The migrant standoff at Belarus’s borders with Poland and Lithuania is both a humanitarian crisis and a geopolitical one. Belarus’s Kremlin-backed dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, has manufactured the crisis in response to EU sanctions imposed on him after he crushed a democracy movement protesting last year’s rigged elections, jailing 800 political activists according to some reports, with some alleging rape and torture. Financial sanctions in particular, say security analysts, have cut deep into the lifestyles of the Belarusian oligarchy.
In May, Lukashenko warned Europe’s governments: “We stopped drugs and migrants. Now you will eat them and catch them yourselves.” Since then, a steady and rising stream of migrants have been flown in from Turkish camps, prodded to the border fence and beaten if they attempt to return. As a result, between 5,000 and 20,000 remain trapped in makeshift encampments in the forest, facing malnourishment and hypothermia.
The humanitarian crisis has already killed at least nine people, but the human costs of the geopolitical crisis, should it be allowed to spiral out of control, would be incalculably higher – and not confined to Belarus.
On both sides of the border zone, politicians who disdain international law are knowingly striking matches over a petrol can: the Poland-Belarus standoff has every chance of feeding into the wider regional instability being stoked by Vladimir Putin, with Ukraine as the prime target.
Last week, the Pentagon warned the EU that Russia may be considering an invasion of Ukraine, with the build-up of over 90,000 troops at its border in recent weeks alongside a naval standoff between Russian and US ships in the Black Sea. Meanwhile Lukashenko has deployed special forces to the front line, staged provocative military exercises, and welcomed nuclear-capable Russian bombers into its airspace. There are also unconfirmed reports that Belarus has armed some migrants with wire-cutters and tear gas grenades.
On the other side, Polish troops – amid an atmosphere of vile racist rhetoric emanating from senior politicians – look all too ready to respond with force of their own. Poland’s right-wing populist government has declared a state of emergency – forbidding Polish citizens from providing material aid to the arriving migrants, arresting journalists who try to report on their plight, and ordering its armed forces to stage illegal pushbacks of those claiming asylum. Already in conflict with the European Commission over the primacy of European law, Poland has declined to involve Frontex, the EU’s border agency, in efforts to control the migration – for the obvious reason that Frontex, though often brutal in its enforcement of “Fortress Europe”, is governed by laws and regulations.
Anyone doubting the seriousness of the situation should understand the nightmare that haunts Western security and defence figures: that, one day, Russia or one of its proxies stages a token military attack on a Nato country and one or more Nato countries fail to respond – effectively destroying the Article 5 guarantee of mutual defence on which the security of Europe and North America is based.
With Nato’s unity shattered, and public opinion in the West mobilised against war, Putin and his proxies would then switch targets, mounting serious military offensives combined with diplomatic coercion against neighbouring countries traditionally aligned with Nato. Ukraine would be the obvious target, but Sweden, Finland and Georgia are all potentially in the firing line too.
The Chinese military thinker Sun Tzu called this “winning without fighting”, and it is on this strategic goal that we must understand much of Russian diplomacy, propaganda and intelligence activity to be focused.
Nato’s “Enhanced Forward Presence” (EFP) – a multinational armoured force of four brigades stationed in Poland and the Baltic States – was designed to make the cost of conventional military aggression in the Baltic region clear, both to Putin and Lukashenko and any potentially shaky Nato member states. As the UK’s Integrated Review document put it graphically in March this year, British troops in the EFP act as a “tripwire presence” – though it omitted to spell out what the tripwire would trigger, which is all-out war with Russia.
At present, the EFP troops are being kept well away from the border control operation staged by Poland. The ten British Army engineers reported to have been deployed on a “reconnaissance” mission to Poland appear to have been sent bilaterally, and not as part of the EFP itself. However, as defence analyst Elisabeth Braw writes: “If one of the EFP soldiers is harmed in clashes with Belarusian forces, migrants, or both, Nato will have little choice but to respond with force.”
