Belarus is new weapon in Putin’s hybrid warfare arsenal

A tripartite group of the UK, US, and EU mapping out a common approach to Belarus can only be effective if discussions include how to deal with Russia.

Expert comment Updated 12 April 2022 Published 18 August 2021 3 minute READ

On 9 August, the anniversary of last year’s fraudulent presidential elections in Belarus, the UK, the US, and Canada imposed sectoral sanctions on Belarus, targeting key exports such as potash and crude oil, and the UK closed its financial markets to Belarusian debt and securities.

President Aliaksandr Lukashenka responded by saying the UK could ‘choke on your sanctions’ which may seem an empty threat viewed from the safe distance of London but, for Belarus’ closest neighbours Lithuania, Poland and Latvia, the choking could become very real.

When the European Union (EU) imposed sanctions, Lukashenka responded by flying in waves of migrants from the Middle East and delivering them to the border to cross into the EU – a tactic last seen by Russia against Nordic states in 2015. This weaponization of migration is a form of hybrid warfare with the aim of destabilizing EU and NATO eastern borders and stirring up tensions within member states as well as between allies.

Reinforced border measures by the EU make it difficult for Belarusians fleeing the regime to enter the EU so it is vital the UK and EU coordinate policies.

Migrant dumping by Belarus creates a moral dilemma for Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. Latvia has declared a state of emergency on its border and both Latvia and Lithuania have started building a razor wire fence on their border with Belarus.

This makes for rich pickings for propagandists and social media trolls who are likening this fence to Donald Trump’s wall, accusing the West of double standards when it comes to Belarus and – by extension – Russia, and poisoning the public discourse on migrants and refugees. And this is happening just as the EU and the UK brace themselves for a new wave of refugees from Afghanistan as the Taliban reasserts control of Kabul.

Reinforced border measures by the EU make it difficult for Belarusians fleeing the regime to enter the EU so it is vital the UK and EU coordinate policies to ensure Belarusians who leave the country out of concern for their safety are not put in further danger by whatever measures are adopted to contain the migrant crisis deliberately created by Lukashenka.

Moscow’s guiding hand

Any new wave of migrants on Europe’s eastern borders may worsen anti–immigrant sentiment and strengthen the arguments of parties and politicians critical of increased migration. This has already been seen in Sweden and Germany where migrants have been instrumentalized by far-right groups looking to apportion blame for long- standing societal ills. This has led to a rise in xenophobic sentiment, political polarization, and an overall anti-EU sentiment in what are traditionally tolerant, liberal, and open societies. 

It also plays into long-standing attempts by Russia to encourage right-wing parties which can weaken the EU and NATO. In creating the migrant crisis Belarus is becoming just another tool in Russia’s hybrid warfare against western liberal democracies, and it is unlikely this tactic is being used by Belarus without the approval of Moscow.

After the latest sanctions, Lukashenka has hinted he will stop cooperating with the US in combatting the traffic of nuclear materials. The impact of such a step is unclear – but it is easy enough to imagine how Belarus, and potentially Russia, could turn this into another facet of hybrid warfare against Europe.

Tightening a coordinated response

The current regime in Belarus has already shown it has no hesitation in showing violence to its own citizens, both within and beyond its borders, with complete disregard to the safety of citizens of other countries affected – as shown by the forcing down of a Ryanair aircraft crossing Belarusian airspace in May 2021. But one year after the current repression began, the story is fading from the news and the world is growing indifferent.

And yet for those who remember the Cold War, recent weeks have felt like a surreal rerun of old themes as a Belarus athlete defects during the Olympic Games, the trial of a senior member of the opposition starts behind closed doors in Minsk, an artificially-created migrant crisis is leading to new physical barriers on the EU north-east border, and an exiled dissident in Kyiv is found hanging in a park prompting rumours which highlight the poisoned atmosphere in Belarus politics.

The last round of sanctions by the UK, US, and Canada will bite but previous EU sanctions of a similar calibre have not curbed Lukashenka’s violence either at home or abroad – in fact, in almost every aspect the situation has become worse.

The expulsion of Moscow-based BBC journalist Sarah Rainsford just days after she asked Lukashenka about torture and repressions during a live television conference in Minsk merely underlines Russia’s overall control of the situation in Belarus. With Lukashenka resorting to more extreme measures to cling on to power, it is time to wake up to the presence of a rogue state on Europe’s borders.

Greater public attention to the problem – and to its impact on EU neighbours – should make it easier for international powers to take more assertive measures. The last round of sanctions by the UK, US, and Canada will bite but previous EU sanctions of a similar calibre have not curbed Lukashenka’s violence either at home or abroad – in fact, in almost every aspect the situation has become worse. So long as Lukashenka can count on Russian support, the effect of sanctions is reduced.

In June 2021, Chatham House proposed the creation of a tripartite contact group made up of the UK, US, and EU to map out a common approach to Belarus and examine what effective measures could be taken – but this will only be effective if discussions include how to deal with Russia.

It should include limiting access to the City of London and other financial marketplaces for money and companies with any links to the Russian government. It makes no sense for the global finance centres to help enrich a regime actively engaged in hybrid warfare against their governments, and it is unwise to wait for yet more state-sponsored violence from Belarus or Russia before Western allies are prompted to take decisive action.