As world attention focuses upon the worsening engineered migrant crisis along the Polish-Belarusian border, the EU can no longer ignore the impending humanitarian disaster unfolding along its eastern flank. As Polish border services contended with increasingly hostile provocations and a surge of illegal crossings from the Belarusian side last week, the EU and NATO have expressed their full solidarity and support for the bloc’s East-Central European allies.
While the West has unanimously denounced Lukashenko’s criminal regime for its activities in human trafficking and its violation of Poland’s and Lithuania’s borders, it exhibits less consensus in its evaluation of the role of Moscow in planning and facilitating the criminal activities of the Belarusian government. While Germany and France have appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to stabilize the situation, the East-Central European nations directly affected by the crisis assert that the Kremlin is the ultimate provocateur. In a statement made to Polish border guards last week, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki boldly stated, “This attack which Lukashenko is conducting has its mastermind in Moscow, the mastermind is President Putin.” While the Russian government insisted on its neutrality and criticized Morawiecki’s strong words, there are good reasons to believe that the Polish Prime Minister is correct in his accusation.
The dramatic events along the EU’s eastern flank have already been in motion for several months and take place in the context of wider geopolitical maneuvering from Russia. Between 2020 and 2021, the balance of power in East-Central Europe has become increasingly destabilized as Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime has isolated Belarus from the West, inviting a resurgence of Russian influence in the country. As Putin and Lukashenko reopened discussions concerning the “Union State” of Russia and Belarus on the eve of the Zapad 21 military exercises, the EU’s East-Central European members realize that they are now faced with a joint security space shared between Minsk and Moscow which grants the Kremlin a western base of operations. The situation of Ukraine, which does not possess either NATO or EU membership, has become particularly precarious as Russia builds its military presence along its eastern border. The current crisis also takes place in the backdrop of increased Russian leverage over European politics as its successful completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline grants Moscow undisputed control over Europe’s energy supply.
How does the current migrant crisis along the Polish-Belarusian border fit into this broader picture?
Divide and Conquer
A key feature of Moscow’s foreign policy is the exploitation of divisions to sow discord between its potential adversaries. State-funded Russian propaganda has devoted much energy to discrediting the West, while behind the scene, the Kremlin takes a more active role in encouraging polarization within rival states. There should be no delusion that the ideological posturing of Putin is genuine, as Moscow’s geopolitical interest firmly informs his actions. According to Ukrainian historian Sergei Plokhy, the Kremlin exploits “divisions in Western societies, including those between their liberal cores and far-left and far-right fringes.” This strategy allows Moscow to consolidate its influence in Eurasia and distract and weaken international response to its revanchist foreign policy.
The crisis along the EU’s border with Belarus provides the Kremlin with ample material for disinformation and propaganda as it seeks to blame Europe, particularly Poland, for the plight of the migrants along its border. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made a direct jab at European protests last week when he asserted that “it is apparent that a humanitarian catastrophe is looming against the background of Europeans’ reluctance to demonstrate commitment to their European values.” By exploiting the tension between the necessity to protect the EU’s eastern border and the tragic plight of the migrants stuck along the frontier, Moscow aims to stoke political debate within Western countries and destabilize Europe. The international controversy that the current crisis has ignited testifies to the effectiveness of this strategy.
Even more importantly, the border crisis has the potential to widen divisions between EU countries on a broader geopolitical scale. Tensions between the bloc’s East-Central European and Western European members have been building for years, with Germany’s role of facilitating the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline causing strong protests from Poland and the Baltic states. While the EU has acted rightly in expressing its solidarity with Poland, some Polish politicians are worried that recent German and French appeals to Putin to act as a mediator in the crisis may give rise to a disadvantageous settlement to the East-Central European region. By dismissing the protests of Poland and other nations in the region while engaging in talks with Merkel and Macron, Putin communicates that the interests of East-Central Europe are secondary to international agreements.
