“Nowadays, the security environment is more unpredictable and challenging to address. The environment to global security is seen as a challenge and emerging tool for peace and stability. For instance, autocratic regimes use all means and ways to fulfil their goals. Lukashenko understood how to use and weaponize migration as a hybrid threat destabilizing the EU and NATO eastern border.”

The European Union in 2015 faced the biggest refugee crisis in its history. Over one million refugees fled war and poverty in the Middle East and Afghanistan, seeking refuge in the EU. Since then, migration has been a constantly troubling issue in the minds of European politicians and public opinion. Leaders of autocratic regimes often (ab)use such situations to weaponize the respective subject, increase tensions, and destabilize European countries. The case of Lukashenko in 2020 is no exception to that. In the aftermath of the fraudulent presidential elections and concomitant sanctions of the EU, the autocrat leader was looking for patterns and ways to control Belarus and lift pressure from the Western countries.  

We all know that states and individuals have a strategy. Freedman correctly underlined that strategy is central to the political art, and that it creates power.[1] A strategy to look and think about actions in the light of goals. Immediately after the elections in 2020, Lukashenko declared victory despite the irregularities and manipulations. He denied the opposition’s victory and suppressed the internal riots despite voices for dialogue and peaceful resolution. His actions talked so loud that it does not take much to understand his line of thinking. He was acting and playing in a way to keep the opposition down, Western influences out, and cooperate closely with Putin’s Russia.

Sstrategy has three components, ends, ways and means. Lukashenko prisoned hundreds, and forced a civilian airliner to arrest a dissident. Now he exploits migrants as a weapon. He threatened ‘to allow drugs into Western Europe.’[2] Can he act this way? As it is visible, he is using several ways and means to achieve his objectives. The primary way is to use the hybrid threat of migration against the EU countries bordering Belarus. Societies and governments of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, are very deeply concerned with this issue.

There are significant variables that affect migration or the movement from conflict areas to wealthy Western economies. We have seen these movements, e.g., from Syria to EU countries, have changed directions or stopped  due to the actions of the geopolitical players like Russia and  Turkey.

Over the last months, routes of migration from Baghdad to Minsk have been fully activated.[3] Flights to Minsk are fully booked. Ms. Laima Liucija Andrikiene also underlined this issue and predicted that if the number of flights from Iraq to Minsk increase as promised, the number of migrants in Lithuania will increase even faster.[4] This fact is entirely actual. Lukashenko declared this stating: ‘we will not hold them back.’ This threat becomes even more real when he continued saying: ‘We are not the final destination. They are headed to enlightened, warm, cozy Europe.’[5] A closer attention shows he is playing like a ‘world-class’ chess player, and in turn, becomes more ironic and sarcastic with the West. He understood that the weaponization of migration is a form of hybrid threat, and Russia also used the same tactic against Nordic states in 2015. He is confident and knows the effects and impacts of the hybrid threat of migration.

The instrumentation of migration against EU neighboring countries has increased tensions on the borders and throughout their countries. Most of the migrants come from conflict-ridden Middle East and Africa. They are nudging out these migrants through the Belarus border towards Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, intending to destabilize the EU and NATO. Belarus’ exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya warned the West that migration would grow into dozens during winter.[6] The wave of migrations may worsen anti-immigrant sentiments and feelings of Western societies, and far-right parties may instrumentalize migration. This phenomenon has already been present in Sweden and Germany. 

However, we should not forget what Russia did in 2015, simulating such situations to encourage and support right-wing parties in France, Germany, Austria, or elsewhere, to weaken the EU and disrupt solidarity among NATO Allies.  The migration crisis caused by Belarus is becoming a tool of the Russian hybrid warfare against the western democracies. Russia hides behind the tactic used by the Belarus regime. On the other side, the behavior of Belarus marks a complete reversal of their hope of winning concessions or lifting sanctions and cooperating with Lukashenko before the 2020 elections. The instrumentalization of this situation is considered the best for him. We can remember the case of Turkey allowing the flow of migrants across its northern borders in order to win concessions from the EU. Turkey had tried to secure a perspective of visa-free access to the EU.

