle of protection, according to Resolution 927 of December 14, 1955, of the UN General Assembly.
The best example of this principle is the case of the destruction of a Korean Airlines Boeing 747 by the Soviet Air Forces the night of August 31 to September 1, 1983, alleging that the airplane had entered USSR airspace without authorization. This tragedy led to the death of 269 people.
The Belorussian incident, which involves primarily the behavior of one State, must be sent to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to “investigate, at the request of a Contracting State, any situation that would seem to imply avoidable obstacles to the development of international air navigation and, following the investigation, publish the applicable reports.” Due to the multiplicity of States involved in the affair (Poland, as the country of registration of the aircraft; Lithuania, as the flight destination; Greece, as the State of origin of the flight; Ireland, as the nationality of the operator; and Belorussia, which has drafted its own report and sent it to the ICAO), the intervention of this organization is the most appropriate.
With regard to the (geo)political dimensions of the Belorussian affair, there are many issues and questions, and not all of them will have convincing answers, at least in the immediate future. For example, there is the matter of Russian support for the hijacking of the Ryanair flight. This type of operation cannot be improvised. Did the Belorussian authorities act alone? In Western intelligence circles, Lukashenko, the Belorussian dictator who has held on to power for over a year with the sole support of Moscow, would have needed Putin’s political blessing. Moscow is his only ally—but for how long?—and is looking at the neighboring Belorussia’s geostrategic and energy assets.
This incident is highly symbolic. The regime in Minsk has abandoned the temptation to be a plug State between Russia and Europe. Now, it is clearly linked to the Russian orbit, placed deliberately in it, abandoning any desire for independence.
Furthermore, until now, the Minsk regime has repressed its citizens intensively, but in its own territory. The EU had reacted with a few sanctions against the Belorussian leaders, mostly symbolic on the time scale of sanctions when compared to those that were adopted against the regimes of Syria, Iran, Russia, etc. The deviation of the Ryanair flight seems to be the incident too far, or perhaps a provocation tactic.
In the geopolitical scope, there are precedents with Russia, which has always sought, prior to a decisive European council, to attract the attention of the Europeans, to put them to a test, if necessary, and even provoke them. Throughout the application of European sanctions with regard to the intervention in Ukraine, instead of tempering or refining, Moscow often chose the key moment between 72 and 24 hours before a European summit to conduct a provocative action that forced the Europeans to harden their discourse, or at least convince the undecided to join the toughest positions in terms of sanctions.
With regard to the European reaction, many have spoken of Russia putting the Europeans to the test. In fact, the test has already been given several times. When the Europeans have been put to the test recently, they have been quite united in their reaction, such as in the Ukraine affair (with the firefight and crash of the MH17 aircraft), the terrorist actions of 2015 and 2016 and the Iranian nuclear negotiation.
With regard to Russia, the Kremlin is helping the Europeans come together, even Hungary, which is unable to resist the pressure of many EU countries: Poland, Lithuania, Sweden, Germany, Ireland, Greece, etc. The sanctions against Russia are a perfect example. Moscow waited in vain for a breakup of the European block in 2014-2015 and the renewal of sanctions no longer has political importance.
In the end, the speed of the European reaction is apparent. We have rarely seen a show of solidarity nearly as unanimous. This is a point that needs to be emphasized in times in which reactions are sometimes more evasive. In just a few hours, the Europeans agreed that it was necessary to move to consequences; that is, sanctions against Belorussia. When Europeans feel threatened, they react with the full range of tools at their disposal: diplomatic messages, calling ambassadors, individual sanctions, economic measures, etc. Russia has tried, together with its Belorussian ally, to alter the geopolitical lines of the EU and its Member States, but it is also testing the reaction of Joe Biden’s White House. A dangerous lab test.
Frédéric Mertens is professor of International relations and Coordinator of the Grado de Relaciones Internacionales