The Belarusian Migrant Crisis in Broader Geopolitical Context

The Belarusian Migrant Crisis in Broader Geopolitical Context

By Matthew Thomas in Policy | July 29, 2021

For about the last two months, Lithuania has been in the throes of a migration crisis like it has never seen before. In retaliation to the sanctions placed on his regime following the forced grounding of a passenger airliner to arrest journalist Roman Protasevich, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenka promised to force Europe (and in particular, Lithuania) to deal with drug smuggling and migrant flows on their own. Aside from Lukashenka’s claim to have been stopping migrants and smugglers in the past, the statement gives clear indication of intent to weaponize migration and the flow of contraband. Furthermore, the sheer volume of migrants, the coordinated way in which they are arriving, and the actions/inactions of the Belarusian border guards point to an overt policy whereby Minsk is encouraging illegal migration through Belarus to Lithuania.

Illegal migration poses a number of difficult problems for Lithuania. In this magnitude, it places a great strain on Lithuania’s already limited resources to accommodate the migrants, from manpower to basic necessities such as food. Further, it can be difficult to trace the background of some migrants, especially those from volatile parts of the Middle East. With many of the migrants coming from northern Iraq, a recent hotbed for terrorist activity, there is the potential that violent extremists may be among those compatriots genuinely seeking a better life in Europe. But, above all else, this crisis could ultimately become a humanitarian issue, as migrants risk health and safety to be trafficked into the EU and once there, face a system that is not prepared to accommodate so many people. The bottom line is this: the Lukashenka regime is attempting to apply pressure, if not outright blackmail, the EU and Lithuania in particular by manufacturing a humanitarian crisis, facilitating smuggling, and creating opportunities for propaganda against Lithuania and the West writ-large.

This strategy represents what appears to be Lukashenka’s idiosyncratic approach to hybrid warfare. Hybrid warfare can be loosely defined as the use of often unconventional tactics that fall short of conventional war (i.e., armed conflict), which are often hard to attribute and can fluctuate in intensity according to an actor’s long and short-term goals. It is used for the purpose of achieving political outcomes favorable to an actor in a country (or countries) that said actor deems an adversary. Flooding Lithuania with migrants itself is not an act of war in the traditional sense, but Lukashenka clearly sees himself at war with Lithuania and is weaponizing trafficking to retaliate against Vilnius’ hardline stance against his regime. This has already fed into information warfare as well, as Belarusian state media have published disinformation pieces alleging beatings and other threats of violence against migrants by Lithuanian border guards.

As Lukashenka becomes more and more of a pariah in the West, and draws nearer and nearer to Russia, his tin-pot dictatorship develops greater geopolitical consequence. Already in close cooperation with Moscow in military affairs, Lukashenka is a key ally for Russia in the Baltic neighborhood. Further, as Lukashenka becomes more and more reliant on Moscow to prop up his regime, he will be forced to continue making progress on the realization of the Union State treaty, which will result in greater economic and political integration with Russia. As interests merge and Moscow gains greater control over Minsk, Lukashenka’s Belarus becomes less a roaring mouse and more of a genuine strategic headache.

This brings us beyond the nuts and bolts of stopping the flow of both human and drug trafficking in the broader context of regional security for the Baltics. If Belarus gone rogue is ultimately under Moscow’s thumb, a number of different scenarios must be considered with regard to defending the Baltic States and deterring aggression. Each of these presents a different idea of the underlying motives and likelihood for attack, understanding that Belarusian territory will certainly come into play in both the ground and air domains in the event of conventional conflict.

Under the first strategic framework, the Baltics’ deep integration within NATO and the EU, among other Western institutions, as well as their binding security agreements and the presence of NATO enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battalions in their territories, will prevent Russia from choosing to attack. The consequences are just too high for Russia, and it knows that in the long-haul, it is not a contender to beat NATO, at least on paper. But, the question arises – is it credible? Will NATO really come to the aid of the Baltic states? If so, that may be the beginning of World War III. Are NATO and the West more broadly willing to meet that challenge, or will weak leadership prefer a policy of appeasement?

The second scenario sees Russia adopting an aggressive, opportunistic approach against the Baltics. The U.S. recently gave the Kremlin a major geopolitical gift by removing the sanctions on Nord Stream 2 and allowing the project to move forward to completion. This was done in a short-sighted attempt to placate Berlin and improve U.S.-German relations with complete disregard for American, Ukrainian, or broader European interests. Indeed, Germany gave almost nothing in exchange for the deal. After the United States’ capitulation to Germany and Russia’s whims on Nord Stream 2, it allegedly threatened consequences for bilateral relations with Ukraine if Kyiv complained too loudly. This gives Russia good reason to believe that the West is a paper tiger. As such, Moscow can take advantage of the fact that many of the ongoing improvements to security, whether in terms of personnel, infrastructure, or weapons systems, are incomplete. Given a less than optimal security situation in the Baltics, and appeasement on Nord Stream 2, Russia may well prefer to take a first-strike approach and attempt to escalate the conflict to the point that the West would be blackmailed into backing down. This challenge will test the credibility of NATO – will it back down and give Russia what it wants, or stand together and fight?

Finally, the third option observes an attitude of complacency, if not outright irresponsibility, on the part of Western leadership vis-à-vis the Russian threat. As such, the Kremlin could opt to buy more time to catch the West unawares, or, more likely, to continue wearing down Western resolve through a long game of escalated hybrid warfare. State capture, wherein an actor achieves such a level of control over crucial sectors of the economy that it can corrupt the political elite, is a key element of Russia’s broader hybrid warfare strategy. If Russia can continue to break the West’s resolve and co-opt its leadership (e.g. “Schröderization”), then it faces a much weaker opponent later on down the line, with far less credibility or will to fight.

This brings us back to Belarus. The Lukashenka regime is undoubtedly now rushing headlong into the Kremlin’s fold, and as such, should be viewed in that broader context. Conflict with Belarus ultimately will mean conflict with Russia, and vice-versa. Therefore, the migrant crisis Lithuania faces today is not just the petty vengefulness of a tyrant, nor just a temporary headache for Vilnius to sort out, but a key litmus test for Western leadership. As such, it is important to remember the bigger picture. Strategic thinking at all levels will be necessary to keep focused and improving in order to secure a future for freedom and sovereignty in the Baltics.

Cover Photo: The Belarusian-Lithuanian border. Credit