The drama unfolding on the eastern borders of the European Union is coming to an end: following the fraudulent presidential elections of 2020, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko tried to blackmail European leaders in order to force them back to the negotiating table, and to acknowledge his legitimacy. To achieve this, he employed a previously almost unknown method: Belarusian authorities welcomed thousands of Middle Eastern migrants into the country in a matter of months, then used them to artificially provoke a migration crisis on the borders of Poland and Lithuania. The trick both succeeded and failed: Belarus’s Western neighbours did not give in to the pressure, and constant clashes and human drama erupted within the border zone. At the same time, the Belarusian leader received two phone calls from the outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Domestically, this gave Lukashenko a basis for legitimacy, after which he could extricate himself from the crisis without losing face. Meanwhile, the cold weather is also prompting the authorities to phase out migratory pressure as a means of hybrid warfare.
Prior to June 2021, illegal migration was an essentially unknown concept on the eastern borders of Poland and the Baltic states: for example, according to local border police, a total of 81 people tried to enter Lithuania illegally during 2020. By the end of June, that number had risen to more than 800 in a single month, and to more than three thousand by the end of July.1 A state of emergency was declared in the country, and the military was sent to secure the border. During the summer, a similar situation developed along the Polish and, to a lesser extent, Latvian borders.
The migration crisis erupted abruptly along the borders between the EU and Belarus in the weeks following the Ryanair incident: on 23 May, Raman Protasevich, an opposition blogger, was arrested after the Ryanair flight he was travelling from Athens to Vilnius on was forced to land at Minsk, on the pretext of a bomb threat. A subsequent investigation carried out by the Polish authorities and published on 8 December concluded that the whole case was, from beginning to end, a planned operation conducted by the Belarusian secret service, the KGB.
The EU reacted to this unprecedented incident, which involved a European passenger carrier, much more forcefully than on any previous occasion: flights over Belarus have been suspended, Belarusian airlines have been banned from EU airspace, and new sanctions have been adopted against Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.
The Belarusian leader’s response was sufficiently creative, in that, recognizing the weaknesses of the EU, he made illegal immigration part of his arsenal for hybrid warfare, or, as Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė put it, ‘hybrid aggression’.2 Immigrants became a purely geopolitical, abstract tool3 in Lukashenko’s hands, which could easily have set a dangerous international precedent. It is clear that the unfortunate people who came with their families knew nothing about the geopolitical game being played by the Belarusian authorities, and that they left their former homes only because they were promised a better life.
The number of flights from the Middle East multiplied within a few months
Most of the migrants who have arrived in Belarus in recent months are from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Turkey. According to reports, travel was conducted in an organized manner, with Belarusian consulates assisting in their visa applications and even facilitating the necessary requirements. The number of flights from the Middle East multiplied within a few months—every day in October, more than ten flights from the region were landing in Minsk, according to Flightradar24. The ‘tourists’ arriving in Belarus were first taken to a hotel for a few days and then to the border, where, according to several documented cases, the Belarusian border guards even directed them to where they were most likely to successfully cross the EU border.
The degree to which this development surprised Lukashenko’s western neighbours is shown by the fact that Lithuania and Poland did not previously even have a continuous fence along the Belarusian border. Although Brussels did not rush to defend Hungary during the 2015 refugee crisis, when it constructed a border fence, the situation has since changed radically: Frontex, the European border protection force, immediately provided all possible assistance to Lithuania.4 Warsaw and Vilnius were responsible for the construction of a total of about 900 km of border fences during the summer.
The Belarusian Bastion
The fact that the migration crisis was artificially triggered by the authorities is not substantially denied by Lukashenko himself. According to his logic, Belarus has so far been the bastion heroically protecting Europe from illegal immigration, human trafficking, drug trafficking, and organized crime, but because of sanctions it no longer has the strength or the energy to do so.
‘Today they [the European countries] are wailing, “ah, the Belarusians are not protecting us!”’5 Lukashenko said in a speech in June. ‘Thousands of illegal immigrants are rushing into Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. They demand that we protect them from smuggling and drugs. I just want to ask, are you mad? You have unleashed a hybrid war against us and now you demand that we protect you as we did before?’6
Lukashenko explained in an interview with the BBC in November 2021 why the Belarusian authorities were giving migrants a green light, saying ‘they are not coming to my country, they are going to yours’.7 According to the official Belarusian narrative, the EU is responsible for the situation, which has made the European area attractive to people living in poverty with promises of a better life.
