Manufactured migration crisis a potent weapon for EU’s enemies
Events on the borders between Belarus and Poland, Lithuania and Estonia in northeastern Europe could lead to the area becoming the latest arena for settling scores between Europe and the Western world on the one side and Vladimir Putin’s Russia and his Belarussian protege President Alexander Lukashenko on the other. The increasing weaponization of refugees as a means to blackmail, pressure, deflect or destabilize neighboring countries is an old tool for the likes of Bashar Assad of Syria, who uses refugees in his efforts to gain the upper hand and call for financial, political or geostrategic concessions.
The situation has led the UK’s chief of the defense staff to issue a warning that conditions on the Polish-Belarusian border have raised the risks of an accidental conflict with Russia. Gen. Nick Carter described Minsk’s attempts to push migrants on to EU borders as an effort “to try and destabilize the region.” Speaking at the weekend, Carter said “this is a classic sort of hybrid playbook where you link disinformation to destabilization and the idea of pushing migrants on to EU borders is a classic example.” He warned that it could become a “shooting war” and urged NATO and the EU to be ready.
The 27-member EU this week imposed a fifth set of sanctions on Belarus. It had previously imposed sanctions due to the disputed elections of August last year, which saw Lukashenko return to office for a fifth term and subsequently launch a crackdown against the peaceful protesters who complained that the vote was rigged. In addition, the authoritarian regime of Lukashenko was sanctioned for diverting a civilian Ryanair passenger plane to Minsk on terror pretenses, only to arrest an opposition journalist and his girlfriend who were on board.
Though the EU believes that the Minsk regime will only respond to sanctions pressure, Brussels risks using all the weapons in its armory to little effect, especially if the stalemate on the border endures and public opinion slowly turns against “inhumane EU practices.” The number of refugees on the EU’s borders is currently in the hundreds, but this could multiply with the help of the Belarusian authorities.
The world has not forgotten the Syrian refugees’ march toward Europe in 2015. This may not have been just the purely instinctive behavior of a dispossessed people, as Turkey has been accused of encouraging the refugees’ flight across the Aegean to Greece, the EU’s southeastern gate, after it took in more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees in 2014.
The same tactic might also have been used by the Assad regime when the popular uprising against it spread across the country and Damascus’ best tactic was to barrel bomb its own people, driving nearly half of them out of their homes.
Europe cannot afford to be seen as lenient toward refugees forcing their way into its territory, whether aided or not by traffickers or a rogue state.
Though many airlines in the region seem to be complying with EU warnings and have suspended direct flights to Minsk, evidence shows that Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis, Afghans and Iranians hoping to make it to the West have started to fly to the Belarusian capital via Moscow. Even if the Kremlin decides to put a stop to their transit through its territory, they might seek to travel through other, even more distant, countries.
Lukashenko, meanwhile, does not seem discouraged by the tightened EU sanctions, especially while the Russian leadership supports him. Putin has denied claims that his country helped orchestrate the situation, instead blaming Western policies in the Middle East for creating the migrant crisis in the first place. But when Lukashenko threatened to disrupt gas supplies to Europe, the Kremlin was quick to claim that Minsk was not coordinating with Moscow — a sign that Russia wants this situation to stay within the confines of a distraction and not reach the level of destruction.
The issue of migrants or refugees on the EU’s borders is not likely to fade away soon and could be considered a brewing low-intensity crisis, but one that could escalate at any time. Europe cannot afford to be seen as lenient toward refugees forcing their way into its territory, whether aided or not by traffickers or a rogue state.
A repeat of the 2015 Syrian refugees crisis could further shake the foundations of the EU. One should not forget that, though the UK’s exit from the bloc was not triggered by the waves of migrants reaching Southern Europe by sea in 2015, the issue of immigration generally was a core reason why 52 percent of the British people favored Brexit. The crisis also saw the born-again radical right flourish in many EU countries, particularly Hungary, with Budapest and other capitals opposing Brussels’ plans to implement a common policy for all member states to equally absorb the newcomers.
Images of migrants stuck in a no man’s land day in, day out will stir feelings in any democratic country that still abides by humanitarian laws. Europe and its intensified sanctions regime could be rendered ineffective if pictures of frozen, innocent migrants continue to be seen in the West as winter sets in on the Polish-Belarusian border. Europe is in a dire situation, at the mercy of an old playbook that weaponizes migration as a tool of violent diplomacy.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years of experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.