Why the Skyjacking Succeeded

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S1: Hey, everyone, there’s a little spicy language ahead, get your earmuffs ready. Just repeating the facts of exactly what happened to Ryanair Flight 49 78 this weekend, it feels like you’re tapping out the first few lines of a pulpy spy novel. The plane was supposed to travel nonstop from Greece to Lithuania. He’s going to do that by cutting through Belarus’s airspace. When it did that, the pilots got a message from air traffic control. Code red, they were told there was a bomb on board, Belarussian authorities sent a fighter jet to escort the plane to Minsk, even though they were closer to Lithuania at that point after they landed instead of pulling explosives off the aircraft. Authorities pulled off people, specifically a Russian dissident that President Alexander Lukashenko had been trying to capture years is 23 year old girlfriend got detained. Two other words, this was a state sponsored skyjacking.

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S2: I mean, it’s insane. This was just I mean, something out of a movie.

S1: Julia Yoffie was watching all this play out from New York. She covers the region for GQ magazine.

S2: Yeah, when I saw it on Sunday, I was like, oh, I saw it on Twitter, Facebook. Like, I don’t know what this is like. I’m going to wait on this news story to see if it’s actually true. I mean, it’s insane.

S1: Julia’s family is actually from Belarus. She was born in Moscow. It gives her a unique perspective on what’s happening here. She says the first thing you need to know about this incident is that you can’t separate it out from what’s happening just over the border in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

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S2: There is a crazy crackdown underway both in Russia and in Belarus. My friends in Russia are and just are in such despair. I have never seen them despairing like those people are. More and more people are leaving who haven’t left already. People don’t see a way to live in that country anymore and to be free.

S1: Part of what upsets Julia about these crackdowns is that Putin and Lukashenko, they seem really comfortable playing a long game. This Belarussian dissident who got pulled off the plane had been living outside the country since twenty nineteen. He still had a target on his back. Russian authorities don’t mind taking their time either.

S2: You know, I mean, you saw in Moscow after the last pro-government protest, it happened during Putin’s kind of state of the nation State of the Union address, as it were. And the police didn’t crack down on the protests. They didn’t want those pictures flying around the globe and outshining Putin’s address. So they didn’t crack down and they let the protesters protest. And what they did was they started showing up to everybody’s houses in the following weeks, including journalists who simply covered the event in press jackets with press passes opening up cases against them, which means like they just use facial recognition software and they know where you live. And they showed up. They you might have gotten away as the protest and you weren’t arrested and dragged across the pavement into a paddy wagon. But you’ll never know. Will they show up next week, the week after that? And I think Lukashenko knows that if Putin is doing it, that he can do it, too.

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S1: Today on the show, The Belarus Skyjacking is another example of authoritarian leaders getting brazen. Is there anything anyone can actually do about it? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Before we get to the skyjacking, let’s do a quick refresher on Belarus. Alexander Lukashenko is president there. Technically, he’s been in charge for almost 30 years. His last election back in August, it was heavily disputed. The U.S. has called it a fraud. The EU has agreed citizens took to the streets back then to protest Lukashenko a power grab. But those peaceful demonstrations ended in violence

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S2: in August when the revolution broke out in Belarus. They Lukashenko went crazy on the protesters. I mean, prison is a very violent overthrow. Yeah, tens of thousands of people were arrested. I think the count is now something like thirty five thousand. I think some have been many have been released, but many reported being tortured with rape threats. I mean, in addition to physically being tortured, they were tortured psychologically with rape threats, with mock executions. It was just incredibly brutal.

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S3: I read this really kind of devastating story about a TV journalist who went on the air denouncing the violent police response to the protests in Belarus. And he got arrested quite promptly a few days later, he reappears in a video calling on opponents of the president to stop what they’re doing. And afterwards, he told a reporter. These people just know how to formulate their requests in such a way that you cannot say no,

S1: and it just seemed very, very dark what was happening and also very

S3: public and transparent, like everyone knew what was going on. And that’s part of what made it so dark to me.