Lukashenko’s claim that the humanitarian and repatriation costs of immigrants arriving in Belarus should be paid by Brussels also followed the same logic. According to a decision taken in mid-November, the EU earmarked 700,000 euros of humanitarian aid for migrants in Belarus. Of this, two hundred thousand went to the local branch of the Red Cross, and the remaining half a million euros is being distributed among various NGOs. According to Minsk, however, the sum itself is too small, and the EU should also pay for the flights returning migrants to their countries of origin.
It is worth adding that after the outbreak of the migration crisis, allies of the countries affected acted in an exemplary manner: Estonia and the UK sent troops to help secure the Polish border, while Hungary and the Czech Republic are currently considering similar steps. Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau told Deutsche Welle in Germany on 7 December that ‘the events on the eastern frontier of the European Union were an attempt to undermine the democratic functioning of the entire union, and that the EU must therefore develop a coordinated response’.8 ‘The actions of the Belarusian authorities consist of endless attempts to destabilize Poland, both politically and—to a certain extent—militarily’, the Polish foreign minister added.9
Blackmail and Revenge
One of Lukashenko’s main aims was to force Europe to recognize his own legitimacy, and to bring Western leaders to the negotiating table. In this, organized illegal immigration was just one of the tools at his disposal, in addition to economic threats or the prospect of armed conflict. Since 2020, no Western country has been willing to recognize Lukashenko as head of state, or to hold international negotiations with him, while his political opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has toured the continent, meeting with European leaders.
In addition to international objectives, the migration situation also proved a useful story to tell a domestic audience still in shock after the 2020 presidential elections: state propaganda produced moralizing reports on the inhumanity and perceived atrocities of the country’s European neighbours, and news reports often featured shivering, weeping Iraqi or Afghan children. All this fit perfectly with the mythology surrounding the Second World War (the ‘Great Patriotic War’) and the defeat of Nazism. Moreover, Moscow and the Russian population were very receptive to this narrative.
There was also another aspect to the case: personal revenge for the way in which Lithuania, along with the other Baltic states and Poland, took a firm stand against the election fraud and state violence in Belarus in August 2020. In addition, Warsaw and Vilnius have for decades been the main centres of the Belarusian political opposition and opposition media, partly due to their geographical proximity: Vilnius is only 170 kilometres from the Belarusian capital, while Warsaw is five hundred kilometres away.
Vilnius has hosted the exiled Belarusian European Humanities University since 2004, which attracts many students from across the border. Since 2006, Poland has been providing scholarships and job opportunities to Belarusian students who, for political reasons, are unable to continue their studies abroad (the Kastuś Kalinoŭski Scholarship Programme).10
Many Belarusian media outlets, such as Nexta, Belsat, Nasha Niva, Charter 97, and Evroradio, operate from Poland or Lithuania. This process culminated after the authorities also liquidated the remnants of the independent local press after the 2020 protests. Moreover, these media platforms are a significant force in terms of reach: Nexta, which was previously distributed via Telegram, formerly had around half a million readers, but that figure grew to 2.1 million by August 2020, accounting for roughly a quarter of the adult population of Belarus.
Warsaw and Vilnius have also welcomed Belarusian opposition leaders: Lukashenko’s political opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was granted asylum in the Lithuanian capital, while Pavel Latushko, a former Belarusian culture minister who sided with the protesters, is now working in Warsaw.11
The Role of Russia
Although Western politicians have repeatedly expressed the idea that Russia may be behind the migration crisis in Belarus, this does not seem to correspond with reality. Logically, Moscow’s interests are exactly the opposite of what Lukashenko wants to achieve through migratory pressure: Minsk’s earlier pre-2020 manoeuvring between the West and Russia clearly irritated Russian President Vladimir Putin, who, according to sources close to the Kremlin, is not especially fond of the man who has been in charge of Belarus for twenty-seven years. The normalization of relations between the West and Belarus is therefore not in Moscow’s interests.
