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Why the Belarusian hijacking of a Ryanair flight matters for the UK

This is a row with implications for Nato and cannot simply be shrugged off as a concern of the EU27.

By Stephen Bush

The Belarusian government has shocked the world after forcibly diverting a Ryanair flight bound for Vilnius, Lithuania to Minsk, Belarus, to arrest Roman Protasevich, an opposition journalist. 

The move is essentially without precedent: Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary described it as “state-sponsored hijacking… state-sponsored piracy” on Ireland’s Newstalk radio station this morning. While the increasingly authoritarian turn of Alexander Lukashenko’s government since elections last autumn is not news (and is sadly a familiar story across the globe), for a government to force a civilian flight to land is new. If it happens without consequence, it will happen elsewhere: the consequences of Protasevich’s arrest will not end in Belarus.

It is also a row with implications for Nato, because Lithuania, the country to which Flight FR4978 was diverted, is a Nato member. 

For those reasons and more, it isn’t solely a problem that can be shrugged off as a concern of the EU27 – which is why both Tom Tugendhat and Lisa Nandy are today calling for action. But it is Dominic Raab, of course, who has the job of leading the British response. 

Raab has, quietly, been one of the more impressive members of the Johnson government: he stepped into the unenviable role of acting as substitute PM during Boris Johnson’s time in hospital and in recovery from Covid last year. He responded well to China’s curbing of Hong Kong’s freedoms. Now he faces his biggest test so far, as Foreign Secretary of the country that is, alongside France, an indispensable player as far as Europe’s security is concerned. His task is to marshal a similarly impressive and unified response to the hijacking of FR4978. 

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[see also: Belarus’s Ryanair flight “hijack”: how will the world respond?]