Report

Belarus Seeks to Export Instability

Minsk is creating a migration crisis on its borders to undermine its European Union neighbors.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Polish law enforcement officers watch migrants at the Belarusian-Polish border
Polish law enforcement officers watch migrants at the Belarusian-Polish border on Nov. 8. Leonid Shcheglov/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images

Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko has weaponized migration, with thousands of asylum-seekers and migrants from the Middle East caught up in a multilayered geopolitical standoff with neighbors like Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. 

As tensions escalate between Belarus and the West in the wake of fraudulent presidential elections last year and a violent crackdown on protests, Lukashenko has sought to exploit the European Union’s weak seams of unresolved internal tensions over migration and Poland’s increasing defiance of Brussels by shipping in would-be migrants and then flooding them toward his European neighbors’ borders. 

At least 2,000 people are believed to be stuck at the border with Belarusian guards pushing them into the EU while their Polish counterparts shove them back. Polish border guards estimate that 30,000 people have tried to cross the border since August, and the crisis is only likely to worsen as winter sets in, according to multiple Eastern European officials. One official said the Polish and Baltic state governments expect Belarus to begin operating anywhere between 40 and 55 direct flights per week from the Middle East to Minsk, Belarus, bringing potentially thousands of new migrants with false promises of an easy passage into the European Union. 

Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko has weaponized migration, with thousands of asylum-seekers and migrants from the Middle East caught up in a multilayered geopolitical standoff with neighbors like Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. 

As tensions escalate between Belarus and the West in the wake of fraudulent presidential elections last year and a violent crackdown on protests, Lukashenko has sought to exploit the European Union’s weak seams of unresolved internal tensions over migration and Poland’s increasing defiance of Brussels by shipping in would-be migrants and then flooding them toward his European neighbors’ borders. 

At least 2,000 people are believed to be stuck at the border with Belarusian guards pushing them into the EU while their Polish counterparts shove them back. Polish border guards estimate that 30,000 people have tried to cross the border since August, and the crisis is only likely to worsen as winter sets in, according to multiple Eastern European officials. One official said the Polish and Baltic state governments expect Belarus to begin operating anywhere between 40 and 55 direct flights per week from the Middle East to Minsk, Belarus, bringing potentially thousands of new migrants with false promises of an easy passage into the European Union. 

“Part of Belarus’s strategy is obviously to create further disharmony between Poland and Brussels,” said Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Poland, like Hungary, is at odds with Brussels over the rule of law inside the bloc, and Lukashenko is using the border crisis to aggravate those tensions.

European leaders have reserved their sharpest words for Lukashenko, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel describing his strategy as a “form of human trafficking.” In a statement on Monday, European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen said she spoke with the leaders of Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia to express the EU’s solidarity and discuss measures to address the crisis. 

She also added that two top EU officials, European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas and EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, will travel to some of the countries of origin to “ensure that they act to prevent their own nationals from falling into the trap set by the Belarusian authorities.” On Tuesday, the EU said it was in talks with 13 countries from Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe, which could serve as potential sources of further migrants. 

“So far, the European reaction has been strong, and they’ve expressed solidarity with Poland,” said Daniel Fried, former U.S. ambassador to Poland. 

But Poland, ruled by the nationalist Law and Justice party, which has pursued a tough anti-immigration stance, has pushed back hard against Belarusian efforts and has scorned cooperation with EU institutions. That has prompted frustration among EU officials and humanitarian groups. In September, after four people died at the Polish border, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees condemned the Polish policy of pushing migrants back across the border and demanded access to the site to provide medical care, food, and shelter. 

“Pushbacks endanger lives and are illegal under international law,” the organization said in a joint statement with the International Organization for Migration. 

Said Jawad, the Afghan ambassador to Russia, who remains in place despite the Taliban toppling the former Afghan government, said in an interview he is concerned about the well-being of Afghans who are among those flocking to the Belarusian border.

“We get calls from people who are cold, who are starving, who need assistance,” he said, adding that his embassy was coordinating the delivery of warm clothes and provisions to Afghans stranded in Belarus. The precise number of Afghans there remains unclear.

“We sent a letter to the Belarusian government asking them to consider the basic human rights of these people and don’t push them to Poland if there’s no way for them to cross the border,” he added.

Fifteen thousand Polish border guards and troops have been deployed to the border region, but Warsaw has not yet requested assistance from the EU’s border agency, Frontex. The agency did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Lukashenko has reserved a particular ire for Poland and Lithuania, which have become hubs for Belarusian dissidents and journalists forced into exile in the wake of last year’s crackdown. Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has made the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, her base. 