S2: Yeah, that’s what is an authoritarian regime does. I think one of the things that journalists in this space are facing isn’t just that, you know, they could be arrested or killed, it’s that they could lose their livelihoods and they have families and homes that they need to take care of and pay for. So sometimes you have to tow the line just to kind of feed your family

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S1: because of the way journalists are treated in Belarus, a sort of shadow media industry cropped up on an encrypted messaging app called Telegram Channel sent out mass texts to spread information unless some are one channel called Nektar and its sister channel next alive, it was sending out protest information to almost two million subscribers. So described to me a little bit who the people are behind NICTA.

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S2: So it was started by Ruminative Savage, who was a young guy who started off as a student here and and an activist, and he started this channel as an alternate information source. And then when the revolution happened, when the protesters hit the streets, he said, get out there and helped coordinate where all the protests were happening, how to evade the police, cetera.

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S3: So back in August, Nicollet was was putting out their messages like take to the streets, defend your votes. So this was not subtle stuff. This was explicit

S2: we’ve seen in Ukraine and in Russia that. Oftentimes, it’s journalists who are the ones who sound the call to defend their freedom. I think for a for a Western audience, it might be a little wild, but I think journalists see themselves in this in this part of the world as fighters and defenders of freedom.

S1: Last year, authorities in Belarus put Roman Protasiewicz on a list of individuals involved with terrorist activities. But he and many of his colleagues, they were able to avoid detention by doing their work from outside the country itself. That changed this weekend when Protasiewicz caught that flight that dipped into Belarus’s airspace.

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S2: Roman was coming from a economic conference in Greece where he had been with so Atlanta mobster who was the protest leader, and he had been with her, with her advisers and he was texting them and others from the airport in Athens saying there’s a bald guy here. He’s taking a picture, he’s taking pictures of me. He’s following me around. He’s trying to take pictures of my documents. And he thought it was it was kind of suspicious. But I think he, you know, was like, it’s fine. Got on the plane. And then then we know what happened.

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S3: When the reports are when he learned that the plane was being diverted, he got very upset, like not screaming, but everyone was aware of how upset he was.

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S2: Yes, he he he started handing off his phone and his laptop to his girlfriend, which proved ineffective because she, of course, was also arrested. He started telling fellow passengers that if the plane lands in Belarus, he’s going to be arrested and that he faces the death penalty in Belarus. He fellow passenger said, I mean, this image really stuck with me from the reporting. Fellow passenger said that he wasn’t screaming, but you could see that if the window were open, he would have jumped out of it.

S3: This short video of Protasiewicz was released through the criminal elements among them of a struggle, but how much do we know about where he is and and what will happen to him now?

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S2: Well, we don’t know a lot. I think the video was released because there were reports going around right after his arrest that he was in the hospital with heart problems and in critical condition. And his his mother had even been told a bit about this. And she said, yes, he has had heart problems in the past. That’s why he was exempted from the military draft.

S3: So this was sort of a proof of life video.

S2: Yes, right. So people people freaked out. Understandably, that critical condition sounds very serious. And people thought maybe he had been tortured to that point or people immediately noticed the markings on his face. Other people noted how he was holding his hands and how his sleeves were positioned, which seemed to be hiding handcuffs. And the fact that he not only said, hi, I’m alive, I’m in good health, they’re treating me well. But he also said I’m confessing that he’s confessing to the crimes he’s accused of, which is plotting mass unrest. And some of the things he’s accused of this carry prison sentences of 12, 12 and 15 years. There was was really shocking, and I think people immediately started wondering what they had done to him and what they had said to him to make him confess so quickly.

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S3: Yeah, it made me think back to that other journalist who said, you know, they have ways of getting you to say what they want.

