Last week, a U.S. District Court indicted four Belarusian officials whom the U.S. may never be able to catch. The charges stemmed from an incident in May 2021 when Belarusian officials conspired to call in a false bomb threat to a Ryanair jet, forcing it to land in Minsk, where authorities then arrested a dissident journalist. The indictment for conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy received relatively little attention as the world focused on the Russian military buildup on the border of Ukraine. After all, there was no dramatic arrest. We don’t even know who the officials are: two of them had their names listed as fully or partially “unknown” in the indictment. While the indictments may have appeared symbolic, their geo-strategic implications span the globe. The indictments protected a critical part of international law, put Belarus and Russia on notice, and asserted the U.S.’s role in defending the international order that Russia continues to threaten.
Belarus’s hijacking of international aviation law is only one recent episode of rogue behavior by Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, who has been called “Europe’s last dictator,” and is a close ally of Vladimir Putin. Lukashenko rose to power in 1994 and last reasserted his power in a fraudulent election in 2020. After that, he enacted hardline policies to suppress dissent and freedom of speech. Following the jet incident in May 2021, the EU enacted sanctions against Belarus. In response, Lukashenko connived a scheme last Fall to weaponize migrants by offering incentives for them to come to Belarus as a gateway to Europe and bringing them to camps on the Polish border, causing a standoff that nearly became violent. The EU slapped on more sanctions. Lukashenko responded by threatening to cut off oil and natural gas pipelines to Europe that run through Belarus.
Belarus’s impunity with regard to international law cannot be understated. International laws governing air travel are one of the most agreed-upon and most functional areas of international law. Anyone who has been on an airplane has had to comply with safety and security procedures that are nearly uniform all over the world. So few air travel accidents occur because of international laws that govern airports and airspace. Lukashenko and his pirates flagrantly violated these laws. To allow them to do so without international legal recourse would undermine a system critical to the global economy, international security, and human mobility.
The U.S. is leading the way in bringing legal repercussions on Lukashenko and his cronies. In doing so, it is asserting itself as a protector of the international rule of law—a reputation that the Biden administration wants to promote after the Trump administration’s dismissiveness of international law and organizations. The Biden administration also wants to assure its European allies that it has their back as Russia threatens to test NATO’s strength. The U.S. also hopes the indictment will serve as a deterrent to officials in rogue regimes. The indictment can pave the way for international arrest notices to be issued for the alleged conspirators, which would render them unable to travel. It may also lead to individual financial sanctions to be issued against them. These measures, together, could deter others from playing Lukashenko’s games. They are also sending a message to Putin and Russian officials that it is unafraid to personally sanction them. More broadly, some reports have emerged that Russian officials were involved in the conspiracy, although they have not been confirmed. If this is true, the timing of the indictments may have been strategically designed to send a warning to Russian officials: the U.S. is coming for you. We have sources, we are getting closer, and we will use the full force of our laws when we do.
Concerted international legal action is needed to protect international air travel. U.S. legal pressure on four Belarusians will hardly be enough. U.S. allies and partners must cooperate with the U.S. to punish the perpetrators of the airline plot, deter future criminals, and pressure rogue states. Without concerted action, other rogue states will see that the international community tolerates hijacking of a fundamental area of international law without any major consequences. Passengers may not heed safety warnings on planes in Belarus or elsewhere, knowing that the law can be easily abused. Airlines may avoid carrying dissidents in certain airspaces for fear of being compromised or hijacked. More court cases against Belarus and Belarusian officials can and should be filed in other states’ courts and international courts. Financial sanctions and travel restrictions on international criminals should be levied harder and faster. The U.S. should continue to lead the way in using lawfare against Belarus—here, using law to achieve the strategic goal of preserving the international rule of law, without firing a shot.