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The European Union Owes Poland a Thank You

Brussels likes to ostracize the Polish government, but Warsaw has just done the entire continent a favor.

Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Soldiers from the Polish Armed Forces rest.
Soldiers from the Polish Armed Forces rest.
Soldiers from the Polish Armed Forces rest while patrolling the Belarus-Polish border in Kuznica, Poland, on Nov. 11. Irek Dorozanski/Polish Ministry of National Defence via Getty Images

At the beginning of November, the situation at Belarus’s border with NATO and the European Union was dire. Belarusian authorities kept bringing migrants to the border, where some of the migrants—enticed by Belarusian forces—began attacking the Polish soldiers guarding it. Indeed, Belarusians themselves harassed Polish soldiers and tried to tear open Poland’s border fence. But a month later, migrants are flying home, and Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s subversive campaign is starting to flop. The rest of Europe should thank Poland and its fellow border defenders, Latvia and Lithuania, and learn a lesson from them.

It was a sheepish Lukashenko who addressed a group of migrants in Belarus at the end of last month: “If Germans and Poles won’t listen to me today, it’s not my fault,” he told them. “I will do whatever you want, even if it harms Poles and others. But you need to realize we can’t start a war to force a corridor through Poland to Germany.”

Gone was the swagger in May, when the Belarusian leader promised to flood the EU with drugs and migrants, and even from last month, when Lukashenko told the BBC that if migrants “keep coming from now on, I still won’t stop them because they’re not coming to my country. They’re going to yours.” The migrants, of course, were desperate to get to the EU and were deviously exploited by a ruler in need of a weapon. Not even the loss of some of the migrants’ lives prompted Lukashenko to abandon his campaign.

At the beginning of November, the situation at Belarus’s border with NATO and the European Union was dire. Belarusian authorities kept bringing migrants to the border, where some of the migrants—enticed by Belarusian forces—began attacking the Polish soldiers guarding it. Indeed, Belarusians themselves harassed Polish soldiers and tried to tear open Poland’s border fence. But a month later, migrants are flying home, and Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s subversive campaign is starting to flop. The rest of Europe should thank Poland and its fellow border defenders, Latvia and Lithuania, and learn a lesson from them.

It was a sheepish Lukashenko who addressed a group of migrants in Belarus at the end of last month: “If Germans and Poles won’t listen to me today, it’s not my fault,” he told them. “I will do whatever you want, even if it harms Poles and others. But you need to realize we can’t start a war to force a corridor through Poland to Germany.”

Gone was the swagger in May, when the Belarusian leader promised to flood the EU with drugs and migrants, and even from last month, when Lukashenko told the BBC that if migrants “keep coming from now on, I still won’t stop them because they’re not coming to my country. They’re going to yours.” The migrants, of course, were desperate to get to the EU and were deviously exploited by a ruler in need of a weapon. Not even the loss of some of the migrants’ lives prompted Lukashenko to abandon his campaign.

Now, Lukashenko is admitting to migrants, his weapon of choice, that aggression has failed. Indeed, it failed so badly that Belarusian authorities are relocating the migrants they sent to the border: Belarus has moved the migrants to a shelter. Indeed, many are being encouraged to travel back to their home countries. On Dec. 4, a repatriation flight carrying 419 migrants landed in the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil, and another one landed three days later, which means that to date, some 3,000 of the migrants Lukashenko wanted to use to sow chaos within the EU have returned home. (Nearly 11,000 of those who managed to cross Poland’s border, meanwhile, have traveled on to Germany.)

Imagine for a moment what would have happened if the three neighboring governments decided Belarus’s weaponization of migrants was none of their business.

Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania have won—and they’ve done so by standing firm. And yes, the trio’s tough stance has also seen Polish forces pushing migrants back across the border. Indeed, Poland—the EU’s whipping boy du jour on account of its government’s assaults on the judiciary’s independence—has saved the EU from Belarus’s aggression by allocating money and around 15,000 soldiers to the border, assisted by Latvia and Lithuania, which likewise allocated money and troops to a border that has for three decades required only light civil protection.

What’s more, they instructed those soldiers to act more assertively than most EU member states would have dared. Doing so didn’t exactly endear them to the parts of the EU that were already suspicious about its liberal democratic intentions—but all of the EU owes them enormous gratitude.