Currently, the atmosphere on the Polish-Belarus border remains as if it is war. The EU neighboring countries with Belarus, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania have declared a state of emergency.[7] On the other side, Belarus Ministry of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Makei blames Western politicians for the situations on the borders. The EU, he said, is not respecting agreements on refugees. At the same time, the Polish presidential spokesperson Blazej Spychalski said that the situation on the border was ‘difficult and dangerous.’ He went on to emphasize the responsibility of Poland to take measures and ensure the security of Poland and the EU.[8] 

In early September 2021, tensions rose on the Latvian-Belarusian border. Neighboring Belarus uses the third-country nationals (refugees), said Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins, as a hybrid threat. At the moment, there is no direct threat to Latvia. However, as of 10 August, 770 people have illegally crossed the border.[9] Twenty-five of them have been allowed to cross the border for humanitarian reasons. At the same time, 377-immigrants have been detained for crossing the border illegally. Considering the growing number of illegal crossings from Belarus, the Latvian government declared an emergency from 11 August until 10 November 2021.[10]

Illegal border crossings and refugee flows are challenging as regards management and control. There is need for information on who is crossing the border and for what reason. They may be people in need, fleeing conflicting areas, and they could also be terrorist or criminal networks backed by autocratic leaders and regimes. For instance, according to Polish, US and UK intelligence, Russia’s SVR intelligence agency placed numerous ‘illegals’ among the wave of refugees entering Europe during the 2015 migration crisis.[11] In 2015, it was shown that several terrorist elements penetrated through the waves of migration entering the Schengen Area. The Center for Migration Studies identifies that for 2014-2018, 104 migrant terrorists entered the EU of which 28 ‘successfully‘ completed attacks that claimed the lives of 170 victims and wounded 878.[12] This pushes to think, comment, and doubt about the securitization of migration. A question that considers further analysis, but we have to go back and see how Lukashenko has used and securitized this issue in Belarus.

Looking at the tensions between the EU-Belarus borders, on 1st and 2nd September 2021, the EU informal meeting of defense ministers took place in Ljubljana, Slovenia. In this informal meeting, the Minister of Defence of Estonia (MoD), Kalle Laanet, stressed that Belarus uses illegal migration as a hybrid threat to pressure neighboring countries. In these difficult circumstances, the EU must consider attacking a member as an attack against all of us. The Western countries must respond quickly, seek a united decision, swift and clear target, diplomatic involvement, financial and technical support, and impose sanctions, letting the adversary know their wrongdoing has consequences, Laanet said.[13] 

Belarus persists and encourages illegal border crossings targeting Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. These hybrid operations are systematically planned and organized by the regime of Lukashenko. The situation at the eastern border of the EU is very problematic and dangerous. Firstly, the scale of hybrid attack of the illegal migration crisis targeted Lithuania, and now there is aggression against Latvia and Poland. Looking at what is happening there, the MoDs of Lithuania Arvydas Anusauskas, Latvia Artis Pabriks, Estonia Kalle Laanet, and Poland Mariusz Blaszczak agreed that they should be united and act together against hybrid threats. By being together, the Western democracies can cope more easily with hybrid threats and protect democratic values.

Lukashenko believes that he could cause social and political unrest to add pressure to the EU. This will, of course, not go unnoticed by Putin’s Russia. The regime of Lukashenko will be an easy instrument in the hand of Putin to create a unique challenge for the EU. For instance, according to the scenario of the Zapad-2021 strategic exercise, which took place from 10 to 16 September 2021, the Polish paper Dziennik Gazeta Prawn quoted an unnamed source that Belarus troops ‘might invade several kilometers into Lithuania.’ The information was not confirmed. Even the MoD of Lithuania Anusauskas said it does not know the source and can not consider it. In his view, ‘the article reflects the trend of disinformation reports.’ Russia and Belarus would manipulate public opinion and promote uncertainty among NATO and EU member countries using hybrid attacks such as migration or fake news or information. It is not new if we remember Russia’s behavior during the Russia-Georgian conflict in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

Looking at the situation at the border, Lithuania declared a state of emergency. The Lithuanian-Belarusian border is 679 kilometers, and it requires resources and time to manage and control properly. If we look at statistics, more than 800-migrants (Sep 2021) entered from Belarus, compared to 81 in 2020.[14] The EU finally recognized the issue that its eastern border is poorly protected. The EU/NATO countries bordering Belarus should consider building barbed wire, fences, increasing patrolling, monitoring, and logistic support. To face the issue, the Western democracies must speak with one voice and act together. Otherwise, they (adversaries) will explore and try hard to create division and frictions among the EU and NATO countries. 

