Lithuania Urges NATO Response to Belarus Plane 'Hijacking'

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda has urged NATO to respond after a Ryanair aircraft en route to Lithuania was forcibly landed in Belarus, resulting in the arrest of opposition journalist Roman Protasevich.

"I call on NATO and EU allies to immediately react to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarus regime," Nauseda said (via Reuters). "The international community must take immediate steps that this does not repeat."

Protasevich, a 26-year-old activist and journalist based in Lithuania, was arrested after the plane he was traveling on was made to land in Minsk. He previously worked for Telegram channel NEXTA, which helped publicize news and footage from mass protests following Belarus' August 2020 election. He currently works for Belamova, another Telegram channel.

His arrest drew international condemnation, with the European Commission meeting Monday to discuss taking action. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, warned there "will be consequences" for Belarus' "outrageous and illegal behavior."

After Belarus regime took terrorist action by hijacking a passenger aircraft, together with Presidents of 🇱🇻 @valstsgriba &🇪🇪 @KerstiKaljulaid we agreed to insist on the Belarusian airspace to be declared unsafe.
The #EU airspace should also be closed for Belarusian airlines! pic.twitter.com/MXSDUHazUj

— Gitanas Nausėda (@GitanasNauseda) May 24, 2021

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reacted on Sunday, as events unfolded in Minsk.

"Closely monitoring forcible landing in #Belarus of flight to Vilnius & reported detention of opposition figure Roman Protasevich," he tweeted. "This is a serious & dangerous incident which requires international investigation. Belarus must ensure safe return of crew & all passengers."

Dr. Eleanor Bindman, senior lecturer in Politics and Public Administration at the U.K.'s Manchester Metropolitan University, said NATO member Lithuania's request is "more symbolic than anything else."

"I just don't think that there is any appetite within NATO for any kind of conflict or any kind of force-based initiative here," she told Newsweek. "So I think NATO will be making some statement for sure and Lithuania will be looking for their support, but I think it's really going to be so much more focused on the E.U."

Closely monitoring forcible landing in #Belarus of flight to Vilnius & reported detention of opposition figure Roman Protasevich. This is a serious & dangerous incident which requires international investigation. Belarus must ensure safe return of crew & all passengers.

— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) May 23, 2021

The European Union, Bindman said, is in a "much better position to take action" against Belarus, which is led by President Alexander Lukashenko, a man dubbed "Europe's last dictator."

One likely method of sanctioning the country would be banning flight across Belarussian airspace, as well as prohibiting Belarussian aircrafts from flying to E.U. countries. Nauseda previously made similar suggestions.

Sanctioning state-owned airline Belavia would not only be a "relatively straightforward" action, but also "economically and politically would have some impact," Bindman said.

However, casting a wider net of economic sanctions would hit Lukashenko the hardest, as well as make up for a "very, very limited" response from the EU during the state's crackdown on civil unrest in 2020.

"I think the key thing is that what keeps him in power is he's wealthy, but he also keeps people around him wealthy, too," Bindman told Newsweek.

"Because Belarus is mostly a state-controlled economy, if you have proper economic sanctions against state-owned companies such as the airline—but there are many others, too—then that will hurt people close to the regime and it will hurt him, because it impacts their wallets."

"It's not easy for them, and I think it'd be a mistake that people assume that [the E.U. will] have some kind of massive response, there are limits to what they can do," Bindman said. "But they can definitely do more than what they have done already."

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda speaks to reporters
President of the Republic of Lithuania Gitanas Nauseda speaks to the press as he arrives ahead of a two days European Union summit at the European Council Building in Brussels, on October 15, 2020. OLIVIER HOSLET/AFP via Getty Images