Belarus is pushing itself into a corner and is actually moving further and further away from its coveted goal of Western recognition
Nevertheless, Russia is watching Lukashenko’s steps with a certain amount of sympathy because the situation is playing into its hands. On the one hand, Belarus is pushing itself into a corner and is actually moving further and further away from its coveted goal of Western recognition. On the other hand, at the right moment, Putin can act as a kind of intermediary, a peace mediator between the West and Minsk, from which he may score additional political points. No less importantly, with Alexander Lukashenko’s foreign policy insanity and domestic slide towards outright dictatorship, Russia can increasingly appear, by comparison, a more reliable actor in the international arena, with whom foreign powers can negotiate, and which may be expected to keep its dependent allies in check.
The Crisis Is Coming to an End
Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rights has banned Belarus’s European neighbours from expelling those who have already crossed the border while their refugee applications are being processed.12 According to the European Commission, this year, nearly 8,000 migrants entered the EU from Belarus: most, 4,300 crossed into Lithuania, some 3,200 entered Poland, and more than 400 entered Latvia.13 By December, states in the Middle East had already evacuated more than 3,000 people from Belarus, mostly Iraqi citizens. At the same time, however, Poland estimates that there may still be nearly 7,000 migrants along the Belarusian border.14
Nevertheless, there are several indications that the migration crisis artificially organized by Belarus may soon be over. Minsk has not been able to achieve its main goals since June 2021: European leaders have not recognized Lukashenko, and are still unwilling to engage in formal talks with him. Fences have been constructed along the Polish and Lithuanian borders with Belarus, and those borders are now patrolled by more than ten thousand soldiers. Attempting to break through this or to generate additional tension is now essentially pointless.
Meanwhile, winter has arrived: December night temperatures have already plunged to minus sixteen degrees Celsius in Belarus, and migrants from warmer climates with cheap hiking tents are unprepared for such extreme weather conditions. Water freezes during the night, and must be melted each morning before washing or cooking. The local state media found it increasingly difficult to explain how it could be that women and children were freezing to death in Belarus. As a result, the Belarusian authorities eventually relocated migrants along the borders to unheated—but locked—warehouses. In consequence, Minsk can no longer shirk its responsibilities, or pass them on to its EU neighbours.
Finally, the situation now offers a good opportunity for Lukashenko to back down without losing face, since he has, at least in small part, achieved what he wanted. The outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to him by telephone twice regarding the resolution of the migration crisis, allowing the Belarusian leader to sell a narrative of restoring his own legitimacy both domestically and to Moscow. The first telephone conversation with the German Chancellor was blown up to an extreme degree by the Belarusian state media, for example, and explained the significance of the Belarusian leader talking to Angela Merkel for fifty minutes. The fact that the call was not made to Vladimir Putin or Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was seen as proof that the West is now forced to negotiate with Lukashenko as well, acknowledging his power in the country. Of course, Minsk’s victory was largely symbolic: EU leaders have emphasized that the calls were exclusively Angela Merkel’s own idea and in no way represent the position of the EU. The German Chancellor, meanwhile, who was preparing to step down within a few weeks, had little to lose politically.
Delayed Western Sanctions
Illegal migration was added to the list of sanctionable offences, and on 2 December the EU adopted its fifth package of sanctions against Minsk
With the escalation of the migration crisis, additional sanctions against Belarus became inevitable, but here too the European response has proved very tardy. When the case was finally discussed in mid-November, it turned out that there was no charge on which sanctions could be brought: legal mechanisms had previously allowed sanctions against other countries only in cases such as breaches of the rule of law, repression, or human rights abuses. Organizing illegal migration had not, to date, been among the listed infractions of international law. At last, illegal migration was added to the list of sanctionable offences, and on 2 December the EU adopted its fifth package of sanctions against Minsk since October 2020. It has linked 17 individuals and 11 companies to the migration situation: staff from tourism and air transport companies, and from the Belarusian foreign office and border police.15 Brussels has, to date, sanctioned a total of 183 individuals and 26 companies and organizations since October 2020.16
However, the US, Canadian, and British sanctions announced in August 2021, on the first anniversary of the presidential election, could prove far more damaging to Lukashenko’s regime. The measures adopted on 9 August came into force on 8 December. These target 23 individuals and 21 legal entities.17 The main target of US sanctions is Belaruskali, the most important export company in Belarus, which accounts for about 20 per cent of the world’s potash fertilizer supply.18 The company is responsible for at least 4 per cent of Belarus’s GDP,19 and measures taken against it could affect the country’s economy much more severely than all previous sanctions combined.
