Lukashenko’s Failed Gambit

The European Union is facing a crisis on its border with Belarus as migrants, primarily from the Middle East, seek to enter the bloc outside formal crossing points with the help of Belarusian authorities. Near the Kuźnica-Bruzgi crossing point at the Polish border, nearly 4,000 people are living in makeshift camps amid freezing temperatures, as Belarusian security officials reportedly refuse to let migrants who are turned away at the EU border leave the area. Several deaths have been reported along the border in recent days, apparently as a result of hypothermia.

EU officials have accused Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko of “instrumentalizing” migration in retaliation for sanctions imposed on his regime following a violent domestic crackdown on protesters, media workers, and dissidents that began last summer following flawed presidential elections and continues to this day. Videos purportedly showing Belarusian security officials pushing migrants across the border and cutting border fences have been cited as evidence of state involvement—as have reports of state-owned tourist operators enticing migrants to Minsk and testimonies of security officials transporting them to border areas. Lukashenko has denied this but also said he would not take action to prevent migrants from entering the European Union.

The situation has presented a challenge for the European Union as a whole and for the three member states sharing a border with Belarus. The dual nature of Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia’s borders with Belarus means that each of those states is responsible for protecting both their national borders and the eastern edge of the Schengen zone. In the current situation on the Polish-Belarusian border, both Brussels and Warsaw have a stake in its resolution, and Lukashenko may have been counting on a difference in their respective approaches to the crisis­ to undermine cohesion and force the European Union to ease its sanctions on Belarus. Political disagreements over the bloc’s lack of a common asylum policy, which figured after Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian conflict and subsequent refugee crisis of 2015–16, may have served as a template for stoking tensions, and Lukashenko may also have believed that the recent friction between Brussels and Warsaw over Poland’s democratic backsliding made the Polish border more vulnerable to pressure.

Lukashenko’s gambit appears to have backfired. Despite credible concerns raised by human rights groups about a lack of transparency at the Polish border (humanitarian organizations and media are prohibited from accessing the border area, and EU Frontex has not been asked to assist) and reports of “pushbacks” by border guards that potentially violate EU and international law, EU officials have emphasized their solidarity with Poland in managing the crisis. On November 15, the bloc agreed to a fifth round of sanctions that should target 30 Belarusian individuals and entities, including the foreign minister and the state-owned airline Belavia. The European Union has also engaged origin and transit countries to stop the flow of migration. These efforts have shown early success, as Turkey announced last week that it would ban nationals of Iraq, Yemen, and Syria from purchasing tickets and boarding flights to Belarus from its airports. Dubai appears to have followed suit, as have several regional airlines. The Iraqi government has recently announced it would voluntarily repatriate Iraqi migrants by aircraft. Recent phone calls between German chancellor Angela Merkel and Lukashenko, presented by the latter as a diplomatic win, will hardly change Europe’s overall stance toward Belarus or give Lukashenko the concessions he craves.

The United States, United Kingdom, and Canada are expected to introduce restrictive measures bolstering EU sanctions, forming a united front among Euro-Atlantic states in response to the crisis. Previous rounds of sanctions have had some economic impact (particularly sanctions related to the Belarusian potash industry) but failed to induce a change in Lukashenko’s behavior. Lukashenko’s power preservation has pushed Belarus further into Moscow’s embrace, so Western governments should be cautious not to overestimate the impact these measures will have on deterring future provocations—especially if they might lend an advantage to Russia.

Disentangling Russia’s Role in the Crisis

While there is a consensus among policymakers in the Euro-Atlantic community that Lukashenko has sought to use state-sponsored human trafficking to retaliate against Europe, whether Russia was directly involved in orchestrating the situation is not clear. Russian officials have denied having any role in the latest events, but Lukashenko’s near-complete dependence on Moscow to remain in power has led many—including Poland’s prime minister—to conclude that the migration crisis could not have occurred without Putin’s approval.