In September, the Polish government declared a state of emergency in two regions on the border with Belarus, the first such declaration in Poland since the imposition of martial law in 1981. All the while, the influx of migrants has continued, leading to dramatic showdowns between migrants trying to cross the border and Polish border guards in riot gear facing them down. Several European officials said Belarusian security services have pointed their rifles at Polish border guards and fired blanks at them, further escalating tensions at the border. 

The Belarusian and Polish Embassies in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. The U.S. State Department did not respond to a request for comment or an interview request with Julie Fisher, the U.S. envoy for Belarus. 

“The conduct of the Belarusian dictatorship in this crisis is nothing short of shameful and should be met with a strong reaction from the United States and our European friends,” said Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, co-founder of the Free Belarus Caucus in the Senate. 

On Tuesday, Reuters reported that the European Union is close to announcing another round of sanctions on 30 Belarusian individuals and entities connected to the crisis, including Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei and national airline Belavia. 

The crisis has escalated amid a standoff between Brussels and Warsaw after Poland’s top court voted last month to reject the supremacy of EU laws, striking at the heart of one of the bloc’s key governing principles and fueling concerns of a Polish exit from the union. 

Politicians from Poland’s ruling nationalist conservative Law and Justice party, whose approval ratings have slumped in recent months, have capitalized on the crisis to attack their domestic political rivals. On Monday, Krystyna Pawlowicz, a judge on one of Poland’s top courts, tweeted that the opposition should apologize “ON YOUR KNEES” for allegedly supporting an attack on Poland’s borders. Polish voters have long been wary of immigration, although opinion polls show a marked softening in attitudes in recent years. 

The standoff at the border has underscored the challenge faced by Europe and NATO in responding to an increasing array of asymmetric tactics used by Minsk, Moscow, and other governments to destabilize Western countries and pursue their critics abroad. 

“All of these things weaken our countries, but we can’t do the same thing back,” Braw said. 

Lukashenko has been particularly brazen, forcing the landing of a Ryanair passenger plane in May in pursuit of a dissident journalist, attempting to kidnap a Belarusian athlete from the Tokyo Olympics, and now stoking a crisis at the EU’s border. 

“I hope it will be a cold shower for those who were thinking that Lukashenko can be reeducated. He cannot; he will never be,” said Franak Viacorka, a senior advisor to Belarusian opposition leader Tikhanovskaya. “It’s very important that Poland understands, Lithuania as well, that the migrant crisis is part of a wider political crisis,” he said. 

Western officials said they suspect Russian President Vladimir Putin is behind, or at least tacitly endorsing, Lukashenko’s gambit as the embattled Belarusian leader pushes his country closer to Russia. The two presidents spoke on Tuesday, discussing deepening integration between the two countries and the situation at the Belarusian border, according to a Kremlin readout. 

The Belarusian escalation comes as unexplained Russian military equipment movements near the border with Ukraine sparked deep alarm in Washington and Europe. 

“Without tacit support from Russia, this is unsustainable,” said the Eastern European official.

“We believe Belarus will be used as a proxy force” by Russia in the current crisis, another Eastern European diplomat said. “Belarus is now a proxy force for Russia, and it’s only a matter of time before they start using that more.” 

Senior Russian officials have accused Europe of hypocrisy. On Monday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova pointed to the war in Iraq, a major source of migrants heading to Belarus. 

But for Europeans, it’s all part of Putin’s plan to destabilize the eastern flank of the continent. On Tuesday, Stanislaw Zaryn, a spokesperson for the Polish special services minister, accused Putin of tacitly approving the scheme. “The hostile operation conducted by the Belarusian regime against Poland and the whole EU is complemented with aggressive information warfare efforts that fit squarely within the long-term goals of the Russian propaganda,” he said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Pentagon is seen from the air over Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 2013.

The Pentagon’s Office Culture Is Stuck in 1968

The U.S. national security bureaucracy needs a severe upgrade.

The Azerbaijani army patrols the streets of Shusha on Sept. 25 under a sign that reads: "Dear Shusha, you are free. Dear Shusha, we are back. Dear Shusha, we will resurrect you. Shusha is ours."

From the Ruins of War, a Tourist Resort Emerges

Shusha was the key to the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Now Baku wants to turn the fabled fortress town into a resort.

Frances Pugh in 2019's Midsommar.

Scandinavia’s Horror Renaissance and the Global Appeal of ‘Fakelore’

“Midsommar” and “The Ritual” are steeped in Scandinavian folklore. Or are they?