How Europe’s Last Dictator Rattled the E.U.

Perhaps the greatest success the sclerotic dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko has racked up this week has been seeing a host of Western news reports refer to grim scenes at the Belarusian-Polish border as a “migration crisis,” the implication being that it’s happened organically, as it did seven years ago—the tragic byproduct of war, poverty and terrorism. An accurate description of this situation would be to say that the authoritarian regime with its KGB security services, which is appropriately named, created it. They exploited human suffering and simply wanted a better existence as an cynical tool for foreign policy.

As a retaliation against the E.U., Lukashenko turned men, women, children and babies into battering-rams, an estimated 3000 to 4000 people, most of them from the Middle East, are now trapped in cold tents waiting for permission to enter. sanctions and diplomatic isolation owing to his theft of last year’s presidential election; his ongoing imprisonment and torture of political opponents; and his hijacking of a European airliner earlier this year to arrest a dissident journalist who was on board. This is what you would call the surrender of an increasingly unstable and desperate strongman, who holds hostages, then negotiates with others to get their freedom by taking more.

Lukashenko does not shy away from his strategy. It is not uncommon for him to boast about his strategy in advance. In June, his regime faked a bomb scare aboard the Vilnius-bound RyanAir Flight 4978, dangerously forcing it (with the “escort” of fighter jets) to divert to Minsk in order to kidnap Roman Protasevich, a pro-opposition journalist on board. He declared the consequences of what if the West did not act on his brazen act in piracy days later. It first banned European air travel through Belarusian space. He would release human traffickers and drug smugglers into the E.U., he said, later adding that these would also be joined by “armed migrants,” a double entendre because his aim was always to use them as weapons.

Good to his word, soon more than 470 sub-Saharan Africans, Syrians, and Iraqis, mainly hailing from the Kurdistan region, turned up at the Belarusian-Lithuanian border. Lukashenko then declared he could do nothing about this nearly sevenfold increase in Lithuania’s annual asylum-seekers because, alas, he had “neither the money nor the energy due to sanctions.” A movie mobster played by Joe Pesci might have found that shakedown a touch unartful.

The Belarusian authorities actively assisted migrants in crossing the border. They brought them to areas less patrolled where they could go unnoticed and provided wire cutters.

An official in Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government explained to us how this bespoke Belarusian Expedia program works. “There are travel agents all over the Middle East, a select number of whom ring up families who aren’t exactly poor, but nor are they what you’d call well-off. The travel agents tell these people: ‘I’m going to get you into the EU in a few days. I’ll get you your visa, book your hotel, your flight—all you have to do is fly to Baghdad and I’ll take it from there.’ It costs maybe $3,000 per person. What’s more? If they can beg, borrow or steal the cost of doing so, they’re getting on that plane.” The Belarusian Embassy in Baghdad, the official added, has been running a no-questions-asked “visa-mill” for months to facilitate the entire scheme.

Compare that with the 2015 refugee/migrant wave, in which thousands tried desperately to get into Europe by boat and raft to escape persecution. According to Kurdish officials, most Iraqis who have arrived in Belarus aren’t internally displaced by the ongoing war against ISIS. Instead, the majority of Iraqis come to Belarus. FromKurdistan was a stable area in the Middle East. However, it is heavily dependent upon oil prices and corruption for their economic stability. Many of the inhabitants of Kurdistan would still have settled there if not for an offer to relocate to Europe, which was too good to be true.

Social media has been a major platform for advertising by Iraqi travel agencies. Research conducted by one of us with Semantic Visions, a Prague-based risk assessment company, found that Arabic-language groups primarily on Facebook featured discussions of entering the EU via the Belarusian-Lithuanian border as early as March 2021. The route was sold as especially promising because it was (falsely) stated that the Belarusians don’t guard their border. Not coincidentally, at around the same time, the number of direct flights from Baghdad to Minsk, many offered by Belavia, Belarus’ state-run airline, began to increase.

Nor was it a coincidence that Lithuania was Lukashenko’s first target. The neighboring Baltic state has been outspoken in its solidarity with Belarus’s swelling ranks of dissidents and civil society actors and has become a much-needed triage center and waystation for many in the midst of Lukashenko’s year-long internal crackdown. Vilnius, now home to what Vilnius and the EU call the rightful winner, is where Sviatlana Tikhanovsky’s husband was taken before the election.

