Recurring cybersecurity attacks, spreading fake news on governmental websites, interfering with the emails of the MPs, developing propaganda campaigns, you name it, the government of Russia has done it. Since the start of his term, President Putin always attempted to meddle with the unity of the European Union and NATO to ensure political weakness. While many of his attempts did not reach further impact, the collaboration with the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War had a tremendous impact on the future of the European Union. By supporting the leader and intensifying the war, it led to more refugees fleeing the state through Turkey in search of a new life in the EU. Many EU countries were divided when taking action on the enraging migrant crisis of 2015, and some political analysts even felt that the refugee crisis was one of the reasons the United Kingdom left the EU. Whilst the migrant crisis was somewhat well-handled, the impacts are still fresh. Thus, Putin’s ally, Belarus’ illegal authoritarian leader Aliaksandr Lukashenko, took some notes from him and applied the same tactic on a smaller scale to further cause upheaval in several European Nations, specifically the Baltic region. Welcome to a new hybrid war that is still brewing in Eastern Europe.
The Tipping Point
Belarus was always referred to as “the last dictatorship in Europe”. Contrary to most cases, Lukashenko embraced his title–as far back as 2012–, where he calls himself “the only dictator left in Europe.”. For many years, there were protests against the clearly illegal elections. However, these protests reached an all-time peak during the 2020 election cycle. On August 9th, the Belarus media announced that Lukashenko won with 80% of the vote. This caused massive protesting, which resulted in violence against civilians, unlawful convictions and serious unrest in the country. Albeit, the European Union was quick to announce the upcoming sanctions to Belarus. The first to implement these new sanctions were the Baltic States, consisting of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, who banned Lukashenko and 117 other officials from entering their respective nations without the EU’s consent. The initial diplomatic conflict was the tipping point for Baltic State and Belarus both sides. Newspapers and foreign policy magazines gave recognition and appreciation to such a bold and brave move by the three countries, which are very well aware of the effects of human rights breaching. Regardless, some acknowledged that it might be “playing with fire”. So, how and when was the fire initiated?
While three packages of sanctions by the EU were imposed through the months of October, November and December, limiting the economic power and the movement of important individuals, 2021 was a fresh start, as everyone seemingly forgot about the dictatorship. No significant events occurred for five months, yet, one country specifically–Lithuania–was constantly condemning the actions of the Belarus government. This adamant foreign policy and the fact that most active Belarus regime dissidents, such as the opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, were staying in the capital of Lithuania, eventually sparked resentment something out of Lukashenko. On May 23, 2021, a commercial Ryanair plane, flying from Athens to Vilnius was forced by fighter jets to land in the capital of Belarus, Minsk. The reason was that a famous journalist, Roman Protasevich, who consistently exposed the abuse of human rights orchestrated by Lukashenko, was on this flight with his girlfriend. He was immediately jailed and charged as a “terrorist”, which is a charge that can result in the death penalty. This woke up the international community, including the UK, US and Canada and the EU to issue more sanctions towards the destructive regime and take a firm stance on the need for democracy.
In retaliation, Minsk, due to its lack of economic power and increasing instability, prepared a lazy, yet well-thought-out tactic that would disrupt Lithuania. to annoy the annoying (Lithuania). It relaxed its border control and waived Visa’s, which allowed migrants, coming from Middle Eastern countries such as Afghanistan and Iran, and African countries, such as Ghana, to cross the border to Lithuania. Effectively, this created a lot of panic in the Lithuanian society, with the parliament issuing a state of emergency due to a large number of migrants coming. To put this into perspective, the rate of migration in three months of the summer was 55 times higher than the whole of last year. Many blamed the parliament for inefficiently dealing with the crisis, others pointed out the woeful conditions in the migrant camps. This gave way to the conclusion that Lukashenko’s plan was working by creating political pressure and turmoil. Lithuania was slowly but surely cracking down on the crisis, however, other neighboring countries, Latvia and Poland also received a wave of migrants.. While the fire has not escalated to hot, and it has remained cold yet thriving. One has to ask: what are the further implications for this conflict?
The Future of Eastern Europe
For Lithuania specifically, the recent disorder causes long-term political and social issues. Since August 2021, when the country has made its stance clear, with the foreign minister stating that virtually no one would be granted asylum. This strong anti-migrant rhetoric has been put into practice, as 2800 migrants who have crossed the border, 0 have been granted protection. Nonetheless, while it is necessary to protect the border, many citizens may become more xenophobic than they are now, which is another problem Lithuania faces. Moreover, accompanied by the spreading of fake news campaigns, which some theorize is possibly by the Kremlin in Lithuania, and the constant cyber warfare attack, the existing vulnerabilities in the nation are manipulated. Ultimately, all of this leads to the public questioning the values of democracy and institutions, such as NATO and EU, which decreases loyalty to the state, making it harder for Lithuania to fight this uphill battle. Alas, because of the strong foreign policy stance for democracy in neighboring nations, Lithuania is getting punished by the powers in the East.
Furthermore, the Eastern European countries are also largely affected economically. More police units are sent to watch and protect the long border, many of which work overnight or over hours. There is an increase of social workers that are being sent to migrant camps, thus an additional amount of resources have to be provided in order to institute basic human rights for the migrants. Additionally, Poland and Lithuania have both decided to build walls separating Belarus. Over the next year, they intend to spend 350 million euros and 152 million euros, respectively, with Latvia considering joining in this investment as well. These unnecessary costs, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, detriments nations’ ability to spread funds where funds are most needed.
For the European Union, such actions are causing a security nightmare. As a matter of fact, Belarus is getting more militarized with the help of Russia. In September 2021, Russia sent armed forces and fighter jets to the base in Hrodna to train Belarussian troops how to work with military aircraft. Conveniently, the base is geographically located along the Polish and Lithuanian border. Due to the large sanctions that Belarus and Russia face, this tactic of strategically placing troops and militia along the border is a well-calculated attack, which in turn threatens the European Union’s international power by making them look weak or “soft.” Unlike Russia and Belarus, the EU does not have a military or forces that can combat the threat of physical violence but instead focuses on diplomacy. While a new sanction package is in the works, possibly restricting the so-called travel agencies and fully restricting the Belarus airline Belavia, the tension between the EU and Belarus is increasing.
There are endless possibilities as to how the conflict may unfold, and the scale could be tremendous. Currently, there are thousands of Polish soldiers defending their border from thousands of refugees trying to cross it from Belarus. Thus, whether it is the “little green men” showing up to the EU nation’s border or weaponized migrants coming with instructions from the Belarus troops, anything is possible when the nature of oppressors is considered. The EU has to remain solid and not back down to any tactic that could destabilize any of its member states, and provide as much active support as possible. If not, the consequences will be unfathomable.