The Poland-Belarus border clashes: migrant crisis or hybrid attack?

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
conventional methods

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 .

EUCTER is a research-led excellence network, comprising fourteen partners, with the aim of advancing cutting-edge blended learning formats with a strong policy relevance in the area of the EU Counter-Terrorism. The project brings together three inter-related teaching and research areas: EU justice and home affairs, EU counter-terrorism and EU external relations.

The network is led by the International Centre for Policing and Security – University of South Wales includes the University of the West of England Bristol and Cardiff University in the UK, Dublin City University in Ireland, the University of Augsburg in Germany, the Egmont Institute in Belgium, the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, the University of Pisa in Italy, CIDOB Barcelona and the University of Deusto Bilbao in Spain, the University of Iasi in Romania, Prague Metropolitan University in the Czech Republic, the IDC Herzliya in Israel and the University of Jendouba in Tunisia.

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The theme for the 14th of June is:  Changing Landscapes in the European Area of Freedom, Security and Justice.

This conference aims to examine how the European Union Area of Freedom, Security and Justice (AFSJ) is adapting to the evolving security landscape and how it has been responding to the different challenges and crises triggered by a different set of events after the Lisbon Treaty. Namely, it seeks to critically examine and debate:

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  • The New Counter-Terrorism Agenda and Border Technologies (data privacy, human rights)
  • The European Arrest Warrant and the challenges of National Sovereignty of Mutual Recognition in the AFSJ
  • Digitalisation, Privacy and Surveillance at the AFSJ
  • Changing landscapes on Schengen after so-called migration crisis and Covid-19
  • Interoperability of EU Information Systems
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  • The New Pact For Migration and Asylum
  • Changing dynamics at the AFSJ after Brexit (intelligence cooperation, EU Criminal Law)
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EUCTER – Terrorism in a Changing Landscape

What has changed in the current security landscape? How is terrorism evolving?

The II Virtual EUCTER conference aims to continue to explore the main challenges posed by terrorism at EU and International level. This conference seeks to explore how terrorism is adapting to a changing landscape and to map the current research at resilience, financing, radicalisation and gender level.

EUHYBRID – Hybrid Threats and Hybrid Warfare

What is hybrid warfare? What makes a threat hybrid?

This conference aims to debate the latest research on hybrid threats and hybrid warfare, and to examine the EU policy advances in this area. It aims to examine complexity, non-linearity and challenge some contested concepts, and to understand how memory and identity have been cornerstones of the latest development at the Eastern Neighbourhood. Considering the heightening, acceleration and rapid technological change, this conference aspires, as well, to foster the research-policy interface and examine how EU and NATO have been responding to the challenge of proxy wars, cyber-threats, cyber-intelligence, and cyber terrorism.

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