Dispatch

Russia and Belarus Are Using Migrants as a Weapon Against the EU

Authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Minsk are aiding Iraqis and Afghans in order to sow chaos and domestic discord in Eastern European countries.

Polish soldiers construct a barbed-wire fence on the border with Belarus
Polish soldiers construct a barbed-wire fence on the border with Belarus in the village of Nomiki, Poland, on Aug. 26. Tomasz Grzywaczewski for Foreign Policy

USNARZ GORNY, Poland—The Polish village of Usnarz Gorny lies in the picturesque region of Podlasie, dotted with gentle hills, in the northeastern part of the country. From the perspective of Warsaw, this is the end of the world, where the road literally ends on the border with Belarus, which also happens to be the border of the European Union, and NATO.

The village has a dozen or so wooden huts, a metal cross on the main and only road, and mostly older inhabitants who graze their cows in the surrounding meadows. The idyllic atmosphere of this place has recently been interrupted by the steady roar of engines: Police pick-ups, military trucks, and border guard vehicles drive along the cobbled road. Behind them, there are television broadcast vans with satellite dishes on the roofs and ordinary passenger cars, from which journalists and activists fighting for the rights of migrants spill out. On a meadow divided by a narrow stream, there is a line of policemen, and at the checkpoint blocking the muddy road, there are masked soldiers with rifles.

All this commotion is due to a group of migrants that got stuck at the border. They were not allowed into Poland from Belarus. Suddenly the tiny village found itself at the center of global politics. Reports from the Polish-Belarusian border appear on a regular basis on primetime TV and in the headlines of Internet news sites. Journalists, politicians, and human rights activists discuss the migration crisis, the inhuman treatment of the refugees by Polish authorities on the one hand, and the hybrid war and provocation on the other. Meanwhile, the media circus is distracting attention from a much more serious and complex problem that began on the border between Belarus and Lithuania.

USNARZ GORNY, Poland—The Polish village of Usnarz Gorny lies in the picturesque region of Podlasie, dotted with gentle hills, in the northeastern part of the country. From the perspective of Warsaw, this is the end of the world, where the road literally ends on the border with Belarus, which also happens to be the border of the European Union, and NATO.

The village has a dozen or so wooden huts, a metal cross on the main and only road, and mostly older inhabitants who graze their cows in the surrounding meadows. The idyllic atmosphere of this place has recently been interrupted by the steady roar of engines: Police pick-ups, military trucks, and border guard vehicles drive along the cobbled road. Behind them, there are television broadcast vans with satellite dishes on the roofs and ordinary passenger cars, from which journalists and activists fighting for the rights of migrants spill out. On a meadow divided by a narrow stream, there is a line of policemen, and at the checkpoint blocking the muddy road, there are masked soldiers with rifles.

All this commotion is due to a group of migrants that got stuck at the border. They were not allowed into Poland from Belarus. Suddenly the tiny village found itself at the center of global politics. Reports from the Polish-Belarusian border appear on a regular basis on primetime TV and in the headlines of Internet news sites. Journalists, politicians, and human rights activists discuss the migration crisis, the inhuman treatment of the refugees by Polish authorities on the one hand, and the hybrid war and provocation on the other. Meanwhile, the media circus is distracting attention from a much more serious and complex problem that began on the border between Belarus and Lithuania.


The village of Usnarz Gorny, Poland, on Aug. 27.

The village of Usnarz Gorny, Poland, on Aug. 27. Tomasz Grzywaczewski for Foreign Policy

In May, after the EU imposed sanctions on the Minsk regime in response to Belarus’s state hijacking of a Ryanair plane and its illegal arrest of opposition activist Roman Protasevich, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko announced Belarus would no longer prevent drug smuggling and illegal immigration at the EU border.

It soon turned out, however, that Minsk’s plans were more sinister than just passively turning a blind eye to what was happening on the border. In June, the Lithuanian border services recorded a sharp increase in the number of unauthorized migrants—mainly from Iraq—crossing the Lithuanian-Belarusian border.

By August, over 4,000 people were detained, 50 times more than in the entirety of 2020. At the end of June, Lithuanian Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite told Delfi news portal that the increased migration was a form of hybrid warfare. “Illegal migration from Belarus to Lithuania is an organized and profitable business in which Belarusian officials and officers are involved,” she said.

