Thousands of migrants from the Middle East are trapped at Belarus’ western border, blocked from crossing into Poland by Polish border guards and prevented from turning back by Belarusian security forces. This week, CBS News reported that Polish forces are using water cannons and tear gas to keep migrants from getting through. Deaths have been reported, and a humanitarian disaster looms as winter approaches.
Analysts say that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is directing the migrants to the border region to pressure the European Union to lift sanctions on his regime. Another possible motivation is retaliation for Poland’s support of democratic changes in Belarus. Thus, the migrants are pawns in a double game.
Lukashenko’s creation of a migrant crisis is the type of hybrid attack in which Russian President Vladimir Putin specializes. In hybrid warfare—a combination of conventional and political warfare—a country employs tactics that give it plausible deniability. Poland, recently estranged from the EU, is politically isolated and therefore a ripe target for Belarus.
It all started rather innocuously. In August 2020, shortly after the Belarusian presidential election, the media reported that a small group of about 30 people from Afghanistan was trapped in the “no-man’s land” between Belarus and Poland. Initially the situation drew more curiosity than concern; the media was more focused on the election and its fallout.
A year earlier, Lukashenko had won his sixth term as president with a miraculous 80% of the vote, extending his 27-year rule. This time, however, a significant number of Belarusian citizens expressed their displeasure. The autumn of 2020 saw a lot of turbulance and street demonstrations, not just in Minsk but in rural regions, where Lukashenko has traditionally had more support.
The scale of civil disobedience was unprecedented, and Lukashenko reacted with vigorous and equally unprecedented violence against the protesters. A lot of people were arrested and many reportedly tortured; the suspected leaders of the opposition were sentenced to years in prison. Lukashenko was seriously concerned about the country breaking up in front of him and turned to his old friend Putin for assistance.
Meanwhile, Poland supported democratic changes and the anti-Lukashenko movement in Belarus—for example, broadcasting Belarusian-language programs calling for “real democracy.” This also irritated Putin, for whom Belarus is like a “wayward daughter.” Putin has evidently been trying to recreate a new sort of Soviet Union, which would include Ukraine and Belarus. He is no happier with democratic changes in Belarus than he is with those in Ukraine, or for that matter in the Baltic States that have joined NATO and the EU.
Tensions increased in May 2021, when Ryanair Flight 4978, registered in Poland and flying from Athens to Vilnius, was intercepted by a Belarusian MiG-29 and forced to land in Minsk. Belarusian officials arrested Roman Protasevich, an anti-Lukashenko activist living in exile in Lithuania. He was later released from prison but has recently disappeared under unclear circumstances.
The forced landing of a passenger plane was commonly recognized as a clear act of air piracy, and sanctions against Belarus increased, including the banning of flights by Belarus’ Belavia airline in all EU countries. Thus, Lukashenko has a bone to pick with the EU and with Poland in particular, and Middle Eastern migrants have proven to be an effective weapon at hand.
Poland’s Isolation Makes It a Target
The problem for Poland is that it is not exactly popular with its European partners right now. Since 2015, Poland has been governed by the Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS) party (the Law and Justice party), which in our opinion actually does not show much respect to either law or justice. The party started to dismantle democratic institutions and to rule the country in authoritarian ways. It is not an easy process since the Polish people have much appreciation for freedom and independence.
Yet, pursuant to its winner-take-all philosophy, the PiS party attempted to install its own people in virtually every state institution, including those that theoretically should remain apolitical and independent. For example, the party gained control over the Constitutional Tribunal, the court that assesses the compliance of laws with the constitution. Control of this body enables the ruling party to cancel inconvenient laws without engaging in the legislative process.
PiS’ actions have met with strong resistance in the justice system, with opposition lawyers appealing to EU courts. Other EU institutions also look unfavorably on the actions of the ruling party, which is seen as anti-immigrant and anti-LGBT rights; it also seems prone to creating economic conflicts with some of its neighbors, such as the Czech Republic. Poland is now a black sheep among EU countries, together with Hungary, which also has drifted toward a more authoritarian regime.
These conflicts with almost the entire EU do nothing to strengthen Poland’s international position. At the same time, the U.S. Congress has taken notice of vanishing democracy in Poland, raising questions about whether American forces should continue to be based there. This is an extremely dangerous possibility since any withdrawal of U.S. troops from Poland would be a clear invitation for Russia to act even more decisively.