The sudden influx of people forced Lithuanians to quickly set up detention centres and declare that they would not grant asylum except in exceptional circumstances. The government also stipulated that transit to Germany—the preferred final destination of many of the migrants—would not be facilitated. As Lithuania intercepted more migrants, the Belarusian Border Guard started blocking them from reentering Belarusian territory, trapping them in a no-man’s-land between two countries bisected by razor wire fence.

Poland was Lukashenko’s second target. Warsaw, too, has been a prominent defender of Belarusian democrats (even if Poland’s own democracy has seen better days). Andrzej duda, the President, sent a convoy with humanitarian aid to Lithuania in mid-July as authorities struggled to handle unprecedented migration. In August, President Andrzej Duda offered refuge to KrystsinaTsimanouskaya in Lithuania. This was after the Belarusian Olympic-sprinter defected from the Tokyo Games. It created more problems for the dictator, who already has a lot of them. There were over 32,000 attempts by migrants to cross the Belarusian/Polish border that were blocked as of November 11. These included 3,500 in August, nearly 7,700 in September and 17,300 October.

A series of EU diplomatic interactions with Middle Eastern countries to reduce unwelcome migrants led to noticeable decreases in direct flights to Minsk. The new restrictions were not enforced and would-be immigrants began to look for other ways around them. The gap was filled by smugglers, most of whom were located in Germany. They promised to allow them access through Poland. Research conducted by Semantic Visions found that these human traffickers hawked their services and low prices on social media, along with thank-you videos from those they claimed they’d successfully delivered to Germany. In late October, Berlin increased patrols along the border with Poland, having already stopped around 5,000 migrants who’d turned up via Belarus since August.

According to Linas Linkevicius, the former Lithuanian foreign minister who oversaw Belarus’ post-election fallout, six months ago Lukashenko at least had the politesse to attempt his migration gambit under the cover of darkness. “Now he’s doing it in broad daylight, and along a much longer border, and he’s filming it for the world to see,” Linkevicius said. “It also doesn’t bode well that he insists he is not mad about three times per week. This is something, in my experience, a sane person seldom has to do.”

Although it may be true, the aggressive approach to Poland seemed almost calculated. Warsaw’s declared state of emergency has been widely criticized both internally and externally, particularly as journalists and aid workers have been prohibited from monitoring the scenes at the border. Numerous migrants died from exposure to the Polish forest. In addition, the country’s ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has helmed the government since 2015, has weakened Poland’s standing with the European Commission following a series of illiberal encroachments on the impartiality of the Polish judiciary and the independence of the press.

Gen. Pyotr Pytel, the former chief of Polish military counterintelligence, argued that Belarus’s manufactured border crisis has already bled into a domestic Polish political one. “If you listen to what right-wing media are saying, they are using the lexicon of war, portraying these migrants as barbarians looking to destroy Poland. The chief of our central bank just announced the creation of a Polish cryptocurrency to commemorate our fight against the Belarusians, as if this were 1920 all over again,” Pytel said, referring to the thwarted Soviet invasion of a newly independent Poland.

PiS, according to Pytel, is in “big trouble” politically because of mounting inflation, and an unpopular and draconian anti-abortion law it instituted. Elections are two years off, and now an embattled populist party has seized upon a new civilizational narrative in its defense, which Pytel summarized as: “We’re being invaded by Arabs and Kurds from America’s failed wars in the Middle East.” Not exactly rhetoric bound to endear Warsaw further with the European Commission, but then, counting on Polish overreach could well have been one of the goals of this provocation.

It begs the questions: Was Lukashenko totally intelligent and ingenious? Or was he being assisted or nudged quietly by another more resourceful party?

Pytel suggests that the Kremlin’s role in this affair is hardly that of a passive observer. Pytel cites two crucial meetings that took place earlier this year. The first was a highly publicized May 28 meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin (Russia) and Lukashenko (Russia), in Sochi, a Russian subtropical town. Coming a mere week after the RyanAir skyjacking, that choreographed confab, all smiles and Kate-and-Leo parodied embraces aboard Putin’s yacht, served two purposes. Lukashenko was able to ring-kick his patron east, and it also served a purpose of communicating to the U.S. that Putin would be looking into resolving his client’s problems. As one senior Western intelligence official put it, “Moscow wants to force Minsk to burn its last remaining bridges to the West, make itself look good in comparison to crazy Luka, and test EU and NATO resiliency against hybrid threats.”

