EU’s Belarus border: A hotspot in the making


Elisabeth Braw is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
 

When Belarusian authorities diverted Ryanair flight FR4978 and detained Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega in May, the Lithuanian government protested loudly. But rather than repent, Minsk went on to punish its neighbor, allowing thousands of migrants to cross the border into Lithuania. Now, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko appears to be expanding this wild scheme to Poland and Latvia. And with the large-scale Russo-Belarusian Zapad 2021 military exercise scheduled for September, the EU faces an exceptionally dangerous moment at its border. 

No sooner had Lithuania condemned Belarus for abducting Protasevich and Sapega and worked with fellow EU member countries to ban flights arriving via Belarusian airspace than Lukashenko threatened to “flood the EU with migrants and drugs.” Flooding the EU is particularly easy if one shares a long border with it — especially a border that was, until recently, not heavily protected. 

To date, more than 4,000 Iraqis and other migrants have now illegally crossed into Lithuania. And these crossings haven’t just been permitted by Belarusian authorities; they have been facilitated by them.  

Minsk has arranged easy entry for “tourists” from Iraq and other countries. Travel agencies have brought the visitors to Minsk, from where officials have arranged for them to be transported to the border. Indeed, just last week, Lithuanian authorities reported that Belarusian police officers had themselves — in the process of facilitating the passage of migrants across the border — crossed into Lithuania. 

Earlier this month the EU had persuaded Iraq’s national carrier, Iraqi Airways, to suspend its now regular flights to Minsk. Lukashenko seemed to be out of luck. And with the world now focused on Afghanistan, one might think it would be prudent for the Belarusian leader to take his foot off the gas. But no such thing has happened. 

On the contrary, Lukashenko is expanding his aggression in the gray zone between war and peace. Having apparently decided that as he’s already considered a dictator, he should take advantage of the opportunities such a designation brings. 

This month alone, more than 2,100 people have illegally crossed into Poland from Belarus. And currently, 32 Afghans are stuck on the Poland-Belarus border. Poland, suspecting Belarusian foul play, is denying them entry, and Belarus is refusing to take them back. 

Latvia, too, is suddenly noticing border crossings; it has grown so alarmed that earlier this month, it declared a national emergency. “After being assisted with their travel to Minsk, they’re put up in hotels and brought to the border,” Latvia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defense Artis Pabriks told me.  

“Up to 10,000 people have already been brought to the borders of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in this way. If we don’t address this flow, Lukashenko will just keep it up, and it will become an unmanageable situation. Lukashenko saw how much the 2015 refugee crisis weakened the EU. Our fellow EU member states have to realize that this is a hybrid attack on at least three countries, in an attempt to weaken the EU,” he added. 

Indeed, Riga’s alarm doesn’t just concern the border crossings to date but what else might be afoot. While Iraqi Airways may have stopped its flights to Minsk, other airlines could easily join the Baghdad-Minsk route. And there are already reports that Belarus is arranging for new flights from Morocco and Pakistan. 

And what flights from Pakistan could mean ought to be alarmingly clear: Despite efforts to close its border with Afghanistan, Pakistan is still a likely destination for countless Afghans fleeing the Taliban — it is already home to some three million Afghan refugees. It would not be beneath Lukashenko to try and weaponize them, just as he already has desperate Iraqis. 

Lukashenko has, in fact, put in place a migrants-as-weapons package of quite some cunning. An official in Latvia tells me that “our understanding is that they [Belarusian authorities] ask for €2,000 for the airline tickets and €3,000 for transportation to the border and provide accommodation in government properties. We’ve seen that people are transported to the border by militarized units and pushed across.” 

Liberal democracies consider themselves humane societies that treat asylum seekers as being in genuine need of refuge until proven otherwise. And for a leader who doesn’t mind being seen as rogue, that makes migrants a perfect instrument. “Asylum is a human right, but maintaining one’s national sovereignty is also a right. We’re looking after the migrants who need medical care, but we mustn’t fall into Lukashenko’s trap,” Pabriks told me. 

In a statement on August 23, the three countries’ prime ministers, joined by their Estonian counterpart, sounded the alarm: “Belarus must assume its full responsibility for people whose arrival to its territory it has organised itself. It is unacceptable that people who have arrived in Belarus are being unlawfully directed to the EU external border, to be later prevented from returning to their countries of residence. Weaponizing refugees and immigrants threatens the regional security of the European Union and constitutes a grave breach of human rights,” they said. 

Indeed, with Lukashenko already exploiting migrants, consider what he could think up during Zapad 2021. The massive Russian-led exercise, which takes place every four years, is once again approaching. Starting on September 3, some 200,000 troops from Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Serbia and Sri Lanka will exercise in Russia’s western regions and Belarus. By contrast, 2018’s Trident Juncture 18, NATO’s largest exercise in a generation, involved merely 40,000 troops

At Latvia’s border with Belarus, border guards have already shifted from their long-standing cooperative spirit to sudden antagonism. “Very close to our border, Belarusian border guards are using weapons border guards don’t usually use,” Pabriks noted. “They watch everything we’re doing at the border.” 

A massive military exercise in the neighborhood, a leader willing to use any means to harm the EU, and an imminent Afghan refugee wave: the EU’s border with Belarus is a hotspot in the making. Not a traditional military-invasion hotspot but a gray-zone one, where it’s almost impossible to tell what’s aggression and what’s merely an unfortunate situation. 

That’s the brilliance of a strategy that only a leader unconcerned about his international reputation can pursue. And it means we have to pay even closer attention to the Madman in Minsk, as he’s not going to announce what subterfuge will be next in his campaign against the EU. 



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