A flight hijacked, another international norm broken, one more journalist kidnapped. That’s what happened Sunday, May 23, when dictator Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus ordered a plane to land. A MiG-29 was scrambled to escort Ryanair flight 4978. The commercial flight had been on its way from Athens to Vilnius, carrying 126 suddenly panicked passengers. The next week, President Lukashenko was on the yacht of Russian President Vladimir Putin near Sochi, the two smiling, laughing, and hugging.
Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden meets his Russian counterpart in Geneva. We Americans seem destined to repeat “reset” with Russia. We might finally accept instead that Russia’s dictator is a man with an agenda, cut—like Lukashenko—from a particular piece of cloth. Of course, they vary in particulars. But dictators have a DNA. Off the bat, they despise dissent.
When that Ryanair flight was forced to land in the Belarus capital of Minsk, the local KGB arrested passengers Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend. The two have been living in Lithuania; she’s a Russian national and university student. Twenty-six-year-old Protasevich is a journalist who has been critical of the Lukashenko regime. He’s a Lukashenko obsession.
During the Cold War, Monica Lovinescu was a Nicolae Ceausescu obsession. She was an essayist, short story writer, and literary critic whose weekly programs for Radio Free Europe were immensely popular in communist Romania. He was the dictator of Romania. Ceausescu had Lovinescu attacked in France. The intention was to leave her “as a living corpse,” as one of Ceausescu’s aides would later put it. A vicious beating in her Paris courtyard left Lovinescu in a coma.
I won’t list here the number of journalists Vladimir Putin has had jailed, tortured, poisoned—a longtime, favored Russian cure for dissent—and murdered during his twenty-one-year rule. Nor do borders or international norms trouble him. I know this from my time as president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) from 2007 to 2011. Harassment and intimidation of journalists are the dictator’s stock-in-trade. The Chinese and Iranians do this. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was obsessed with RFE/RL headquarters Prague, so much so that he had the building surveilled carefully with plans to launch a terror attack. Putin’s people are all over Prague with a wide net. I recall hosting guests from the State Department for pizza in a restaurant in Old Town. Two Russian intelligence officers eavesdropping from the table behind us paid our bill to make clear, one supposes, that even this NATO and EU country is their backyard. The problem of Russian intelligence presence in the Czech Republic is getting worse. At a dinner with journalists in Minsk a decade ago, two KGB officers sat so close to our table, I barely had elbow room. Things have clearly become more brazen.
It’s surely time we grasp what we’re up against and begin properly to push back.
To start, let’s commit to securing Roman Protasevich’s release. His girlfriend’s, too. Detention videos of the two, replete with forced, fake confessions, are appalling.
Let’s show up at every meeting with every dictatorship with a list of imprisoned journalists we want freed. The West Germans used to pay the East German dictatorship 85,000 marks for each prisoner of conscience released to the West. We can grease wheels when we understand the cynicism of those with whom we negotiate.
Let’s demand immediately that Putin end his current campaign to drive U.S.-funded RFE/RL out of Russia. Roman Protasevich is a former Vaclav Havel fellow of RFE/RL. Congress should increase funding to the media group. Its $124 million budget for accurate and reliable news and information is peanuts compared to what the Russians spend on their vast propaganda and disinformation activities.
After the Biden-Putin summit, let’s convene a special summit with the democracies of Eastern Europe. Many of these once captive nations are being sucked back again into a Russian sphere of influence. Let’s also make sure these American allies are featured prominently in the administration’s Democracy Summit planned for 2022. Highlight occupied Georgia and Ukraine. Hold an open seat for “Free Belarus.” Display dictator Lukashenko’s hilarious remark, “I want to protect the people.” Find a place for the statement by the Kremlin’s erstwhile ally, East German dictator Walter Ulbricht: “No one has the intention to build a wall.” Sixty years ago this August, Berlin was divided by concrete, barbed-wire, machine gun nests, and guard towers.
Some will decry such steps on our part as provoking a new Cold War. Others will say, but wait—China first! Still others will fret about human rights crusades getting in the way of “hard interests,” like security and trade. Such debates are part and parcel of democracy’s DNA. Unfortunately, the wiring of democracy seems also invariably to include naiveté, historical amnesia, conflict avoidance, and the strange notion that our foreign policy choices are binary.
Strategy means seeing connections, balancing equities, thinking globally, and ultimately allocating resources in pursuit of our vision. Whatever happened to “Europe, Whole and Free”? Current U.S. and EU sanctions imposed on Minsk cannot be allowed as pretext for Russia to absorb Belarus, or for China to begin supplying Lukashenko with technology.
A new administration has opportunities. Figures such as Michael McFaul, Larry Diamond, Garry Kasparov, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky have all been calling for years for accountability. We’re pushing back now against a dangerous age of impunity, as David Miliband describes it. We need to start somewhere. Defending journalists against gangsters is an important and honorable place to begin.
Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.
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