Swedish Incident: What Was That?

The team of the Swedish PR agency ‘Studio Total’ held an action with the most extensive follow-up coverage in the media, the consequences of which we now see in all their ‘beauty’. The Swedes would have hardly expected such an effect, for above all they, probably, sought for additional promotion of their PR agency (unusual and provocative actions are exactly what they specialize in), and attracting additional attention to Belarus was the number two task for them. To find out where this second task originates from, one has just to visit the website of Studio Total. But the Swedish PR guys, unfamiliar with the manners of the Belarusian politicians, most likely, did not expect that their seemingly innocuous provocation would result in the new hostages, arrested in Belarus, amid the diplomatic crisis in the Belarusian-Swedish relations.

Who benefits from the incident?

If we accept the hypothesis that the Swedes were guided by the noble purpose, to draw attention of the Swedish and international community to the human rights violations in Belarus, and leave aside the issues of conspiracy, we must admit that the positive developments achieved by the ‘plush paradrop’ action were not so numerous. Thus, the action provoked quite a stir, but the media mostly talk about the daring and creative pilots and the arrests in which the action of those very daring and creative drivers resulted. This contributes little enough to the dissemination of the objective information on the situation in Belarus and to the debate on the democracy facilitation in the country. Meanwhile, we have a lot more of the negative effects:

- the detention of the people, who were entirely uninvolved in the action,

- a blow to the image of the Belarusian border guards (who, incidentally, had been quite actively cooperating, until the incident, with the relevant services in the European Union), the air forces and the air defence;

- finally, the incident certainly created the extremely negative background for the diplomatic crisis (yet only in the bilateral Belarusian-Swedish relations).

It is obvious, that only the powers, trying to isolate Belarus from the West and at the same time to lower the status of Belarus as a military and political ally of Russia in the eyes of the Russian political leadership and the public, can be objectively interested in such a situation.

The Swedish PR guy’s provocation would have been successful for the persons concerned in any case: if the plane had been shot down, the Belarusian Government would have been accused of bloodlust and violence against the civilians; in the case of a successful mission it would have had a tremendous PR-effect with all the acquisitions and losses for the image, described above. A forced landing of the plane and the legal proceedings against the violators of the state border could have been the only negative result for the organizers. Why the latter scenario did not materialize? Read more about that below.

Why did they fly well?

Some of the analysts (in particular, A. Suzdaltsev) hastened to have disgraced the Belarusian air defence system, claiming its ineffectiveness in the face of a real danger. Like, if it cannot even detect a low-speed passenger plane, how can it be relied upon in case of a real military invasion? This reasoning was readily taken up by the Belarusian and foreign media, as well as by the politicians.

However, the violation of the Belarusian airspace by the Swedish light aircraft can in no way testify to the actual combat capability of the air defence troops. In contrast to the journalists and politicians, it is clear for the professional military men that the air defence system is primarily designed to protect the airspace from armed military air facilities, but not from single civilian sport aircrafts. Therefore, the offender will be intercepted or neutralized after determining whether it as a dangerous military target. In peacetime, the air defence radar system is set to watch particularly the military targets at the most likely altitudes, though the tactical and technical characteristics of the radars, which the facilities of the Belarusian air defence are equipped with, can also detect such objects as the above mentioned Swedish aircraft; however, the monitoring the targets like that one is not their primary task. The air defence system can operate in the mode of total airspace scanning within 24 hours, 365 days a year, but in peacetime this would be a super-waste of the resources. Probably, no country (perhaps, except for Israel) monitors the continuous radar field below 150 – 200 meters across the country. Therefore, the “Teddy Bear Paradrop” was a political provocation, pursuing the PR-effect, rather than the real test of the combat capability of the air defence system. So, let it be seen in this way.

However, this does not annul the fact of the dips in the work of the Border Committee and the Ministry of Defence, whose task is to guard the border from any illegal trespassing, even if this trespassing does not directly threaten the security of the country.

Let us consider a few of the most likely versions of why the Swedish aircraft did manage to have flown well to Minsk and to have gone back to Lithuania.

1. The plane was not seen by the tracking systems, respectively, the alert unit was not alarmed for interception, and the commanders learned about the trespassing form the Internet;

2. The plane was spotted, the information was forwarded ‘upwards’, but the head of the state decided not to do anything against the trespassers;

3. The aircraft was seen by the air defence system, but the information was not forwarded to those officials, who decide on whether to intercept or neutralize the intruders.

The first version seems very likely, because the targets of this type are weakly visible for the radars of the air defence systems, configured to detect the targets of a different type (as we have explained above), and with a glance to the previous incidents of trespassing committed by a light aircraft (for example, in 2006, the Lithuanian strayed aircraft was noticed by the Belarusian attack aircraft Su-25, exclusively by accident, when flying along the border; even earlier, in 2003, in the Grodno region, the Lithuanian light aircraft was found, which had crashed on the Belarusian territory a few months before, unnoticed by the border guards and the Air Defence Forces). But this version contradicts the data, voiced by A. Lukashenka, who claimed that the aircraft had been tracked by the radars, as well as the information provided by the Swedes, who had been called by the towerman when flying over the Minsk airport. So, anyway, the plane was registered. However, it remains unclear why the interceptors were not alerted after the aircraft had been spotted by the tower of the airport Minsk-1 and had failed to respond to the requests. In a situation like that, the towerman needs to communicate the military men to clarify the friend-or-foe identification.