Imagine for a moment what would have happened if the three governments decided Belarus’s weaponization of migrants was none of their business—as the migrants were, at any rate, trying to reach Germany. They could have instructed their border guards to do cursory border duty but not risk life and limb to stop illegal intrusions. They could also have decided to keep their soldiers on their usual assignments rather than exposing them to Belarusian lasers and warning shots.

They could, in fact, have said, like Lukashenko, “they’re not coming to my country; they’re going to yours.” Lukashenko’s weaponization of migrants could quickly have ballooned, and it would have become a German and EU-wide problem rather than a Polish-Latvian-Lithuanian one. Consider the implications of a migrant crisis—one involving numbers like those typically arriving in Greece and Italy—fueled by a hostile regime.

Instead, the three countries took one for the team and forced Lukashenko to retreat—for now. Yes, the European Union imposed sanctions, but not even strong sanctions bother targeted regimes very much. And Lukashenko will try again with another tool that strikes his fancy. Reminder: He’s yet to come through on his promise to flood the EU with drugs.

In defense, as in life, it’s easy to get stuck in one’s familiar ways. Retailers constantly encourage their customers to try something new. We do—and feel better for it. In the aughts, the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s ran a whole campaign encouraging shoppers to “try something new today.” The shoppers responded with gusto, propelling a $3.3 billion spike in revenue.

“Try something new today” is as useful a maxim for leaders as it is for shoppers. Lukashenko, for one, is a devout follower of this approach in his efforts to harm other countries. Instead of using tools other countries expect, he experiments and tries not just weaponization of migrants but aviation piracy as well. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping also try out new and different tactics, and other authoritarian leaders will no doubt follow them. Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, too, tried something new, dispatching soldiers who meant business and bringing barbed wire when Lukashenko bet his weaponized migrants would encounter only timid resistance.

Other Western countries could learn from them by trying something different the next time Lukashenko tries one of his tricks, or when Putin or Xi do so. “The autocrat Lukashenko used refugees for a cynical and cruel power play, and the EU has to make it clear that such an attempt at blackmail will have serious consequences,” said Agnieszka Brugger, deputy Bundestag leader of Germany’s Greens party.

“That means showing solidarity with Poland and the Baltic states, acting humanely towards those who are freezing at the border, and applying tough sanctions against Lukashenko and his regime.” And, she added, by agreeing to a system for distribution of refugees within the European Union, EU member states can remove the sting from subversive schemes like Lukashenko’s. “It would be a dangerous, cynical, and foolish game to start a competition with autocrats to see who can lower their standards faster when dealing with refugees,” she added.

Latvia’s deputy prime minister and defense minister, Artis Pabriks, also appealed for more solidarity with countries harmed by subversive acts—which next time may not be Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland but rather, a different group. Indeed, he said, “Western Europe has to change its narrative since it is unarmed facing the inventive minds of the FSB and the GRU. In decision-making, political correctness being more important than the reality is no longer going to work.”

Impose a luxury embargo; elites in countries that try the hardest to harm the West love wearing Western designer brands and carrying their belongings in Western designer bags.

Don’t just turn to tired, old sanctions. Instead, cancel all visas to members of the establishment in one swoop (as Switzerland did with Libya when its former leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, seized two Swiss businessmen in a fit of rage against Switzerland). Impose a luxury embargo. (Hint: Elites in countries that try the hardest to harm the West love wearing Western designer brands and carrying their belongings in Western designer bags.) The European Union is reportedly working on a trade weapon that will bar countries that coerce EU companies from participating in lucrative EU contracts. Why not use the ban to avenge other acts of aggression? Or, if a country is targeted by a hostile regime, other countries could retaliate on its behalf—and leave the aggressor guessing who’s retaliating until a response is underway.

“Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack,” said Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s eponymous masterpiece. Dr. Strangelove, of course, wants to produce that fear with nuclear weapons. But when the aggressor uses migrants, hostage diplomacy, or corporate coercion, threatening the use of nuclear weapons will achieve nothing as both the aggressor and the defender know the defender will never avenge the aggression with nuclear warheads.

That’s why Lukashenko calculated that weaponizing migrants would be an easy win. Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania have not just thwarted that win but humiliated the dictator, forcing him to confess to migrants waiting in his country that they’re not going to make it across the border.

Trying something new worked for Sainsbury’s. It worked for Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. Next time, it may stop Putin, Xi, or even the crazily innovative North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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