In July, journalists from Belsat TV, the independent channel broadcasting from Poland to Belarus, reve­­­­­­­­­aled that Belarusian secret services were conducting an operation to transfer migrants from the Middle East via Belarus to Lithuania. Agnieszka Romaszewska-Guzy, director of Belsat TV, explained explained to Foreign Policy that, “The state-owned company Centrkurort belonging to the President’s Affairs Board, which cooperates with Iraqi travel agencies, is responsible for bringing migrants from Iraq to Belarus. These people get Belarusian tourist visas and after landing at the Minsk airport, they are placed in hotels in Minsk and finally transported to the borders.”

In the border zone, an elite special unit called OSAM, in which Lukshenko’s sons once served, is reportedly directly involved in the physical transfer of migrants to the other side of the border.

The price of such a “trip” is at least several thousand dollars, a large part of which ends up in the pockets of the Belarusian secret services. The regime, therefore, kills two birds with one stone: It destabilizes EU borders and at the same time earns money by smuggling people desperately trying to get to Europe, especially Germany.

In recent years, Europe has already experienced migrants being used as a tool to pursue political goals. During the largest migration crisis in 2015-16, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan forced the EU to support Ankara with six billion euros in aid and turn a blind eye to Ankara’s military operations against Kurds in exchange for blocking the migration corridor from the Middle East to the Balkans.

While the countries of southern Europe are already accustomed to migration crises, almost no one expected them on the eastern flank of the EU.

In northern Africa, after the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi, Libya became the main transit country for migrants moving from the Sahel to Italy. In March, Libya’s interim prime minister warned the country is not able to handle the migrants alone. And in May, Morocco helped thousands of migrants enter the Spanish exclave of Ceuta in apparent retaliation for Madrid allowing the leader of the Western Sahara independence movement Polisario to enter Spain and receive COVID-19 treatment there.

But while the countries of southern Europe are already accustomed to such activities, almost no one has expected them on the eastern flank of the EU. One exception was Witold Repetowicz, an analyst at Defence24, who in 2018 noted the possibility that migrants could be used as a weapon in Russia’s attack on Poland through the territory of Ukraine. It turned out, however, that the real threat came through Belarus.


A Polish police officer cordones off the Polish-Belarusian border where the migrants' camp is located in the village of Usnarz Gorny on Aug. 26.

A Polish police officer cordons off the Polish-Belarusian border where the migrants’ camp is located in the village of Usnarz Gorny on Aug. 26. Tomasz Grzywaczewski for Foreign Policy

The sudden increase in the number of migrants to Lithuania led to overcrowding of migration centers and attempts to create temporary centers, resulting in vehement protests by the local population. Facing the risk of deepening chaos, authorities in Vilnius decided to build a border fence, return detained migrants to Belarus, and introduce a state-level emergency. Latvia has also declared a state of emergency in the regions bordering Belarus.

The Lithuanian tactics seem to be effective. Since the beginning of August, more than 1,500 migrants have been pushed back to Belarus. Linas Kojala, director of Vilnius-based think tank the Eastern Europe Studies Centre, told Foreign Policy: “The aim of the pushback policy was twofold: to reduce the intensity of illegal border crossings, as well as to discourage other migrants who might have perceived Lithuania as an open gate to the EU. However, it is not a long-term solution in itself.”

Kojala argued that any solution must combine effective border surveillance (drones, cameras, more border patrols) with a coherent EU policy in relation to migrants. However, developing such a position has not been easy, and many countries, from Italy to Hungary, have taken their own measures to block the influx.

With the Lithuanian border at least temporarily sealed, it became obvious that Poland would be the next target of the assault.

In Poland, from the very beginning, there was contradictory information. The exact number of migrants staying near Usnarz Gorny is unclear, but estimates fall in the 20s and 30s. It is not possible to confirm the migrants’ country of origin. If they are from Afghanistan, they must have arrived there before the fall of Kabul, or be Afghan migrants living in Iraq. In the beginning, the Polish authorities decided to cordon off the migrants and prevent any outsiders, including journalists and human rights activists, from approaching the border. The government argued that the aim was to avoid provocations and illegal crossings.

Human rights activists campaign for the migrants' admission to Poland in the village of Usnarz Gorny on Aug. 26.

Human rights activists campaign for the migrants’ admission to Poland in the village of Usnarz Gorny on Aug. 26. Tomasz Grzywaczewski for Foreign Policy

Simultaneously, human rights campaigners have been alarmed that migrants are deprived of food and are forced to drink water from the stream. However, video footage from Belarusian media and a Tweet from the Polish Border Guards, who are constantly monitoring the situation, suggest that “Belarusian services regularly provide foreigners with food, drinks, hot meals, firewood for the fire, and even cigarettes and sweets.” Moreover, Polish officials claimed that Belarusians regularly replaced the migrants in Usnarz Gorny in order to keep the crisis alive.