Migrants are not the only pawns on the table. On 11 November, Lukashenko threatened to cut gas supplies to Europe via the Yamal pipeline – which transports natural gas from fields in the Russian Arctic through Belarus and Poland to eastern Germany – if the border does not reopen. With gas prices already soaring due to high demand in the Covid-19 recovery and nation-centric energy procurement strategies, the threat gives Belarus serious leverage over Europe.
What’s going on here deserves the label that defence analysts use: hybrid warfare. Migrants are being used to trigger a political crisis – not just in Poland but across Europe. Putin and Lukashenko know that one of the darkest fears of mainstream politics in the EU is a repeat of 2015, when the arrival of over a million migrants triggered a swing to populism and the far right. At the same time, they are openly threatening the energy security of millions of Europeans already worried about the costs of transitioning away from carbon, and already prey to Russian disinformation campaigns.
So we are faced with a scenario in which, if misunderstanding and humanitarian chaos were to trigger a military incident at the border, obligations both under the Nato mutual defence pact and that of the EU itself (under the security policy Article 27 of the Treaty on European Union) would be unclear.
The international community needs to defuse this situation fast. The US has pledged to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity, while according to a briefing to the Mirror, the UK has put 600 paratroops and special forces on standby to support Ukraine if called on. Yet Putin calculates – probably correctly – that there is so little support for “out of area” conflict among Nato allies in Europe, including above all the likely Social Democrat-led coalition in Germany, that any Western response would be tokenistic.
Because Putin mobilised an invasion-sized force in April, and then demobilised it, judging his intent regarding Ukraine is hard. But if the UK’s high readiness brigade is on standby to go to Ukraine, which is not a Nato ally, that should be a major and immediate issue for debate by MPs – not the subject of selective and unattributable briefings.
Western governments have no effective strategy other than sanctions to combat the mixture of destabilisation, disinformation, organised crime and military posturing coming from Minsk and Moscow. Their expensively maintained conventional armed forces look useless in deterring this unconventional and lawless form of aggression.
The solution has to be a mixture of de-escalation, diplomatic firmness and cross-border solidarity between ordinary people. Even at the maximum estimate, the number of migrants in Belarus is small: if there are 20,000 there, that’s 3,000 less than the number who’ve crossed the English Channel in boats since the beginning of this year. With goodwill, they could be accommodated across Europe – many are Kurds and Afghans whose asylum claims are likely to be upheld under existing policies, even in the UK.
Pushbacks of the kind being perpetrated by Poland are unlawful, morally reprehensible and should cease. And just as Priti Patel’s pushback plan for the Channel came unstuck over international law, any collaboration by British forces in a Polish pushback operation are legally challengeable here and should be vetoed by parliament. Instead, Britain, which has slowly and grudgingly resettled 20,000 Syrian refugees over the last five years, should launch a new, active and generous resettlement scheme focused on the conflict zones destabilised by British intervention: Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
But once the existing pool of migrants currently in Belarus has been accommodated, Western governments should sanction both Belarus and if necessary Turkey, and their respective airlines, for their role in the weaponisation of migration flows.
We cannot avoid the fact that, piece by piece, crisis by crisis, Putin and his allies intend to destabilise our democracy and destroy belief in it. Fortunately, the West has powerful allies, if we would only actively support them: the democracy and protest movements who could topple Lukashenko and Putin.
Supporting the rights of migrants under international law and facing down hybrid aggression from dictators feels to some on the left like walking and chewing gum at the same time. But this is the world we live in. Like most people, I shudder at the thought of even token combat between nuclear powers. The UK should not be extending Nato-like guarantees to Ukraine, no matter how unjust its treatment. But strong, multilateral action – involving sanctions of a kind that would cripple the Russian and Belarusian financial systems – might be the only way of dissuading Putin and Lukashenko from further adventurism.