A Propitious Moment for Russia and Belarus
In Russia and Belarus’ ideal world, they would have waited to make their move until the populist PiS government had managed to take Poland out of the EU. However, Lukashenko did not want to wait any longer. Since last spring, his administration has developed and implemented a bold plan to attract people from the Middle East—mainly Iraq, Syria and other Arab states, as well as Kurds and Afghan refugees—to funnel them through Belarus into Western Europe, where they can start a new, much better life. Belarus facilitated this plan with easy visas and flights. Many people have come, convinced that they would easily be able to get from Belarus to Poland, and from there to anywhere in Western Europe.
During September and October, migrants made thousands of attempts to cross the border illegally, with the indifference or even assistance of Belarusian border guards. Many of those attempts were repelled by Polish border guards, and as efforts escalated, Poland rushed reinforcements to its Belarusian border along with special police and army units. Martial law was declared in the region.
Migrants who have not been able to cross the border, including women and children, have been pushed back into the no-man’s land of cold forests with no facilities or resources. Some of those who initially managed to evade detection and crossed into Poland have been collected and brought back to the Belarusian border by Polish guards. Polish officials maintain that these migrants have been “delivered back to border line” because they failed to ask for asylum in Poland, claiming that they wanted to get to Germany or other Western countries.
The EU has reacted in mixed ways. Above all, nobody wants another immigrant crisis, and they are thankful to Poland for protecting the EU border with such energy and credibility. But numerous European politicians are concerned about the pushback policy, especially when women and children are involved, since for many of them the policy might equal a death sentence. The bodies of some Syrians and Iraqis have been found near the border.
At the same time, EU officials have wondered why Poland has not asked for assistance from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, commonly known as Frontex, which is headquartered in Warsaw. The presence of Frontex would make the conflict more international in scope, but at the same time, it would report what is really going on at the border, something the PiS may not want done. Also, perhaps the populist government doesn’t want to be seen asking for assistance from international bodies it regularly criticizes.
From Bad to Worse
Meanwhile, the situation on the Poland-Belarus border is getting worse. Polish forces have built provisional obstacles in the form of concertina wire fencing, but it seems that the barrier is far from impregnable. The incursions continue and fence damage happens on a daily basis. Poland has engaged a large number of soldiers and equipment to stem the border tide, so the Belarusians have changed their tactics. Instead of a covert incursion, they are organizing massed rushes of hundreds of migrants to force a break in the fence.
Migrants are carried to the border by Belarusian buses and military trucks and assisted by soldiers, who provide them with wire cutters and other equipment. The Polish soldiers and border guards use various nonlethal means to stop them, including tear gas and water cannons. The situation is so tense that any shooting at the border could quickly spiral out of control.
The Belarusian military is becoming more aggressive, shooting in the air or aiming rifles at Polish forces. They use strong strobe lights and green laser pointers, which might be dangerous to the eyes, to blind Polish guards. They encourage the immigrants to throw stones at Polish soldiers and vehicles across the border. Lukashenko has even suggested he might arm the migrants to enable them to force their way into Poland.
The whole situation has caused Poland to deploy considerable military forces, even some armored vehicles. This in turn has triggered accusations by both Lukashenko and Putin that Poland is preparing for invasive military action against Belarus, so Russian reinforcement is necessary. Russian Su-34 bombers are flying near the border region, and Russia has declared it will react swiftly to any Polish aggression against Belarus.
This is exactly the pattern of hybrid warfare—escalating to just before the point of shooting—that Russia has perfected in its campaign to conquer Ukraine slice by slice. It remains a potent strategy for undermining an enemy, particularly one that is unstable or diplomatically isolated.
Good Neighbors Make Good Fences
In the past week, the Polish government has finally and reluctantly turned to the EU Commission and the NATO Council for help. Despite Poland’s recent hostile attitude toward the EU, all European countries, as well as President Biden, have declared their willingness to help and to do whatever is possible to stop the crisis.
All of these powers have much more influence and tools than Poland alone to stop the illegal injection of migrants into Poland by Belarusian authorities. The U.S. and the EU are vitally interested in stopping the wave of immigrants from coming into the Schengen Area. All want to avoid any armed conflict with Belarus or Russia. Reuters reported that German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, “We will toughen sanctions on individuals who are involved in this human trafficking, and we will have to talk about the fact that severe economic sanctions are inevitable.”
The North Atlantic Council strongly condemns the continued instrumentalisation of irregular migration artificially created by Belarus as part of hybrid actions targeted against Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia for political purposes.
These callous actions endanger the lives of vulnerable people. NATO Allies stand in solidarity with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and other Allied nations affected, and support measures, guided by fundamental values and applicable international law, taken by Allies individually and collectively, in response to a situation that requires close coordination with key international partners.
All this means that now the conflict has become international, despite the initial will of the Polish government to handle it by itself. This underscores that the best defense against hybrid warfare is to have lots of friends.