The second version can be immediately omitted, although it is the official one. This version contradicts the initial denial of the border violation by the authorities and the hasty staffing implications, such as debriefing performed by the law enforcement agencies and, accordingly, founding them guilty. Neither does this version fit the logic of the official propaganda: the trespassing right after the parade and the demonstration of the military might destroys all the propaganda effect of the event at once and dishonours the military men. Conversely, a forced landing of the Swedish aircraft and a high-profile trial of the offenders would be a classic of the genre. It is hard to believe that in this case the leader of Belarus was guided the “principles of humanity”.

Thus, the third version looks the most probable one, for it explains both the attempts to deny the obvious facts, and the quick reprisal against the heads of the State Border Committee and Air Defence Forces. Why did this happen? It is very likely, that the radar automatically captured and traced the target, which was identified as not a military one and not a threatening one; therefore, perhaps, the information was forwarded up the chain by the officer on alert, but, given the “holiday mode” of duty and the low level of risk, the required information failed to have reached the desired level (the decision about contacting the offender and about its forced landing can be taken by the air defence officer on duty, while the decision to use the weapons in order to eliminate the target is taken by the Minister of Defence. Given the nature of the target, probably, the final decision should remain with the president.) It is also probable, that, after all, this information reached the Commander of the Air Force and Air Defence, who, however, did not bother to report on it to the Minister and further to the Supreme Commander (or was, probably, just afraid of the consequences of such a report).

This is confirmed by the words of Lukashenka, and by the fact that the Chief of Belarusian Air Defence Mr. Pakhmelkin was removed from the post, while the Minister of Defence Mr. Zhadobin was not. The speed and the level of the personnel changes (let us not forget that the head of the State Border Committee, Ihar Rachkouski in fairly close relations with the eldest son of the president) indicates that a more significant error took place, than just the inability of the Air Defence to detect the trespassers. In fact, it was a failure in the Government decision-making system, which led to the negative political consequences for the country. In other words, the incident with the Swedish aircraft shows that the vertical decision-making system does not work properly, and that the president will probably not have full information about what is happening in the country. Under certain circumstances, this can be fatal for the whole system and its leader. And this is why the reaction in response was so unbalanced and irrational.

The diplomatic conflict with Sweden: the nervous reaction of Minsk or an unfortunate coincidence?

Apparently, the “Teddy Bear Paradrop” and the withdrawal of the ambassadors were not interrelated. But the media effect and the political effect of the two events mutually reinforced each other, which led to the high-profile scandal.

Many of the Belarusian observers commented on the withdrawal of the Ambassador Erickson as on an attempt of the Belarusian authorities to select among the European ambassadors to Belarus, which is unacceptable. But we should remember that this is a sovereign right of the host country, under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. That is, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the host country who shall issue or deny the issue of the agrement (the consent to admit the head of the diplomatic mission) for the particular diplomat after the consideration of the relevant note from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the country of origin. Previously, the procedure there also exited, when the country of origin would suggest the host country several diplomats to choose from. But now the standard practice has been settled, when the host country can deny to issue the agrement for an unwanted diplomat (who, for example, has previously spoken disparagingly about the host country), and send a note for another diplomat to be assigned. It is the common practice according to the current diplomatic protocol. On the contrary, the fact that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the country of origin tries to insist on the accreditation of the certain specific diplomat, whom the host country does not want to see at the head of the mission, contradicts this norm.

Why does Minsk escalate the conflict?

First, the official Minsk feels justified in this diplomatic scandal and, admittedly, has the certain groundings for that.

Second, the scandal helps to get rid of the harmful, in the opinion of the official Minsk, Swedish Embassy, whose cooperation with the Belarusian civil society has always been quite noticeable. In this context, the most appropriate coincidence was that the intruding plane was Swedish. This added arguments to the state propaganda and created the appropriate informational background.

Third, Minsk is not afraid of the open diplomatic conflict, because knows how and when it can be stopped. Even in case the other EU embassies chose to be involved in the conflict. The diplomatic crisis of this spring taught Minsk a lot of things: the EU member states are not interested in keeping their ambassadors out of Belarus; releasing a couple of the political prisoners makes it possible to return to the status quo (‘luckily’, at present there are enough of such prisoners there); the political conflicts with the EU do not lead to any noticeable economic consequences.

Four, after the last presidential election, and especially after the diplomatic crisis of this spring, the official Minsk do not fear the deterioration of their image. It can hardly be deteriorated any further.

Finally, the Belarusian Government continues to feel the economic and foreign policy support on the part of Moscow, which enables them to behave more freely than they could afford a few years ago.

Some of the conclusions:

1. The incident with the Swedish aircraft, flying over Belarus, should not be seen as a test of the combat readiness of the Belarusian air defence system, but rather as a successful political provocation which demonstrated the algorithm of the Belarusian authorities’ behaviour in such a situation.

2. There are certain grounds for believing that the reaction of the Belarusian Government to the Swedish PR agency’s action was provoked not by their cross-border flight, but first of all by the failures in the high-level decision-making system of Belarus, and only after that by the trespassing and resonance in the Belarusian and international media.

3. The “Teddy Bear Paradrop” has had more negative than positive effects for the country by now. Primarily, it was for the benefit of the supporters of the international isolation of Belarus. We have intentionally omitted the scenarios of a provocation arranged by a foreign intelligence service, being guided by the precepts of sir William of Ockham.

4. Minsk is ready for the escalation of the diplomatic conflict, knowing that they can control it, while feeling backed up by Russia.

The text was first published in the Belarusian newspaper "Nasha Niva".