The secondary effects could be at least as painful: Belarus does not export much directly to the United States, but after US sanctions, Washington’s partners are thinking twice about cooperating with ‘toxic’ state-owned companies in Belarus, just as has been the case with Iran.20
Minsk Strikes Back
The world did not have to wait long for a response from Belarus. On 7 December, Minsk announced an embargo on a number of agricultural products aimed at countries pursuing ‘discriminatory and unfriendly policies’. Accordingly, from 1 January 2022, Belarus will suspend imports of, among other things, milk and dairy products, meat, sausages, vegetables, and fruit from the territory of the EU, Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Albania, North Macedonia, and Montenegro.21
However, the sanctions imposed by Belarus are more likely to backfire and lead to drastic price increases and shortages. According to state statistics, from January to September 2021, the country needed to import 93 per cent of its fresh fruit, and 87 per cent and 85 per cent of its fish and vegetable oil, respectively.22
However, with the end of the organized migration crisis, another front line is emerging between Lukashenko and his European neighbours: the Belarusian leader appears to be once again resorting to economic blackmail to achieve his goals. In early 2021, Minsk was already trying to punish Vilnius for its policies when Belarus diverted Belarusian transit traffic from Lithuanian ports to Russia. Port traffic accounts for some 18 per cent of Lithuania’s GDP.23 The move has also caused severe economic damage to Belarus, but undoubtedly the impact on Lithuania has been greater.
Another blackmail potential lies in blocking the bilateral trade in goods and transit traffic through Belarus. At the end of November, it slowed down dramatically—freight traffic at the border crossings between Belarus and its EU neighbours virtually came to a halt. International companies such as Coca-Cola, Unilever, Sanofi, Danone, Mars, and others have been involved. There are signs that truck traffic on the Belarusian side has been slowing, resulting in 25-kilometre queues, and waiting times have risen to 80 hours. The situation has only grown worse during December.
On this basis, it appears likely that until EU leaders recognize Lukashenko’s legitimacy, he will try to stymie his EU neighbours on every possible front. In this respect, 2022 may have a number of surprises in store: the establishment of Russian military bases in Belarus, or Minsk’s recognition of the Russian occupation of Crimea, among other possibilities.
1 ‘Lithuania’s Main Problem Now Is Illegal Immigrants from Belarus. A 39-fold Increase!’ (Ллвая проблема Литвы прямо сейчас – нелегальные мигранты из Беларуси. Их стало больше в 39 раз!), Meduza (29 July 2021), https://meduza.io/feature/2021/07/29/glavnaya-problema-litvy-pryamo-seychas-nelegalnye-migranty-iz-belarusi-ih-stalo-bolshe-v-39-raz, accessed 13 December 2021.
2 Oksana Antonenko, ‘Hybrid Aggression: How Migrants Became Weapons in the Conflict between Lukashenko and the West’ (Гибридная агрессия „Как мигранты стали оружием в противосто), Delfi (2 August 2021), www.delfi.lt/ru/news/live/ gibridnaya-agressiya-kak-migranty-stali-oruzhiem-v- protivostoyanii-lukashenko-s-zapadom.d?id=87844113. 3
3 For historical analogies regarding the use of migration as a foreign policy tool, see Éva Eszter Szabó, ‘Migration as a Tool of US Foreign Policy in the Cold War’, Hungarian Review, VIII/3 (May 2017), 75–82, 85, 87, https://hungarianreview.com/article/20170517_migration_as_a_tool_of_us_foreign_policy_in_the_cold_war/.
4 Antonenko, ‘Hybrid Aggression’.
5 ‘Lukashenko Has Announced That Minsk Will Not Protect Europe from Illegal Migrants’ (Лукашенко заявил, что Минск не будет защищать Европу от мигрантов-нелегалов), Interfax (22 June 2021), www.interfax.ru/world/773445, accessed 13 December 2021.
6 ‘Lukashenko Has Announced That Minsk Will Not Protect Europe from Illegal Migrants’, www.interfax.ru/world/773445.
