The tribute vice pays to virtue.

Unsurprisingly, the forced grounding of an airliner flying over Belarus, and the arrest of a critical journalist on board has provoked a burst of whataboutery from Russia and a reciprocal round of ‘false equivalence’ from the West.

The parallel case is that of the forced landing of the Bolivian presidential plane, with President Evo Morales on board, on the basis of the false suspicion that it was also carrying Edward Snowden. The grounding, at the behest of the Obama Administration, was carried out by European governments (France, Spain, Portugal and Italy) which refused to allow the plane transit through their air space. Faced with the risk of running out of fuel, the plane landed in Austria, and was eventually allowed to proceed. This conduct was of a piece with Obama’s general willingness to take extreme measures against whistleeblowers.

The parallels supporting the whataboutery are obvious. The false equivalence claim has two parts.

The first is that the plane is not a commercial airliner and therefore not covered by the 1944 Chicago convention (IIRC). This is absurd. Does anyone think that an attempt to commandeer Air Force One with the President on board would be treated less seriously than in the case of a commercial airliner. The fact that something so silly would be put forward in defence is an indication of bad faith.

The second point, that a mere denial of access is less serious than the use of a fighter plane is superficially plausible but collapses on brief inspection. The effect of denying access was that Morales pilot had three choices: a forced landing, turning back and risking running out of fuel, or disregarding the denial of access and flying on. There is a routine response to an unauthorised entry into airspace, namely deploying a fighter plane to approach the aircraft in question. So, the only difference between the two cases is that Belarus sent its fighter into the air, while the Western Europeans could leave theirs on the ground.

But hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. European governments are quite right to prohibit flights over Belarus, and to extend the same sanction to Russia if Putin chooses to escalate the dispute. And they apologised for their actions in the Morales case. But the US, while effectively admitting its responsibility, has never apologised for this act of state terrorism.

Strikingly, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki who was in the State Department in 2013 was the US spokesperson in both cases.

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