By Grant Turner
In response to sanctions and a long-running view that Russia (and increasingly Belarus) are literally at war with the “West,” Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko and his only “friend” Russian dictator Vladimir Putin have recently upped their hybrid warfare game.
Belarus, likely with Russia’s direct or tacit support, has done so by promising desperate peoples from war-torn countries in the Middle East jobs in the EU. Minsk has flown in somewhere around 20,000 migrants, trapping at least 4,000 at the border between armed Belarussian and Polish forces.
This began in June 2021 and significantly escalated on November 16 as the starving, thirsty, and freezing men, women and children became increasingly desperate. Some began throwing rocks and using Belarussian-provided wire cutters on the border fence with Poland. Polish authorities responded with riot control measures, such as tear gas.
What happens if shots are fired? This is not as far-fetched as it sounds, as it may have already happened on October 8 when Poland claimed Belarussian troops fired at theirs; Poland concluded publicly that it was likely blanks and Belarus denied any such event.
What happens when there is no doubt or deniability though, whether fired by those trapped or by soldiers themselves?
Desperate people with infants and grandmothers are trapped at the Belarus-Poland border. They have no shelter as winter sets in, no water, no food, no medicine, and no proper means of sewage or sanitation. They have little fuel to burn and lack adequate clothing and blankets to keep warm.
They are not allowed to go back to Belarus or forward to the EU. Such desperation can deteriorate rapidly, and that is exactly what Russia and Belarus want. On November 16, some of those trapped threw rocks at the Polish guards, resulting in at least one being injured.
A shooting is a scenario that must be taken seriously. It could happen one of two ways. First, someone on the Belarussian side could provide one of the trapped, freshly traumatized and outraged migrants a gun and let them do what they will. Second, an agent provocateur could infiltrate a migrant camp to gesture threateningly or pull the trigger themselves.
However a shot is fired, one of two things will happen next. Either restraint is shown and the media feeds into a “dangerous migrants” narrative (which in turn fuels the far-right), or Poland’s border guards fire into an almost entirely unarmed crowd that includes women and children.
In this latter scenario, whatever moral high ground or sympathy the EU has is gravely damaged, if not lost entirely. Belarus and Russia can claim the high ground – after all, they were just trying to help these poor people reach their dreams of freedom and prosperity.
Even worse, Belarusian forces are right behind the migrants and will then have to decide whether they are being fired upon and if they should return fire, either in defense of themselves or in defense of the migrants.
This would provide a perfect justification for Russia to use the close to 100,000 it has been amassing along its borders with Ukraine, and perhaps elsewhere, such as the Baltics, around which it has been war-gaming with Belarus. This raises a nearly endless series of troublesome questions.
How many terrorists will be made that day? How many will carry out successful attacks? Most of those trapped at the border are Iraqi Kurds, a people who have already been repeatedly betrayed by the West in spite of their staunch resolve to support Western interests with their lives – will this abuse be the final straw for a key ally?
How would the peoples and governments of Iraq and countries with citizens trapped, such as Afghanistan, react? How would the peoples and governments of the world react?
Would a skirmish between Belarus and Poland trigger a NATO response under Article V? Would Russia also be held responsible in such a scenario? Would Russia use its nuclear bombers to roll back an attack on Belarus? Would tactical nuclear weapons and thus limited nuclear war be normalized?
If NATO doesn’t invoke Article V, does that mean NATO is done for? How would Ukraine, which relies on NATO but is not a member, interpret all of this? What about the Baltic NATO members? Between Trump’s demoralization of NATO and further destruction of the US image abroad, NATO’s own internal threats, and the mixed perceptions after the Trump–Biden–NATO Afghanistan debacle, how would Western moral and military credibility fare? In either case, how would domestic EU and US politics fare?
How would China spin such an event? Would it simply amp up its propaganda? Would it work with Russia to cut off both trade and energy as winter sets in? Would it coordinate with Russia so that while Russia takes or threatens military action in Europe, China can attempt to take Taiwan?
While some of these questions may be overreaction, these are the exact kinds of conundrums agitators like to induce. Russia and Belarus regularly make use of such tactics, and in fact such tactics are essential to hybrid warfare.
The EU is attempting to negotiate with Russia and Belarus to end the crisis that the latter two have manufactured and the EU all too easily and predictably fed into.
After making sure it is prepared for the worst case scenarios outlined above, Poland and the EU’s first priority should be (and should have been) the provision of food, water, shelter, and medicine for the migrants.
The next move should be sorting through who should be repatriated and who should be granted asylum or work visas. Third, efforts to improve domestic conditions in the countries these people are fleeing must continue while avoiding the pitfalls of corruption and inefficacy.
Some of this is in the works; especially now that the EU has radically undermined itself and lost the moral high ground on international television (in spite of hypocritical moves such as barring press and humanitarian workers from observing, let alone helping).
Military action in Ukraine may still occur, but either way, Russia has succeeded in showing the world and the EU that it can still threaten to tear apart the foundation of the EU and NATO without firing a shot.
Worse, even if Russia might not be directly responsible for Belarus’s actions, Putin gets to play good cop while Lukashenko plays bad cop. If the EU takes in this wave of migrants, Belarus and Russia will continue flying in tens of thousands more, perhaps until the EU completely undoes itself legally and morally.
If the EU continues to treat those at the border inhumanely, they undo themselves anyway, as they have steadily been doing for years. Either way, Putin and Lukashenko will certainly gain some sort of concessions while achieving major hybrid warfare victory in the name of the illiberal order.
In this context, the questions become: what concessions will be made, and what happens the next time this tactic is used?
As of Nov 22nd, Belarus took some of the migrants into shelter before repatriating them. In doing so, Belarus was able to appear as the more humane of the two states, in spite of having caused the situation. This experience has left lasting impressions on the victims of the charade and on those who watched around the world, negatively impacting the EU.
Meanwhile, there are still large numbers of migrants trapped on the border watching loved ones edge closer and closer to death, with at least 10 having died while attempting to cross the border to freedom.
Additionally, the EU has put some sanctions in place on Belarus while also making some concessions for the sake of de-escalation, including a large supposed “aid payment” ahead of talks.
However, leaders in Poland and the Baltic states fear that armed conflict may break out as Russia increases its military build-up along the border with Ukraine, in Kaliningrad (which borders Poland and Lithuania), and in Belarus itself.
This will not be the last time the EU or the world experiences this hybrid tactic. Without prudent preparation and restraint, the next time may have catastrophic strategic consequences.
Grant W. Turner is a regular writer for the Review. He has an M.A. in Educational Studies with a focus on social change via participatory action research, and a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies focusing largely on topics relating to international relations, both from the University of Cincinnati.