The immigration crisis in Belarus has shown how vulnerable the continent remains to political destabilizations and social unrest over refugees. The issue is critical if we consider the potential wave of refugees from Afghanistan after US and allied forces withdrew. Currently, the situation on the Polish-Lithuanian border remains challenging. On 06 September 2021, the Polish Minister of Foreign affairs Zbigniew Rau met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausea. In the accession, the president noted that ‘the situation on the Polish-Lithuanian border with Belarus needs adjustment and the necessity of EU border protection policies.’[15]

In response to the situation, NATO activated the Counter Hybrid Support Team in Lithuania to help address the migration crises and other pressures coming from neighbors. It shows NATO’s unity and responsibility to support an act if one member country is under attack or in any possible incident. The NATO Counter Hybrid Support Team is essential in solving hybrid aggressions, shows and proves to others that we are not alone. We are NATO, and allies will work closely in crisis, and we all have to rely on each other’s strong support.

However, the EU and its member states have shown how vulnerable they are to responding adequately to the hybrid threat of migration. Even small countries like Belarus have caused social unrest and tension on the boards with EU member states. We should never forget that autocrats will continually explore ways to suppress democratic societies and put pressure on critics of his/her movements. The EU’s border with Belarus will remain a hotspot for a while. For how long? For that, we have to be ready, equipped, and trained to cope with the weaponization of migration as a hybrid threat. To do that, we have to learn what happens in the past. Learning from history will empower us with the right tools and knowledge to understand the adversaries and address crisis. We should always ask ourselves questions, ‘what are the implications for, and how should the EU respond?’ These questions will be addressed by those who understand the case/the enemy and reality (environment).





* COL (ret.) Dr. Çlirim Toci is a structure in Defence Planning and Management within the Department of Leadership and Management Studies in Baltic Defence College, Tartu, Estonia. The views and opinions in this work are those of Dr. Toci alone and do not necessarily represent the policies or views of the Baltic Defence College.


[1] Lowrence Freedman (2013) ‘Strategy: A History, Oxford University Press, pp. xii.

[2] Marck Benets (May 2021) ’Lukashenko willing to flood EU with drugs and migrants to stop new sanctions, the Times, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/lukashenko-willing-to-flood-eu-with-drugs-and-migrants-to-stop-new-sanctions-vtrwndw82, accessed on 08 September 21. 

[3] The EU Parliamentary questions, ‘Subject: Illegal migration to the EU by way of flights to Belarus from Iraq’, (27 August 2021), https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/E-9-2021-003967_EN.html, accessed on 10 September 2021.

[4] Interview with Ms. Laima Liucija Andrikiene, member of the Lithuanian Parliament (Siema) given to Linas Jegelevcious, The Baltic Times (Magasin), Autom-Winter Season, pp. 20-23.

[5] ‘Lukashenko warn EU that Belarus won’t stop migration border surge’, https://www.politico.eu/article/belarusian-president-alexander-lukashenko-warns-eu-belarus-wont-stop-migrant-border-surge-lithuania/, accessed on 29 October 2021.

[6] ‘Belarus opposition leader warns of border migration crisis’, Warsaw Security Forum, https://www.politico.eu/article/belarusian-president-alexander-lukashenko-warns-eu-belarus-wont-stop-migrant-border-surge-lithuania/, accessed on 29 October 2021. 

[7] Samantha de Bendern (18 August 21) ‘Belarus is new weapon in Putin’s hybrid warfare arsenal’, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/08/belarus-new-weapon-putins-hybrid-warfare-arsenal, accessed on 08 September 2021.

[8] www.routers.com/world/europe/polish-president-imposes-state-emergency-belarus-border-2021-09-02. ‘Poland declares state of emergency on Belarus border amid migrant surge’, accessed on 08 September 21.

[9] Interview of the Prime Minister of Latvia, Krisjanis Karins on TV3 (01 September 2021)

[10] Ibid

[11] John Ruehl (05 September 21) ‘How Belarus is Weaponizing Migration in Europe’, The National Interests, www.nationalinterest.org/print/feature/how-belarus-weaponizing-migration-europe-193085, accessed on 08 September 21.

[12] Tood Bensman (06 November 2019) ‘Data:Terrorist Migration Over European Borders (2014-2018)’, www.cis.org/Report/Terrorist-Migration-Over-Borders, accessed on 16 September 21.

[13] The speech of the Minister of Defence of Estonia, during the informal meeting of EU defence ministers, Ljubjana, Slovenia, 01-02 September 2021, Baltic Review, 36/2021.

[14] Baltic Review, 36/2021 (Period 01-07 September 2021).

[15] Baltic Review 36/2021 ‘Meeting of the Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausea with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland Zbigniew Rau. 06 September 2021.