S2: Right, and I think the fact that we’re not really sure where Roman is, but his girlfriend is in a pretty notorious prison, one where a lot of protesters were tortured this summer and fall. And the fact that the security services are still called the KGB, I think for a lot of people in this part of the world, it’s summons a lot of very dark memories of the darkest days of the Soviet Union and tortured hundreds of thousands of innocent people into giving confessions, admitting to the wildest things of spying for the Japanese and the British and the Germans. At the same time, while running counter-revolutionary rings to assassinate Stalin and his closest associates and

S3: impossible things,

S2: impossible things, especially for people’s university students or school teachers or factory workers being accused of this and tortured in the most horrible, kind of darkly creative ways that just make the mind real. When you read about them and I think I wonder to what extent. In places like Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, to what extent that kind of historical fear is a factor and how much of the work it does for the security forces when they come in and have a, quote unquote, conversation with you

S1: when we come back, the international response to Belarus is skyjacking. When thinking about the way Belarus was able to divert a commercial flight to achieve its own ends, it’s helpful to remember that President Alexander Lukashenko has a partner in authoritarianism in Vladimir Putin. They’re not always linked. But when it comes to stunts like this one, Putin is going to have Lukashenko back and vice versa.

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S3: Is it worth seeing these two dictators together, like as a unit?

S2: I think in this case, yes, because what happened is if you look at August 20, 20, the revolution started up in Belarus. And the next week, Navalny was poisoned with military grade nerve agent and his plane had to make an emergency landing, which saved his life. But I think those two things were connected.

S1: After Belarus grounded Flight 40, 1978, the international community responded pretty swiftly. The EU decided on increased sanctions. Airlines started avoiding Belarus airspace. That’s another financial hit. Julia says the speed of these decisions. It was notable, but not surprising. Putin may have Lukashenko is back. But at the end of the day, Belarus is an easy target.

S2: You know, when it’s Russia, it’s a lot harder for people to get to unify around Russia sanctions, to get everybody on the same page on how hard they’re going to go against a place like Russia. Russia’s a much bigger economic player, a big energy supplier to Europe, much more into woven into the fabric of Europe or used to be than Belarus. And here it’s like, all right, fuck Belarus. This is also I think what they did was so crazy, right. Like it was so I mean, what was done was so over the top and so kind of flamboyant and zero fucks given Lukashenko again, diverting a plane going between two EU countries, a plane owned by an EU country full of EU citizens. Messing around with something like a bomb threat, misusing. The protocols in place for passenger safety, again in there, I think there is a feeling of a violation of European sovereignty.

S3: I mean, I’m glad you talked about Belarus’s size and the swift reaction and how those things might be interwoven, because some have speculated that in cases like this, one is just kind of part of a new norm of authoritarian leaders flouting international boundaries and codes of conduct in pursuit of their opponents. And it sounds like you’re agreeing with that. But it seems to me like there’s this additional complicating factor a lot of the time where if you’re talking about a Russia or a China or a Saudi Arabia countries similarly known for crushing dissidents in extreme ways, they have these strong ties to the U.S., to Europe, ties through oil and manufacturing. And so responding to them is both more necessary and more complicated. And it’s just a very different story with Belarus, which is a much smaller place.

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S2: Yes, and you even had your microphone say overnight, he said, we have to rethink how we because immediately Russia gets dragged into the picture and people are asking, why did Russia know about this? Do they help with this? Do we lean on Russia to punish Belarus? And Macron said we have to rethink our sanctions policy because I think it’s reached its limit. And I think he has a point because. A country like Russia, for example, you can sanction it all you want, and it’s going to be basically fine in part because how the government is structured it and that Russia’s government governing philosophy, which is that the people exist for the good of the state and not vice versa. And also it has these tremendous resources, not just oil and gas, but diamonds and gold and all kinds of chemicals that the world needs and will continue to buy. And if the US and Europe will buy them, China sure as hell will. So it’s just they’re just not as effective against a country like Russia, especially not against China, which is an economic powerhouse that rivals the US. Now, with a country like Belarus, it’s more like I think it’s more like a Cuba situation. Right? You isolated the people suffer. It has it will have a few foreign sponsors, big brothers that help underwrite things as it’s suffering through this economic siege. But, you know, we’re having I mean, this is kind of a question about the efficacy of sanctions anyway. Have they been that effective in Iran? Have they been that effective in Cuba? I don’t think they have been.

