In a rare and swift show of unity, EU institutions and member states have condemned the forced landing Ryanair flight in Minsk on 23 May 2021.
In some sense, the incident also hijacked the European Council meeting, during which leaders decided on a mix of restrictive measures against those responsible for what the CEO of Ryanair termed ‘state-sponsored hijacking’. In detaining dissident journalist Raman Pratasevič and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, the Belarusian authorities also jeopardised aviation safety.
The targeted sanctions come on top of the EU’s earlier blacklisting of Aleksander Lukashenko and some 60 cronies over his crackdown on pro-democracy protesters and opposition media since the presidential elections of August last year.
Following a raft of vetoes by Hungary on draft statements about Chinese malpractices and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this EU unity is a much-needed boost for those who had almost lost hope of any ‘common’ foreign and security policy. Quite how to implement the conclusions adopted by the European Council is the devilish detail to be worked out now. In fact, the steps agreed are the very minimum the EU could take. Other measures could be adopted to minimise the strategic vulnerabilities of the EU itself.
Downgrading diplomatic relations
Upon the request of HR/VP Josep Borrell, the Secretary-General of the European External Action Service (EEAS), Stefano Sannino, summoned the Ambassador of Belarus to the EU to condemn the “outrageous action” in which the Lukashenko regime endangered passengers and crew. Such expressions of diplomatic anger may herald a new approach for the EEAS. The Russian ambassador to the European Union was also recently summoned by Borrell after Russia slapped travel bans on eight Europeans, including Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova. But these dressing downs usually have little effect.
The EU could have gone further than reading the riot act to the Belarusian ambassador and sanctioning those responsible for the interception of the Ryanair plane. By calling on member states to downgrade or suspend diplomatic relations with state-captured Belarus, the European Council would not only speak truth to power in defence of the democratic opposition – the legitimate representatives of the Belarusian people; the move would also bolster its weak statement of solidarity with Latvia, whose entire diplomatic presence in Minsk was expelled when Riga replaced the Belarusian flag with the opposition banner. Latvia has since responded in kind by ordering the Belarusian ambassador and all diplomatic staff to leave.
This tit-for-tat brings to mind the Czech Republic’s recent expulsion of dozens of Russian ‘diplomats’ after an official investigation found that the same GRU operatives who were behind the chemical attack in Salisbury also orchestrated a lethal explosion of a Czech depot of arms destined for Ukraine. Bulgaria (targeted by a similar bomb plot) and Slovakia, Estonia and other EU countries, expelled Russian diplomats in solidarity with Prague, which has long been used by Russia as a nest for spies covering central Europe and Germany.
With member states reducing their bilateral diplomatic relations with Russia and Belarus, the EU, both at Brussels level and through its delegations in the field, could serve to keep channels open and enable interaction between the member states through its coordination hub at the EEAS, thereby also assisting them in the implementation of EU sanctions.
Curbing espionage on European territory
A welcome corollary of a decision to downgrade Belarusian embassies around Europe would be to clip the wings of Lukashenko’s KGB spies operating on EU soil. It is common knowledge that the corps diplomatique of Russia and other states like Belarus are inflated with so-called cultural attachés, whose real tasks include tracking opposition figures abroad.
Members of the Belarusian secret service tailing Pratasevič on the Ryanair plane in Athens and creating an incident in Belarusian airspace (whereby the crew had to send an emergency signal to Minsk, even though the final destination of Vilnius was closer) recalled recent revelations that Lukashenko had planned to assassinate Belarusian émigrés in Germany and Ukraine.
The episode lays bare the need for intelligence-sharing between member states, in this case Greece and Lithuania. Here too, the EEAS can add value. It could provide the focal point for knowledge about the size of Belarusian embassies and their likely KGB staff, enabling member states to coordinate both the intelligence work on KGB activities to track and threaten dissidents who have sought refuge in the EU, and allow for the expulsion of a large number of potential spies.
But for that to happen, member states and all services involved should double down on making the EU’s coordination platforms a success.
As illustrated in a recent Task Force report on the future of the EEAS, the civilian intelligence hub EU.INTCEN and its military sister EUMS.INT (together acting as the Single Intelligence Analysis Capacity/SIAC), already incorporate analysts and experts seconded from member states’ secret and security services to produce intelligence-supported situational awareness to EU decision-making.
For years, these European intelligence capabilities have been hamstrung by basic issues such as security of communications, an issue that is unfortunately shared with EU institutions. The EEAS inherited the dysfunctionality of both the Commission and the Council. The interoperability of their systems, in particular the encrypted ones, and those of member states, is low. Partly as result of this, the level of trust in the EU institutions’ systems remains low within the member states’ intelligence services. Substantial investment, more two-way exchanges of personnel, training, and a concerted interinstitutional effort are needed to address these dangerous shortfalls and raise the level and effectiveness of intelligence-sharing in the EU system.
If the EU wants to fight state-sponsored terrorism it needs to get serious about it now. European Council proclamations and targeted sanctions alone no longer suffice. The EU needs to curb the activities of adversarial countries’ security services operating on its soil and invest in the intelligence capabilities it already has to prevent further incidents of this sort.
The author is grateful for comments by Daniel Gros, James Moran, Michael Emerson and Erwan Fouéré on an earlier draft of this commentary.
 Main Intelligence Directorate; the GRU is Russia’s largest foreign intelligence agency.