MS Risk Blog

Belarus: Migrant Hybrid War

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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.

News broke last week that Poland had deployed around 900 soldiers to its border with Belarus to prevent an influx of asylum seekers from entering the country. More than 30 asylum seekers remain stranded between the Belarusian and Polish border, which is now under military guard and being reinforced with barbed wire. Poland’s crackdown came after neighbouring Lithuania toughened its own border controls to counter the same problem. Lithuanian officials report that more than 4100 people have crossed into the country illegally this year, the majority of whom arrived in July. But between 5 and 16 August, only 14 people made the crossing from Belarus. Lithuanian border guards are pushing asylum seekers back, and the Lithuanian prime minister is unapologetic.

The prime minister repeated accusations that Belarus is flying asylum-seekers in from dangerous and war-torn countries such as Iraq, and pushing them into the EU in retaliation for sanctions against Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. Footage has emerged showing Belarusian security forces in riot gear entering Lithuanian territory to push asylum seekers forward.

As the exodus from Afghanistan continues, it is expected that the tensions will get worse. It’s also noted that in July Belarus has been negotiating a visa agreement with Pakistan, which is already home to at least 1.3m Afghan refugees. Belarus obviously lacks the capacity to bring hundreds of thousands of people into the EU, but Lukashenko’s strategy has exposed how sharply attitudes have shifted in the past six years. Greece, France, Germany and Austria are on the same page as Lithuania – no repeat of 2015 – leaving asylum seekers vulnerable to becoming weaponised and dehumanised. Furthermore, German and French elections are looming large, and the issue is politically poisonous. Moreover, any new wave of migrants on Europe’s eastern borders may worsen anti–immigrant sentiment. 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.