Lithuanian services left gaps in Tsikhanouskaya and Protasevich’s security: not everything was done

President of Belarus Aleksander Lukashenko
Reuters / Scanpix

The Belarusian regime’s hand reached more than just the flight from Athens to Vilnius. It appears that Minsk was also able to knock our security services down a peg. Why did this happen, asks Tadas Ignatavičius in

Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus declared last week that it would temporarily prohibit its citizens from leaving the country.

This decision was made after Minsk drew the ire of world leaders due to the hijacking of a passenger aircraft flying from Athens to Vilnius. Opposition activist journalist Roman Protasevich, who had fled from the regime to Lithuania, as well as his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen studying in Vilnius, both of whom were on the flight, were arrested.

Risk management experts believe that this sequence of events, which could end with a death sentence to R. Protasevich, could have been avoided. Why did it happen as it did?

A different plan?

The hijacked aircraft could have held Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya instead of R. Protasevich. She flew from Athens to Vilnius on the same route, just a week earlier.

The version is not ruled out that the Belarusian government in Minsk planned to catch namely this flight. Some available data backs this up as well.

However, something unexpected happened last minute and S. Tsikhanouskaya reached the Lithuanian capital, where she is constantly guarded by a few or a dozen Dignitary Protection Service officers.

Threat could have been avoided

But why did red flags not get raised among our country’s services that S. Tsikhanouskaya would risk too much if she were crossing Belarusian airspace?

“She was allowed to enter a forest filled with wolves and this is a failure of our services,” a specialist tasked with risk management for a dozen major companies operating in Lithuania told Lietuvos Rytas.

Speaking under condition of anonymity, the expert asserted that if our country’s services had done their work well, the incident could have been avoided – S. Tsikhanouskaya and R. Protasevich should have been insistently advised to fly, for example, through Vienna.

“Our services should have acted in this case and such a person shouldn’t even have boarded a flight travelling above the territory of a country that is hostile to Lithuania.

What happened might be difficult to predict, but the special services must maintain the position that the worst could happen at any time. It is also necessary to keep in mind that the Belarusian regime is constantly seeking gaps in our security system,” the specialist said.

According to the expert, the Belarusian services found those gaps and the incident with the aircraft clearly showcased that Lithuania lacks a clear and functional risk management strategy, did not take into account the risk that could arise due to the Belarusian opposition figures who have fled to Lithuania.

“It really appears that there was no plan as to what might happen if someone died or was kidnapped.

It cannot be dismissed that our services could have tried avoiding responsibility for the safety of the Belarusian opposition. However, as the aircraft hijacking story shows, it wasn’t only they who were at risk, but also tens of our own citizens.

In this case, it was revealed that our country’s services react only after the fact. This is a problem for us. There is no preventative work. They might be reacting correctly, but it is far cheaper and safer to try and pre-empt things,” the specialist told Lietuvos Rytas.

Prevention requires significant investment, but the expert was confident that they would pay off in the long term: “It is scientifically proven that preventative management is at least four times cheaper than reacting after the fact.”

Should have been advised

But can you really pre-empt an aircraft hijacking? Do the Lithuanian services have resources for it? How much would it cost?

The risk management specialist believes that elementary preventative measures could have cost around 10 thousand euro.

“It would have sufficed for our or the Polish special services to issue R. Protasevich a secure phone with a special locator app, which would display his location.

He should also inform about his nearest plans and be in contact with a risk management centre he could quickly inform if he faces danger.

If he sent me a message that he will fly from Athens over Belarus, I would immediately tell him to not even try joking like that. I think that others would have advised so as well.

Just like other activists hiding from the A. Lukashenko regime in Vilnius, R. Protasevich should have been advised how to act in such cases, how to escape and save their lives.

It should be like disease prevention – if you want to avoid AIDS, use a condom,” the expert told Lietuvos Rytas.

Wanted to enjoy freedom

However, it appears that the activists hiding in Lithuania from the regime wanted to enjoy their freedom and weren’t thinking much of the risk to their lives that could arise outside of Belarus.

Seimas National Security and Defence Committee (NSGK) chairman Laurynas Kasčiūnas spoke to Lietuvos Rytas about this, noting that “They themselves must have a self-preservation instinct and certain algorithms.”

The politician reminded of a case where a year ago, a member of a Ukrainian delegation flying to Vilnius noted a potential risk and chose a safer route. Instead of flying with the delegation above Belarus, the individual, who is wanted in Russia, already then decided to travel via Warsaw.

Why did S. Tsikhanouskaya and later also R. Protasevich not account for the risk?

“It’s hard to say. The Belarusian community in Lithuania is diverse, their relationship with law enforcement institutions is complex. They want to have complete autonomy, freedom and do not want to be controlled here.

Finally, there is the nuance that any contact they may have with our security structures, if it became known to the regime in Minsk, it could be yet another source of danger to them,” the NSGK chairman explained.

L. Kasčiūnas agreed with the experts that the opposition activists would be safer to at least have phones they could use to directly contact our country’s security officers: “However, they must themselves want to have them. Currently, it appears they have a different outlook.”