There is good reason to be skeptical of Moscow’s claim of innocence. Russia was accused of similarly instrumentalizing migration in 2015—encouraging Syrian refugees to cross the Russian border into Norway and Finland—in retaliation for sanctions tied to its annexation of Crimea. Since the crackdown on protests last year, Belarus is nearly fully dependent on Russia for economic, political, and security assistance and is advancing toward the formation of a “union state” with Russia. Russian and Belarusian armed forces are closely integrated, with Moscow expanding its military footprint in Belarus over the past year, and the current situation on the Belarusian border may be in Moscow’s interest as it applies pressure on EU and NATO governments, testing their resolve and response to gray zone threats.

Recently, U.S. officials have expressed concern that the crisis may be part of a broader plan by the Kremlin. Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that Moscow is using the crisis as a distraction while it moves its military forces closer to the Ukrainian border, and U.S. diplomats reportedly have been briefing European allies in recent days about the possibility of a new Russian incursion in Ukraine. Details of this threat assessment are scant due to their classified nature, making it difficult to consider the nexus between the migration crisis and possible military action in Ukraine on its merits.

Whereas Russia’s responsibility for the influx of migrants is unclear, its rhetorical support for Lukashenko throughout the recent events has been unequivocal. On November 10, representatives of Russia and Belarus agreed to a program of coordinated actions in the area of foreign relations that emphasized the need to “counteract growing external pressure and attempts to instrumentalize the global migration crisis provoked by the West.” Recent statements from top Russian officials frame the issue as a humanitarian crisis that the European Union has callously exploited to punish Belarus and even force a regime change in Minsk. Last week, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that the European Union could pay Belarus to discourage would-be migrants from trying to enter the bloc, citing a 2016 deal between Brussels and Ankara. These remarks were likely intended to expose Western “double standards” for disinformation and propaganda purposes, rather than to sincerely attempt to resolve the crisis.

Still, the possibility cannot be excluded that Lukashenko sought to drag Moscow into a crisis that he provoked on his own. Lukashenko has long played Russia and the European Union off one another to secure advantages for Belarus and obtain room to maneuver diplomatically. In this case, Moscow may have been compelled to back Lukashenko retroactively to prevent him from achieving his aim of forcing the European Union to the negotiating table, which would have diminished Russia’s influence over its neighbor. Despite the strengthening ties between Russia and Belarus, Lukashenko is still capable of surprising the Kremlin. When Lukashenko last week threatened to cut off the European Union from supplies of Russian gas through the Yamal-Europe pipeline if it announced new sanctions on Belarus, Russian officials delivered a sharp rebuke, clarifying that Russia had not been consulted on this issue and that Gazprom would fulfill its obligations to customers in Europe. The episode was a reminder that some fissures still exist between Russia and Belarus, but Moscow exerts control over the Belarusian situation when it wishes to do so and when it is necessary to avoid negative implications for Russian interests.

Implications for Russia, Belarus, and the West

Understanding whether Moscow helped to trigger the migration crisis—rather than exploiting it after the fact—may help determine whether sanctions should be expanded beyond the Lukashenko regime. (Notably, the European Union’s latest measures are not expected to punish Russian citizens or entities for their involvement.) However, this distinction is unlikely to affect the broader outcomes of the crisis: the deepening of the Russian-Belarusian alignment in opposition to the West and the further weakening of Lukashenko’s position relative to Moscow. The slow-motion absorption of Belarus by Russia looks increasingly like a fait accompli.

Of course, that vision of the future does not necessarily include Lukashenko, whose erratic behavior reportedly has irked the Kremlin. Russia’s aversion to a democratic transition in Belarus that would put it on a Western trajectory similar to Ukraine means that Lukashenko is their least-bad option in Minsk for the moment, but Russia is undoubtedly looking for ways to stabilize the situation in Belarus through a managed transfer of power to a pro-Kremlin figure. The opaque and ongoing process of constitutional reform in Belarus could allow the Kremlin to achieve that goal by providing Lukashenko a way to escape the political dead end he created for himself. However, Lukashenko may instigate new provocations if he senses danger in the transition, so the Euro-Atlantic community should remain on guard.

Andrew Lohsen is a fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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