The problem goes far beyond Usnarz Gorny. In August, there were more than 3,000 illegal crossing attempts on the Polish-Belarusian border, and about 900 people were detained. A senior border guard officer who wishes to remain anonymous admitted that Polish authorities are only able to detain some of the migrants. The people they detain are well prepared for the journey. They do not hold any documents, but often have up to several thousand dollars sewn into their clothes and maps with a carefully drawn route. In Poland, smugglers are waiting to transport those who elude authorities to large cities or straight to Germany.

Thus, the Polish government has started constructing barbed-wire fences along the frontier and two weeks ago introduced a state of emergency that covers 183 towns lying within about 2 miles of the border and will last for 30 days. At the same time, the situation has increased domestic political tension—sparking a fierce debate between advocates and opponents of assisting and admitting migrants.

“This is a model example of the use of a demographic weapon,” Repetowicz argued. “There is no spontaneous ‘migration crisis,’ but aggression against Poland.”

The EU has spoken in a very similar vein. “The situation at the Polish-Belarusian border is a form of aggression towards Poland,” the European Commission spokesman Adalbert Jahnz told a conference in Brussels last month. The prime ministers of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia also issued a joint statement condemning the “hybrid attack” by Belarus.


A traditional cross sits at the crossroads in the rural area of Podlasie, northeastern Poland, on Aug. 27.

A traditional cross sits at the crossroads in the rural area of Podlasie, northeastern Poland, on Aug. 27.Tomasz Grzywaczewski for Foreign Policy

Poland’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Marcin Przydacz told Foreign Policy that the European Commission fully supports the Polish stance, but that there is an urgent need for stronger political pressure on Minsk to cease its hostile actions. The response to the Belarusian threat is apparently being coordinated not only with the Baltic states but also with Ukraine. The situation is all the more tense due to the Russian-Belarusian Zapad-21 military maneuvers, which began last week.

Grzegorz Kuczynski, director of the Warsaw Institute’s Eurasia Program, argues that such a strong stance from the EU means the union takes the migrant threat very seriously. “This is a joint provocation by Minsk and Moscow. Today, Lukashenko is completely dependent on Putin and, moreover, the Belarusian services do not have sufficient resources in the Middle East to carry out such an operation,” he argues. “The real crisis will emerge if Kremlin decides to create a migration corridor through Russian territory to transfer thousands of refugees from Afghanistan.”

Currently, it seems rather unlikely that the Turkish or Libyan scenarios of mass migration will be repeated. First, due to geographic reasons, migrants cannot reach Belarus directly on their own but must be brought by air or a very long overland route from Central Asia. Second, the very resolute reaction of the Baltic states, Poland, and Brussels show that no one in the EU is seriously considering a new version of the 2015 “refugees welcome” policy.

Still, no one was prepared for such an aggressive scenario, and Poland and the Baltic states must now urgently introduce an effective system of protecting their borders and preparing for potential provocations that could result in victim fatalities. The ongoing Zapad-21 maneuvers create the possibility of various tests of the defense capabilities of Poland and NATO, such as in the 1995 incident when a Belarusian Mi-24 helicopter shot down a U.S. balloon and two American pilots were killed.

From the Kremlin’s perspective, each weakness will be treated as an incentive to push the limits.

“We are fully mobilized because of the Zapad-21 exercises, and we are aware of the Russian or Belarusian provocations that may appear at the border. We cannot allow tragic events to happen,” Przydacz said.

The worst-case scenario is that tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the Taliban regime will appear on the EU’s eastern border. Whether Moscow decide to take such a step depends largely on the reaction of Poland, the Baltic states, and Brussels to this trial migration crisis. From the Kremlin’s perspective, each weakness will be treated as an incentive to push the limits.

Belsat TV’s Romaszewska-Guzy argues that “Lukashenko’s regime is repressing Belarusian people on a massive scale and will stop at nothing to destabilize Europe.” To date, Moscow and Minsk have already achieved some short-term goals on that front. For the purposes of the propaganda, Poland and the Baltic states have been presented in Russian and Belarusian media as violating human rights and being cruel and insensitive to people in distress. The migration issue has stirred political conflict and strongly divided public opinion in Lithuania, and in Poland it is likewise creating internal turmoil.

Europe must now confront the reality of hybrid attacks against the EU and NATO in the eastern borderlands. As authoritarian regimes seek to sow internal discord and chaos in Poland and the Baltics, their weapon of choice is helpless human beings.

Tomasz Grzywaczewski is a journalist, writer, filmmaker, and expert in Central and Eastern European studies. Twitter: @TomaszGrzywacz3

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