It appears that the dictator of Minsk and his overlord in Moscow are waging a coordinated form of hybrid warfare against western Europe. Such tactics, of course, aren’t new to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko or his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. What’s novel is how unfathomably callous and evil these have become.
In the past, Putin for one has been better known for hybrid warfare involving mixtures of cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and “little green men” — that is, combatants who are Russian but wearing unmarked uniforms as they infiltrate or invade places like Crimea. This time, Lukashenko, apparently with Putin’s blessing, is using some of the world’s most vulnerable human beings as weapons.
For months, Lukashenko has been flying refugees from various points in the Middle East — Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and beyond — to Belarus, then herding them toward neighboring countries that are members of the European Union and NATO — Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Dropped in dark and clammy forests, these men, women and children find themselves in a no-man’s land, trapped between Belarusian troops and Polish or Baltic ones trying to keep them out. As winter approaches, many will freeze to death.
Others, aided by smugglers, are somehow making it across the EU demarcation and — in echoes of 2015 — walking or hitchhiking to the country that is their preferred destination, Germany. Its authorities have already registered more than 6,000 migrants who’ve come by this route, about half just this month. Germany’s interior minister is mulling tighter controls at the Polish-German border.
The Poles and Balts, for their part, have started putting up barbed-wire fences and are planning permanent walls along their borders with Belarus, evoking similar ambitions by former U.S. President Donald Trump along his country’s southern border. The populist government in Warsaw, in particular, wants to be seen as tough both on migration and against pressure from Minsk and Moscow. This week it said it would boost the number of troops patrolling the Belarusian border to 10,000.
By causing these reactions, Lukashenko’s cynical campaign is exposing and aggravating several intra-European conflicts and weaknesses. The bloc remains traumatized by the refugee crisis of 2015 but has been unable to reform its migration regime in part owing to Poland’s balking. It’s also riven by an internecine fight between Brussels and Warsaw over rule of law and much else, which Polish border walls could make worse. Lukashenko and Putin have maneuvered the Europeans into building what is in effect a new Iron Curtain.
But there’s more. As Latvia’s foreign minister and others have pointed out, it appears that Belarus and Russia are also smuggling their own nationals, and possibly terrorists, across the EU border along with the migrants. Presumably, these are agents intending to spy, provoke or cause other sorts of mischief. In short, the “little green men” have changed camouflage.
That Lukashenko and Putin are colluding in these tactics is beyond doubt. They’ve already in effect merged their armed forces deployed near the EU/NATO border. Ideological peas in a pod, they’ve long been contemplating merging their states as well. But if Lukashenko once thought he might run the resulting Tsarist-Soviet nostalgia project, these days Putin is the obvious top dog, and Lukashenko his poodle. To stay in power in the face of pro-democracy protests at home and sanctions by the West, Lukashenko needs Putin to have his back.
Their hybrid warfare won’t stop there, of course. It probably already extends to manipulating Russian gas deliveries to Europe to worsen the current energy crisis. But the weaponization of migration crosses a new moral line. Other autocrats, such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have also tried to blackmail Europe by using refugees. But running an international logistics racket that brings people from war zones to European forests is a new low.
As an obvious first step, the EU should now extend sanctions to all airlines and other operators — in Belarus or anywhere else — that are participating in this human trafficking. And, regardless of what happens in the internal conflict between Brussels and Warsaw, the whole bloc must show solidarity with Poland and the Baltic states.
But Europeans, including those who’ve in the past downplayed the menace of Putin’s Russia, must also review their overall strategic position in the light of such tactics. In the geopolitical clash between western Europe and Moscow, one side values human life while the other does not. The question is whether this asymmetry, now or in future, leaves Europe vulnerable.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He’s the author of “Hannibal and Me.”
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