S3: I wonder if in the weeks ahead you’re looking for a response that looks at what’s happening in Belarus as something that is made possible by these other larger states that we have a different kind of relationship with and how the international community begins to think about. Begins to think about how to involve themselves with those states now that, as you said, sanctions aren’t really working. What’s the next option?

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S2: I think also there has to be some kind of understanding. And I think that there there is one increasingly in in the US, both on the Democratic and Republican sides, that there’s just a limit to what you can do. To effect change inside another country, especially when it’s somebody like Lucashenko who is fighting for his survival when he sees this twenty six year old journalist activist known for the savage as an existential threat. That’s why he made the plane turn around and land in Minsk so that he could arrest a twenty six year old. He sees this as an existential threat. He was nearly driven from power in August. And in that part of the world, when you’re driven from power, you don’t things don’t end well for you. And so. You know, what can an outside power do to convince somebody like Lucashenko? Who has limited economic possibilities to begin with that? It’s worth releasing this guy or worth easing up on activists and independent media if it means a threat to his power and his life and his family’s life.

S3: Well, back in August, it’s so interesting because you were writing about the protests and sort of lamenting the fact that America wasn’t really able to get involved because we were really chasing our own tail, is how you put it. You know, we had our own presidential election going on and, you know, we were busy with the pandemic. Sounds like a little bit. What you’re saying is we’re not chasing our own tail anymore, but in some ways, it’s hard to know how we would involve ourselves now, now that we have the bandwidth to do so.

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S2: Yeah, I think we have to do something. The question is what and what we’re what are the goals? Is it just to inflict pain and punishment or or is it to change the outcome and get him to release from Protasiewicz? And I think increasingly it’s it’s just going to be to inflict pain and just the action reaction as opposed to making Belarus’ Democratic. I think we’ve come a long way from for the Bush years of spreading democracy and making and trying to force other countries to become democratic, which as we saw, does not does not really work if they don’t want to do it.

S3: You know, when whenever a dissident is arrested, there’s always the chance that they basically become a martyr and their movement grows rather than shrinks. Do you think there’s a chance that this arrest backfires on Lukashenko?

S2: Well, I think it’s already backfiring. And the international arena, I’m not sure what’s happening, what the long term effects are going to be in Belarus, I don’t know. I’m quite pessimistic about these countries. And I think that at this point, I don’t see Lukashenko being kind of forced from the throne by the moral force of the martyr. I hope Roman doesn’t become a martyr. I hope he survives and is released from jail, though. I think he will be. I just I’m so I’m so I’m just I’m very pessimistic. I think what Putin showed Lukashenko and the world through Assad, through Bashar al-Assad in Syria is that. You don’t have to back down when there are protests, you don’t have to step down. You don’t have to accede to their demands. You can just pound them into the pavement. And nobody will care. Nobody will do anything. The international community won’t come and save these people even when hundreds of thousands of people are slaughtered and millions are forced from their homes that overwhelm neighboring countries. With the refugee crisis, you can still win. Russia is making a big deal, for example, out of the presidential elections happening in Syria today and how Bashar al-Assad is basically the consensus favorite because these are just so tired of the war. And I think that’s what people like Putin and Lukashenko have learned, is that you don’t have to give an inch to these people and you can kill them. And also what we saw with Ambassador Shoji, you can kill your opponents in the most horrific, brutal medieval ways. And people will fuss in the West and they’ll condemn you and issue statements. They might even punish you economically. But at the end of the day, they’re not going to come and force you from your throne. The days of Iraq and George W. Bush are over. And I think the lesson is. Repression works.

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S3: Julia, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Thank you so much for having me.

S1: Julia Ioffe covers national security and foreign policy for GQ magazine. And that’s our show, What Next is produced by Kamal Dilshad Davis Land, Mary Wilson, Daniel Hewett and Elina Schwartz, Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. Make sure we stay on track every day. I’m Mary Harris tomorrow. Lizzie O’Leary is going to be here with what next TBD. That’s our Friday show. She’s going to be telling the story of why Apple is in court with the makers of the video game fortnight talking about whether a banana man needs to be wearing pants. All right. Have a great Memorial Day. I will catch you back here on Tuesday.