7 ‘Interview by BBC journalist Steve Rosenberg with Alexander Lukashenko’, YouTube (23 November 2021), https://youtu.be/ZdxBOOnVgnY, accessed 13 December 2021.
8 ‘Polish Foreign Minister: Lukashenko Has Provoked the Crisis with Russia’s Help’, Deutsche Welle (20 July 2021), www.dw.com/ru/glava-mid-polshi-lukashenko-sprovociroval-krizis-pri-podderzhke-rf/a-60035806, accessed 13 December 2021.
9 ‘Polish Foreign Minister: Lukashenko Has Provoked the Crisis with Russia’s Help’.
10 Anton Bendarzsevszkij, ‘Relations of Poland and the Baltic States with Belarus: Geopolitical Ambitions, Historical Symbolism and Dynamics of Migration’, Politics in Central Europe, 17/1 (September 2021), https://sciendo.com/pdf/10.2478/pce-2021-0026, accessed 12 December 2021.
11 Bendarzsevszkij, ‘Relations of Poland and the Baltic States with Belarus’.
12 ‘The European Court of Human Rights Has Banned the Expulsion of Migrants to Belarus’ (ЕСПЧ запретил Польше выдворять мигрантов в Беларусь), RFI (20 July 2021), https://bit.ly/3pXTXOo, accessed 13 December 2021.
13 ‘The European Court of Human Rights Has Banned the Expulsion of Migrants to Belarus’.
14 Sergei Romasenko, ‘Poland: 7,000 Migrants Still Want to Enter the European Union’ (Польша:
До 7000 мигрантов по-прежнему надеются проникнуть в ЕС), Deutsche Welle (20 July 2021), www.dw.com/ru/polsha-do-semi-tysjach-migrantov- vse-eshhe-nadejutsja-proniknut-v-es/a-60044231, accessed 13 December 2021.
15 Yuri Seiko, ‘The European Union Has Adopted
Its Fifth Sanctions Package against Belarus’, Deutsche Welle (2 December 2021), www.dw.com/ ru/evrosojuz-vvel-pjatyj-paket-sankcij-v-otnoshenii- belarusi/a-59995455, accessed 12 December 2021.
16 Seiko, ‘The European Union Has Adopted Its Fifth Sanctions Package against Belarus’.
17 ‘How Belarus Is Threatened by Further Sanctions by the United States and Great Britain’ (Евросоюз ввел пятый пакет санкций в отношении Беларуси), RBK (10 August 2021), www.rbc.ru/ economics/10/08/2021/61117a7c9a7947542dfef82e, accessed 12 December 2021.
18 ‘US Sanctions against Belaruskali, One of the World’s Largest Fertilizer Producers, Come into Effect’ (Вступают в силу санкции США, наложенные на одного из крупнейших в мире производителя калийных удобрений Беларуськалий), Echo Moskvi (8 December 2021), https://echo.msk.ru/ news/2948506-echo.html, accessed 12 December 2021.
19 ‘US Sanctions against Belaruskali’.
20 Vladimir Dorohov, ‘What Does Lukashenko Have to Lose? New Sanctions Adopted against Belarus’ (Что потеряет Лукашенко? Против Беларуси ввели новые санкции), Deutsche Welle (20 August 2021), www.dw.com/ru/chto-poterjaet-lukashenko-protiv- belarusi-vveli-novye-sankcii/a-58832933, accessed 12 December 2021.
21 Bogdana Alexandrovskaya, ‘Minsk Has Adopted Counter-sanctions. Why Will This Rebound on Belarus Itself and Not against the West?’ (Минск ввел контрсанкции. Почему от них пострадает не Запад, а сама Беларусь), Deutsche Welle (20 August 2021), www.dw.com/ru/minsk-vvel-kontrsankcii- pochemu-ot-nih-postradaet-sama-rb/a-60060545, accessed 12 December 2021.
22 Alexandrovskaya, ‘Minsk Has Adopted Counter- sanctions’.
23 Dzianis Melyantsou, ‘Belarus’s Relations with the Baltic States: Strategic Economic Links and Pragmatic Foreign Policy Calculations’, The Jamestown Foundation (29 May 2020), https://jamestown.org/ program/belaruss-relations-with-the-baltic-states- strategic-economic-links-and-pragmatic-foreign- policy-calculations/, accessed 22 March 2021.