Absorption of Belarus and Threat to Ukraine
Another cornerstone of Moscow’s global strategy is retaining its influence over the territories of the ex-Soviet Union, particularly the east Slavic nations of Belarus and Ukraine. Since Russia annexed Crimea and supported separatist forces in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin has been increasingly open in its goals to reassemble the torn shards of its empire. On a broader geopolitical scale, Moscow has sought to stamp out pro-western movements in Kyiv and Minsk and thwart the eastward expansion of NATO and the EU, a prospect that the Kremlin views as an existential threat.
Since he was elected President of Belarus in 1994, Aleksandr Lukashenko has generally pursued a pro-Russian foreign policy. Nevertheless, the Belarusian dictator’s close ties with Moscow had started to show signs of severe strain in recent years. As the Kremlin’s posturing became more evident in the aftermath of Russian interference in Ukraine, Lukashenko came to view Putin as a threat to his hold on power. Belarus accelerated dialogue with the EU and sought to balance the influence of Moscow and the West. Tensions reached an unprecedented height in early 2020 when Lukashenko arrested 33 Russian military contractors and accused Putin of planning an armed coup to remove him from power.
After the rigged 2020 Presidential elections caused an unforeseen uproar among the Belarusian people who bravely protested against the corruption of his regime, Lukashenko found himself increasingly isolated as Western governments refused to recognize his legitimacy in response to his brutal repression of dissidents. With his monopoly of power threatened, Lukashenko returned to the embrace of the Kremlin and adopted a fierce anti-western foreign policy. The integration of Belarus with Russia was most notably visible in this September’s Zapad 21 military exercises between the two countries. On the eve of the exercises, Lukashenko stated his support for the “Union State”, asserting that “should we need a closer integration still – be it military, political, economic – we will do that instantly, as soon as we feel the demand from our people, in Belarus and Russia.”
The building migrant crisis only serves to further Putin’s goals of absorbing Belarus. While Lukashenko’s nominal independence allows Moscow to apply pressure on the West without taking direct responsibility, it also presents an opportunity for the Kremlin to assert its influence over the country by intervening to “restore order.” The head of Poland’s Presidential International Policy Bureau Jakub Kumoch has expressed concern that Western appeals to Putin to act as a mediator in the conflict can have unexpected negative consequences as it may grant Putin an opportunity to accelerate his union goals. Such a development would pose an existential threat for the eastern members of the EU, including Poland and the Baltic states.
Heightened attention towards the Polish-Belarusian border may also serve as a smokescreen to shield the Kremlin’s actions elsewhere, particularly along its border with Ukraine. With Russian troops having gathered near Ukraine’s border earlier this year and Ukrainian security undermined by the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Kyiv is very vulnerable to Kremlin aggression. Last week Russian troops began to reassemble along the border with Ukraine, causing many to believe Putin may make another land grab in the region.
The Primakov Doctrine: A Game of Cat and Mouse
The EU and NATO have accused Belarus of waging a hybrid war against Poland and the Baltic states. While Belarusian security forces have been engaged in forcing migrants over the Polish border, Putin’s assertion that he is not behind the manufactured crisis is absurd when seen in the light of recent events. Everything about the current situation points to Russian involvement. It corresponds with the Kremlin’s Primakov doctrine, which outlines a plan to undermine global American hegemony and the reassertion of Moscow’s influence over East-Central Europe.
The Primakov doctrine envisions a new world order in which the unipolar hegemony of the United States is undermined in place of multi-polar power arrangements. While recognizing Russia’s limitations in a direct encounter with the West, the strategy involves the utilization of hybrid warfare and diverse economic, political, and military pressures to weaken the resolve of the West and dissolve multi-lateral organizations. Hybrid warfare operations are closely linked with military operations and allow the Kremlin to target its opponents without risking open conflict.
The current crisis is a perfect example of the Russian game in action. By forcing migrants towards the EU’s eastern border, the Kremlin can destabilize the bloc, assert its dominance over Belarus, and distract the West from its movements elsewhere. The Kremlin can easily excuse itself from taking direct responsibility by orchestrating events in a nominally independent country. This is the perfect example of how Moscow applies selective pressure on its Western rivals to extend its influence in the post-Soviet space. The fears of Poland, Lithuania, and other East-Central European states are therefore entirely justified.