Need to boost security

Perhaps after granting asylum to Belarusian activists, Vilnius should also take into account that it also now finds itself in an elevated risk zone and seek ways to manage the risks?

L. Kasčiūnas did not conceal that it remains a question for him too why S. Tsikhanouskaya, who is protected by our state, flew from Athens over Belarus.

The Seimas committee chairman believes that in this case, the risk wasn’t suitably evaluated.

“I think that S. Tsikhanouskaya is safe in Vilnius. However, you can’t assign a Dignitary Protection Service team to every single Belarusian activist.

On the other hand, Lithuania must form a stronger security system for the opposition representatives in our country. There have to be clear algorithms, based on which they would be distributed into elevated and lesser risk zones,” the parliamentarian said.

According to L. Kasčiūnas’ information, given his contact to S. Tsikhanouskaya, R. Protasevich should have been in the elevated risk group: “I think that he was definitely aware of certain rules.

However, R. Protasevich isn’t even a refugee. He was in Lithuania with a work visa. This status does not present any commitments to either side. Our services were not responsible for the safety of this individual.

New safety rules

After the incident of the flight being grounded in Minsk, new rules are being considered in Lithuania.

“It is necessary to create new response schemes for such cases. We must inevitably also think about how such cases could occur in Lithuania where, for example, a person is kidnapped or something even worse happens. It would be a blow to our country’s reliability as well.

Such preventative measures will demand significant investment. However, we must take into account that the consequences could be far more severe,” L. Kasčiūnas mused.

The potential threats are already visible – it’s the illegal migration over the border, it’s the Minsk regime’s aims of questioning former President Valdas Adamkus.

L. Kasčiūnas is certain that there could be further provocations from Belarus: “That’s what makes hybrid threats unique – they can arise anywhere and at any time; what matters is if you can respond to them or not.”

Advised to harness imagination

Up to now, in many cases, the evaluation of potential threats was akin to a lottery in Lithuania. Former heads of the State Security Department (VSD) agree with this.

For example, Mečys Laurinkus, who was the head of the VSD between 1998 and 2004, admitted that often the need for preventative measures is brought up only after specific events because the attitude prevails that you can’t predict anything and if something does happen, that’s when we will react.

“This perspective that the services have should change. I think that there are things you can predict. Perhaps not all the details, but potential scenarios need to be discussed.

Lithuania should already have a variety of scenarios prepared for how Belarus will respond to economic sanctions, which are increasingly strict.

Up to now, the struggle was more at an informational level, but now, the danger will rise and it needs to be calculated ahead of time.

However, I do not see anyone taking a strategic look into the future. And after all, we are not only talking about the economy in this case.

Take how former national security advisor to the US president John Bolton says that we must begin thinking in different categories and seeing what is happening next to us. We must have a broader outlook without waiting for the moment the Russian army arrives at the Belarusian border.

I don’t know, maybe our structures are thinking about it, I do not wish to undermine them. However, I feel that there isn’t much focus on analysis,” M. Laurinkus told Lietuvos Rytas.

Too relaxed

According to the former VSD director, if it wasn’t just a response to consequences, but there was also analysis of potential threats, the aircraft hijacking could have been avoided.

“Our country’s structures should have gauged the threat and warned S. Tsikhanouskaya, who has been granted special status by Lithuania. I do not know why it wasn’t done, but it should have been. The status of other opposition figures isn’t clear in Lithuania and it is hard to say whether, for example, the State Security Department could have undertaken some sort of initiative independently regarding them.

I doubt anyone asked the VSD about threats to Belarusian opposition activists flying above their country.

I think they were relaxed and flying across Europe without consulting anyone. I can’t really imagine what role Lithuania could take on here and what it could be responsible for. Furthermore, the question is whether it even could.

They shouldn’t have flown above Belarusian territory.

From what I have heard, they spoke about it themselves, but R. Protasevich went ahead and acted differently somehow,” M. Laurinkus said.

Talks not in line with reality

“It’s hard to guess what A. Lukashenko is thinking,” Gediminas Grina, who led the VSD between 2010 and 2015, said, being sceptical of experts suggesting that it’s not difficult to predict that Belarusian opposition activists were unsafe to be flying above the country.

“We currently host numerous opposition activists. I do not know if anyone is working with them or how, but by my understanding, they cannot be protected normally. Our security structures could have not even known where and how they are flying.

Of course, if our state offered them some sort of guarantees, the VSD should know their every move. However, if the state did not take responsibility for them, they fly where they will, you can’t chase them around the world.

As for the proclamations by Lithuanian politicians, they are completely not in line with the country’s financial capabilities. Our political positions should be based on reality. Today, I do not see compatibility between what the politicians say and an understanding of what else Lithuania could do beyond naked declarations at a microphone.

Prior to starting to talk, politicians should stop and think hard. If we are inviting hundreds of opposition activists, we must consider whether they might be persecuted, chased and whether we can ensure their safety. Furthermore, we shouldn’t forget that the VSD is an intelligence institution and not a security service. It cannot become a ministry of all things,” G. Grina told Lietuvos Rytas.
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