Border pains: A set play by Belarus

While obvious, failure to do so would give Lukashenko further ammunition to tar foreign opponents. There have been signs that illegal migrants have been transported to Belarus since September.  
Belarus is using the crisis as a petri dish to see what kind of price they can exact. One area that could be addressed immediately is the creation of an effective hybrid early warning system (EWS) and alarm protocol. style=”font-size:40px; line-height: 1.3em; font-weight: 800; padding:7px;”>Border pains: A set play by Belarus

By Roger Hilton
Defense and Security Fellow, GLOBSEC

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Desperate migrants sandwiched between the Belarussian-Polish border is a nasty quagmire. To date, the EU has exclusively relied on a cocktail of targeted economic sanctions as well as travel and landing bans to punish the Belarussian regime. They will prove especially important given the upcoming release of the EU Strategic Compass and NATO Strategic Concept. For this, the logical instrument to deploy is cyber weapons due to their broad nature. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery; it is time for a set Western hybrid play. In turn, Warsaw and other concerned parties are forced to engage with the pariah Belarussian president. Combined, they have significantly increased the long-term prospects of his presidency. This approach can also be employed by NATO and the EU, within reason. While solidarity is always welcomed, there is no conceivable military solution to the crisis that does raise the risk of spiralling into a wider conflict. Credit where credit is due to Russia, who wrote the foreword of the playbook in 2016 by driving Syrian migrants to Turkey and later into Europe.  
Moving forward, whether it is this crisis or the next, the standard quo is no longer palatable. While unthinkable, the time has arrived to consider deploying select ransom wear attacks at Belarus’ regime. Each passing day of the crisis solidifies Lukashenko’s domestic standing and removes any modicum left to resist. The use of this non-kinetic weaponry to disrupt the electricity and utilities of Belarussian government buildings, or even cripple computer or telecom networks, are viable targets that inflict damage at no cost to citizens. As the crisis remains in a sweet spot and well managed by Minsk, it seems illogical that Lukashenko would hope for it to spill over to a more dangerous level. With threats to both EU and NATO borders at the center of the situation, an air of anxiety and atrophy has plagued Brussels’ decision-makers throughout this crisis. Foreign media is squarely focused on border security with dwindling mentions of the domestic political situation. The decision by Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko to bring migrants from the Middle East to the borders of Poland and Lithuania is a brilliant set play out of an ever-growing hybrid playbook that serves to advance both the domestic and external interests of similar dictators like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both Warsaw and Vilnius have considered invoking Article 4 of the NATO charter. At home, despite a rocky summer of revolt in 2020 calling for his exodus, a wave of violent repression, including an air jacking, and dissident exhaustion has weathered the storm. Despite the steep learning curve, the crisis is an opportunity to learn and improve their hybrid warfare responses. Given the unusual volume, and complicated travel logistics, alarm bells at NATO and the EU should have been ringing. For all intents and purposes, it has zapped the momentum of protestors, who have been outmuscled by humanitarian media shots. A subservient place Lukashenko wishes to avoid like the plague or democracy. If the West has learned anything recently, it is that weakness invites further aggression. They then should have taken preventative measures to coordinate with host countries to remove the landing rights of Belarussian, Turkish, Iraqi and Russian air carriers to blunt the influx of migrants from the Middle East. The current Belarusian design has split the West, increased Lukashenko’s legitimacy and provided the Kremlin with more propaganda by painting the EU as a hypocritical organization. Abroad, the appalling domestic clampdown resulted in economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation, leaving no outlet except Putin. They should have the foresight to understand that today its planes, tomorrow could be cruise ships. Consequently, through his migrant crisis, Lukashenko has unshackled himself from both predicaments. Any new data derived from these tactics can sharpen the EU’s Strategic Compass and NATO’s Strategic Concept to ensure they are hybrid match ready. This would be a formal request for consultations with other members of the alliance if one member feels its territorial integrity, political independence or security are threatened. In recent days, there has been a lot of saber-rattling from Minsk that has included snap Belarussian-Russian paratrooper exercises, and the UK sending military advisors to Poland. It is also an impressively manufactured crisis. Given the plausible deniability of attackers, it offers the perfect cover to use them as a proportional response as Lukashenko escalates the border mess. His counterpart in the Kremlin has declared active dialogue with Lukashenko as a prerequisite to end the situation. Given the likelihood of poor outcomes at the border, now is the time to test and gather original data. Any EWS must be adaptable to include all possibilities. Although the current situation is unenviable and heartbreaking, it provides a sober preview of the future conflict landscape that both organizations will have to learn to address. Although it is important to show EU citizens, and the wider international community, that the policymakers are acting, there is a limit to their ability to change Belarus’ behavior. Outside of this default position, NATO and the EU must consider raising the stakes through controlled escalation. Middle East migrants just didn’t get to Europe without help. Events have developed to the point where the deployment of this hybrid play can be, and is, stunningly successful. Contemplating new countermeasures must ensure that punishment or disruption impacts the regime not its denizens. As the border debacle unfolds, mistakes in policy selection and moral judgement will be made. Although changing the scope of response using Western infused hybrid tactics will be a messy proposition, and not universally endorsed, it is a necessity. Moreover, if the EU Commission reports are true, he has replenished his state coffers with migrants paying up to €10,000 for passage to Europe.