On Sunday 23 May 2021 the world has witnessed a unique event. A civilian airliner, Ryanair 4978, on its way from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania, was forced to land in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Obviously supported by the Russian Secret Service, this action served only one single purpose: to catch a prominent Belarussian dissident, Roman Protasevich, who had lived in exile.
Many observers agreed with the statement of Lithuania’s President, Gitanas Nauseda, calling this an act of “state terrorism”. The instigator of this unprecedented hijacking of a European jetliner was Belarus’ President Lukashenko. After 26 years in power, faced with widespread popular protests after his last disputed “election”, he obviously believed that this hijacking was necessary to preserve his power.
If you read my article in West England Bylines, “Stal-Put-in”, you will see the parallels between Lukashenko and the Russian pseudo-democratic dictator Vladimir Putin. Putin is also facing opposition and has countered it by poisoning and then imprisoning Aleksej Navalny. Europe’s two last dictators very much depend on each other. Lukashenko needs Russian money and logistical support for the survival of his rule. Putin fears a repetition of the “orange revolution” in Ukraine, which abolished the pro-Russian regime, and seems ready to do everything possible to suppress opposition, be it in Russia or Belarus.
Invading and seizing foreign territory (the Crimea and south-eastern parts of Ukraine), killing journalists and dissidents at home, poisoning citizens abroad and hijacking civilian airliners are acts clearly outside international law and civilized norms of behaviour. But the question is how to deal with these two state terrorist leaders, one of them equipped with a large military arsenal, including nuclear weapons?
This is the dilemma which to some degree explains the timid reactions of Western political leaders. In addition, there are economic interests involved, in particular Germany’s reliance on imported Russian gas. A second gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, North Stream 2, is nearly complete. Germany’s former Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, calls himself a personal friend of Vladimir Putin and, generously paid by Gazprom, has acted as promotor of North Stream 2. And not to forget: this pipeline is planned to arrive near Greifswald, the constituency of present Chancellor, Angela Merkel.
What actions, demonstrating the EU’s and NATO’s determination to no longer accept these acts of state terrorism, would actually make a difference? A military response is clearly out of question, nobody would want to start WWIII. Also “regime change” as in Libya (toppling Colonel Khadafi) or Iraq (destroying Saddam Hussein’s regime), would be illegal and not be tolerated, particularly in Western European societies.
This dilemma brings us back to 1946, when U.S. diplomat George Kennan in his “long telegram” coined the term “containment”, which proposed a “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies”. Indeed, strengthening the cohesion of the European and trans-Atlantic democracies and supporting Russia’s neighbours economically and politically (Ukraine in particular!), would send a clear message to Moscow. Britain might also want to demonstrate resolution and join!
And then we should remember what brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union. The arms race and internal catastrophes, like the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster in April 1986, clearly played a role. But there were also major economic reasons. It was not only the failure of the state-planned economy, but also the collapse of the oil (and with it the gas) price during the 1980s which lead to the Soviet Union’s virtual bankruptcy. Selling oil and gas to the West was the Soviet Union’s major source of income – and this is still the case with Russia today!
Only because of the Soviet Union’s decline and ultimate collapse, Germany’s unification became a reality in 1990. And it proved that West Germany’s first chancellor Konrad Adenauer had been right, when he said in 1965 that German “reunification” would be “possible only after Soviet Russia had run out of potatoes”. The original quote in German is: “Warten Sie nur ab. Wenn in Sowjetrussland die Kartoffeln knapp werden, ist unsere Stunde gekommen“. How right he was!
There is one hope that Germany’s softness towards Putin’s regime might change after the next Bundestag election in September 2021. The Green Party has not only advocated to stop reliance on fossil energies (such as gas) to effectively deal with climate change, but has also been an outspoken critic of North Stream 2. In a new government the Greens (presently nearly equal with the Conservatives in opinion polls) could make a difference.
Stopping this pipeline before its completion would cost German companies a lot of money. But this would be the signal towards Putin that state terrorism is no longer accepted.
And without Putin’s life-line, Lukashenko’s days will be numbered.