Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party
Alexander Lukashenko has stopped pretending he’s anything better than a gangster. Roman Protasevich was paraded on TV after his kidnapping with visible bruises. The message is clear: we grabbed him, we tortured him – and we don’t care what you think. He might as well have taken out that AK–47 he’s fond of carrying ,and screamed: “what are you going to do about it, punk?”
But what, indeed, are we going to do about it? International opinion is coalescing around a set of economic sanctions, and the US, EU, UK and other diplomats are working out the details. It could usefully be accompanied by a coordinated expulsion of Belarussian diplomats by all NATO members, just as Russian diplomats were expelled following the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal. This is the minimum that can be expected, and will provide a modest deterrent against other small regimes contemplating something similar.
It is nowhere near enough.
While twentieth century dictatorships consolidated power by cutting themselves off from the democratic world, in the twenty first they exploit globalisation to corrupt democracies. They think we’re too greedy, fond of a quiet life, or exhausted after 20 years fighting Islamist terrorism to impose costs on dictators.
Mention of the latter pre-9/11 suggests a parallel today. Just as in the case of Al-Qaeda, which had bombed a US barracks in Saudi Arabia, attacked the USS Cole destroyer, and whose precursor made the first attempt to level the World Trade Center in 1996, we have ignored warnings about a significantly greater threat to peace and security, because facing the truth was inconvenient.
We made the mistake of hoping that tit-for-tat reprisals against Islamist attacks would be sufficient, when we needed to work out how to marginalise and sideline the full spectrum of Islamist activity. After 20 years of trial, and (considerable) error, we’ve settled on a combination of measures, from military strikes through humanitarian aid, counter-extremism prevention, and education progammes at the soft end. We came to understand that we had to neutralise the Islamists’ strategic aim to build theocratic dictatorships, and not merely blunt their tactics.
Lukashenko, Putin and Xi Jinping want to destabilise and weaken the West by undermining the system of international norms we’ve built up since 1945. They take advantage of our naivety. We made the mistake of letting countries without democratic politics and rule of law into the system by pretending to ourselves that the economic integration would be to make them liberal. This exposed our societies to infiltration by emboldened autocracies instead.
They have put a former German Chancellor and a Scottish First Minister on their payroll, have gained access to critical nuclear and telecommunications infrastructure, and broadcast their propaganda and disinformation on our airwaves. They use the openness of our free market system against us, by operating through front organisations (The gory details of the Russian element to this can be found in Catherine Belton’s excellent Putin’s People). The well-known abuse of social media platforms with fake accounts are just an extension of this technique. Lukashenko’s abuse of counter-terrorism protocols to dupe the Ryanair flight into landing, and then seizing Protasevich, is from the same playbook.
Our mistake was to extend the deeper elements Western of international cooperation, which relied on a sense of shared interest in keeping the system together, to countries that want not merely to free-ride on that system, but actually pull it apart.
This now needs to be reconfigured to deal separately with trusted and untrusted states. Trusted states can be kept within the system, but untrusted states need to be let in only on more sceptical terms. The automatic snap-back sanctions in the JCPOA Iran Deal are an example of mechanisms that could be used. The China Research Group proposed taking a similar stance in its Defending Democracy in a new world report (in which I was involved). Flows of foreign investment, support for think tanks, universities, and other forms of influence need to be brought under heavier scrutiny. Real “beneficial owners” need to be identified, and intelligence capability be built so this goes beyond a box-ticking compliance exercise. Media backed, directly or indirectly, by regimes that restrict media freedom should be denied broadcast licenses.
We need to consider whether we have adequate intelligence capability to keep tabs on influence by twenty-first century autocracies, and to protect our citizens and residents from their extraterritorial operations. One wonders whether Greek security services, for example, had any idea of the Belarussian KGB’s plot to kidnap Protasevich. Protecting democratic opponents of these regimes ought now become a priority for Western security agencies.
Belarus’s air piracy should be a wake-up call for the Western alliance. Just like twenty-first century terrorism, twenty-first century authoritarianism doesn’t stay within its own borders. Keeping it out of ours and those of our allies has become a matter of highest importance.