Six days later, the second meeting, which was less well-known, took place in Vitebsk (Belarus), on June 3. It was between Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service (SVR), and Ivan Tertel, the head of Belarus’ KGB. “In the spirit of traditionally fraternal relations,” the SVR said in an after-action statement, “Russia’s SVR and Belarus’ KGB have agreed to work together to counter Western destructive activities aimed at destabilizing the political and socioeconomic situation in the Union State.” The latter term refers to a 1999 bilateral integration treaty the Kremlin has lately sought to broaden into something approaching a soft merger between Russia and Belarus, which has so far been loath to chip away its own sovereignty in exchange for protection. Note that this statement includes a twinned casualty: Russia is considered to be the victim of actions taken against Belarus.

Pytel believes that the improved coordination among intelligence services has already been evident. Weeks after the Naryshkin-Tertel conclave, emails of Poland’s leaders, including those allegedly belonging to Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Michał Dworczyk, the chief of the Polish chancellery, were leaked on the encrypted Russian messaging platform Telegram. The communication showed these politicians discussing, among other things, deploying the military to disperse abortion law protestors and mocking Poland’s state-owned television. (The government asserts that at most some of this correspondence was fake. The cyber-operators used compromised passwords to also take control of three Polish social media accounts and create English-language websites in order to promote the breaches contents.

Polish intelligence assessed at the time that the emails were hacked by UNC1151, a group it determined was linked to Russia’s military intelligence agency, or GRU, an analysis confirmed by the EU’s Computer Emergency Response Team. German intelligence also believes the GRU responsible after members of the Bundestag and German state parliaments were hit by the same hack-and-leak group, encompassed under the so-called “Ghostwriter” influence campaign. For the last several years Ghostwriter has targeted countries mostly on Belarus’ periphery, condemning and spreading disinformation about NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe. However, on November 16, Mandiant Threat Intelligence, a U.S. cybersecurity firm, released a report assessing with “high confidence” that UNC1151 is “linked to the Belarusian government,” although it did not rule out possible Russian involvement.

Ben Read, the Director of Cyber-Espionage Analysis at Mandiant, said it’s “definitely plausible” that UNC1151 could be a joint Russian-Belarusian endeavor. “Both security services were part of one country thirty years ago, and I’m sure there are people working for the KGB today who’ve been there over thirty years,” Read told us. As to the discrepant EU assessment, “well, governments have access to classified intelligence, things I can’t see on my computer screen.”

Whatever Russia’s role in fomenting or encouraging this manufactured crisis, the fact remains that it could have ended the problem overnight if it so chose simply by stopping, or threatening to stop, air traffic from the Middle East bound for Belarus —traffic that has had to pass through Russian airspace ever since Europe’s was closed off in June owing to the RyanAir skyjacking. A second solution was proposed by the Kremlin, which is called for the E.U. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared that the EU should compensate Lukashenko for making the problem disappear. Lavrov cited an agreement in 2016 under which Turkey was reimbursed by the EU to absorb migrants and refugees illegally entering Greece through the Aegean sea.

Lukashenko, for his part seems to be making more threats and going out of his way in ways Putin may find somewhat inconvenient. On November 11, he threatened to cut off Europe’s supply of Russian gas, about twenty percent of which passes through the Yamal-Europe pipeline that goes through Belarus, unless Brussels caves to his demands to end sanctions and to be recognized as ongoing head of state.

It is unlikely that this will happen. The E.U. approved its fifth sanctions package on Belarus, which was adopted by the EU. On November 15, the E.U. agreed to its fifth sanction package against Belarus. This decision was likely prompted by the urgency of addressing state-linked entities or individuals involved in the border chaos. A sixth set of sanctions are being discussed, according to a European official familiar with the discussions. As a sign of deescalation, Lukashenko has begun to withdraw migrants from the main border crossing.

What happens next depends on whether the E.U., often derided for its feckless expressions of being “gravely concerned” whenever the potash hits the fan, proves willing to call Lukashenko’s bluff. One side is the Union State, satellite and metropole; the other is a group of 27 countries that, when confronted by unforeseen hostility often devolves into paralysis, fractiousness or sops at the lowest common factor.

Lukashenko could have made his own rod. “Belarus invited 15,000 migrants into the country and most of them are stuck there,” one European intelligence official told us. “Lukashenko doesn’t want them. So what’s he going to do? Feed and house them with the money he says he doesn’t have, let them freeze to death in the woods, or send them home?”

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