When thousands of migrants began freezing to death in the forests on the Belarus border with Poland, Belarusian leader Aliaksandr Lukashenka was forcing the European Union (EU) into a tough choice – either give in to blackmail and welcome migrants whose attempts to trespass the EU border were a result of his policy of luring them to Belarus to put pressure on the EU, or keep the borders closed and declare solidarity with Poland despite its known mistreatment and illegal pushbacks of potential asylum-seekers.
Lukashenka’s action was aptly exploiting three key pressure points of the EU – as a normative power where the human dignity of migrants is overlooked while the European border and coastguard agency Frontex stands by, as a geopolitical actor seeking to externalize its migration problem by signing readmission agreements with transit countries, and as a community of values with the EU-Poland dispute over rule of law.
His approach is typical ‘dictaplomacy’ and democracies which have confronted such a ‘continuation of war by other means’ in their past dealings with dictatorships know that blackmail mostly serves to divert attention away from a rogue leader’s misdemeanours towards his own population. But if this had been game of chess the EU would have been in check.
Thankfully checkmate was avoided – so far – as a compromise was found following weeks of heightened diplomatic efforts. Lukashenka was forced to back-pedal and take care of the migrants, and no humanitarian corridor was needed as the EU sent funds and took measures to support organizations providing shelter for the migrants in Belarus, while airlines and governments in the source countries were pressured to restrict flights to Minsk and started repatriating part of the migrants.
Causing a nuisance
‘Operation Gateway’ – the outline of which was allegedly drawn several years ago and tested by Russia in 2016 at its own borders with Norway and Finland – certainly caused a nuisance, but it ultimately backfired as Lukashenka now has to manage the remaining 2,000-5,000 migrants who refused to be flown back, as well as facing increased international sanctions. However, the fact that Angela Merkel had to personally call him made it look as if Lukashenka did not back down for nothing.
The EU and NATO, including the UK, only reacted collectively to this crisis once it was already out of hand, leaving questions over whether this experience of Lukashenka’s dictaplomacy is a wake-up call to boost resilience against rogue warfare, and to upgrade strategic assessments of the ‘Lukashenka problem’ too.
Back in June, the Belarus ministry of foreign affairs (MFA) announced its withdrawal from the Eastern Partnership and the visa facilitation and readmission agreement with the EU, while Lithuania sent early warnings about a ‘hybrid attack’ at its own border with Belarus. In August, Der Spiegel reported details of an alleged smuggling scheme whereby Tsentr Kurort – a company closely linked to the Administration of the President of Belarus with offices in the Middle East – was handling the shipping, accommodation, and relocation of migrants.
The smuggling of migrants was entirely predictable as Lukashenka has hinted many times Belarus could stop ‘protecting the EU from armed migrants’ seeking to enter it illegally. He has upped his rhetoric beyond notions of hybrid warfare by saying he needs Russian nuclear-capable bombers to ‘help him navigate the migrant crisis’, even hinting Belarus could station both Russian nuclear weapons and S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems. This shows Lukashenka is feeling increasingly cornered – which could lead to more unpredictable security crises.
Russia and Belarus are deepening relations
Although there is no smoking gun pointing to direct Russian involvement in orchestrating the hybrid attack at the EU’s borders, a new step in the military rapprochement between the two countries came when Putin and Lukashenka approved a new Military Doctrine of the Union-State of Russia and Belarus – a non-public document including a joint concept of migration policy. Lukashenka has also come off the fence over Crimea by openly accepting the legality of the peninsula’s integration with Russia.
Given Russia is also sabre-rattling over Ukraine, the risk of an accidental escalation into armed conflict is increasing in what feels like a return to classic Cold War logic, with the difference that the East is now offensively using the South for confronting the West. In recognition of the threat, the UK has joined the US, Canada, and the EU in the fresh sanctions on Belarus.