By Federica Fazio
In recent months, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have seen a surge in the number of refugees trying to illegally enter their countries from Belarus. Since the summer, thousands of migrants, mostly from the Middle East and Asia, have been living in makeshift tent camps at the Belarusian borders hoping to reach one of the three EU member states on their quest for a better life. The situation at the border with Poland is particularly worrisome as, instead of accepting their asylum applications, the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has been pushing asylum-seekers back into Belarus using tear gas and water cannons and is threatening to build a border wall. In response to these events, the European Union and the United States have agreed to renew and widen sanctions against Belarus, accusing its President, Aleksandr Lukashenko, of attempting to destabilise the EU by manufacturing a migrant crisis on the bloc’s eastern flank. His government, backed by Russia, is believed to be using hybrid tactics to attract thousands of people from theMiddle East and push them to attempt to illegally cross the border into the EU. Lukashenko and Putin, however, deny the charge and accuse Brussels of mismanaging yet another refugee crisis and failing to live up to its humanitarian ideals.
On December 10, the Jean Monnet Network on EU Counter-Terrorism (EUCTER) and the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence (VIRTUE) organised a roundtable event to shed light on the current situation at the border between Poland and Belarus and understand whether it should be labelled as a migrant crisis or a hybrid attack. Our distinguished panellists all concluded that it is undoubtedly a hybrid attack.
Our first speaker, Dr Anne Ingemann Johansen, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Southern Denmark, focused on the role that Frontex is (not) playing and what it says about the mandate of this EU Agency. She argued that Poland has been very effective in dealing with the crisis so far and does not seem to need any help from Frontex. However, she pointed out that even if Poland did need further troops, Frontex border guards are not trained for this kind of situation.
In addition, she highlighted the need for improved cooperation between Frontex and EU Common Security and Defence (CSDP) military and civilian missions, arguing that so far no strategic thinking has taken place on how to integrate them.
Our second speaker, Dr András Rácz, a Senior Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), guided the audience through the objectives behind Lukashenko’s fabricated migrant crisis, which, in a tribute to former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s famous “3 Ds” he called “5 Rs”:
- Revenge on Poland and Lithuania (but not Latvia) for supporting the opposition as well as the imposition of sanctions against Belarus;
- Recognition, because the EU and its member states have not recognised him as President of Belarus;
- Revenues, because migrants pay profusely to get shifted to Belarus;
- Redirection of attention from the domestic situation to the situation at the border;
- (Increased) Room for manoeuvre vis-à-vis Russia.
Based on these assumptions, he concluded that has Lukashenko has fundamentally miscalculated.Dr Kamil Zwolski, who is Associate Professor in International Politics at the University of Southampton and Jean Monnet Chair of European Security Governance, was our third speaker and discussed the Polish domestic situation and how the ongoing crisis is benefitting the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. He argued that this kind of crisis would be ideal for any right-wing government as it tends to distract from rule of law, corruption and nepotism-related issues the Polish government as well as other right-wing governments have recently been in the spotlight for.
According to Dr Zwolski, PiS has been greatly strengthened by this crisis. The government has been very effective in protecting Polish borders, so effective that it even refused NATO’s help. In doing so, it reacted the way the public in Poland expected it to coming out as a credible actor.
The construction of a border wall with Belarus, approved by the country’s Parliament in October, is to be completed by the middle of next year and is favoured by 50% of the population, with fewer than 20% opposing it. Therefore, he concluded that, unlike for the Democratic party in the US, in Poland it is basically impossible for the opposition party to criticise PiS’ wall.
Our fourth speaker, Ms Elisabeth Braw, a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, identified the ongoing crisis at the Poland-Belarus border as Lukashenko’s second act of (gray-zone) aggression – the first one took place earlier this year when a plane from Athens to Vilnius was diverted while flying over Belarus airspace and forced to land in Minsk.
According to Ms Braw, this act was meant in fact not only to arrest opposition activists, but also to scare EU travellers at a moment when intra-EU flights were finally resuming following the travel restrictions dictated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
She observed that when it comes to gray-zone aggressions there are no limits to innovation in terms of money and resources. Lukashenko has indeed been very creative so far, therefore we should expect the next form of aggression to be something completely different. Ms Braw concluded by encouraging EU member states and the European Commission to have a protocol in place and convene digitally to react and offer response/retaliation. They should refrain from engaging in individual responses, a mistake they clearly made in the early weeks of the migrant crisis.
Finally, after a brief introduction about the events that led to the imposition of new EU sanctions against Minsk and its unusual retaliation, Dr Ethem Ilbiz, a Marie Curie Senior Research Fellow at the University of South Wales, stated that an event can be labelled as hybrid warfare if the following the conditions are met:
It seeks to achieve a political objective which is not possible with
There is some sort of power asymmetry between the adversaries
It amplifies the capabilities of the weaker actor in the eyes of the adversary
It combines conventional and unconventional warfare methods
It surprising and unpredictable
It exploits the strategic weaknesses of the adversaries
It is conducted through proxy actors
It is deniable.
According to Dr Ilbiz, Belarus’ actions meet all the criteria to be considered
as an hybrid attack:
- There is in fact a strong political motive behind border crisis, namely a retaliation against EU sanctions
- A strong power asymmetry between the EU and Belarus
- The risk that it might escalate tensions in the region
- The weaponisation of migrants: pushing migrants to border is in fact an unconventional method
- Belarus is not the main migration route compared to Turkey or MENA countries
- The EU has border management weaknesses
- The ongoing pushbacks undermine the EU’s normative power
- Lukashenko denies the EU’s allegations.
The event has been recorded and the full recording is available at the
following Link .