Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Border pains: A set play by Belarus

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Desperate migrants sandwiched between the Belarussian-Polish border is a nasty quagmire. It is also an impressively manufactured crisis. With threats to both EU and NATO borders at the center of the situation, an air of anxiety and atrophy has plagued Brussels’ decision-makers throughout this crisis.

Although the current situation is unenviable and heartbreaking, it provides a sober preview of the future conflict landscape that both organizations will have to learn to address.  As the border debacle unfolds, mistakes in policy selection and moral judgement will be made. Despite the steep learning curve, the crisis is an opportunity to learn and improve their hybrid warfare responses. They will prove especially important given the upcoming release of the EU Strategic Compass and NATO Strategic Concept.

The decision by Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko to bring migrants from the Middle East to the borders of Poland and Lithuania is a brilliant set play out of an ever-growing hybrid playbook that serves to advance both the domestic and external interests of similar dictators like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At home, despite a rocky summer of revolt in 2020 calling for his exodus, a wave of violent repression, including an air jacking, and dissident exhaustion has weathered the storm.

Combined, they have significantly increased the long-term prospects of his presidency.  Abroad, the appalling domestic clampdown resulted in economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation, leaving no outlet except Putin. A subservient place Lukashenko wishes to avoid like the plague or democracy. Consequently, through his migrant crisis, Lukashenko has unshackled himself from both predicaments. 

Foreign media is squarely focused on border security with dwindling mentions of the domestic political situation. For all intents and purposes, it has zapped the momentum of protestors, who have been outmuscled by humanitarian media shots. Each passing day of the crisis solidifies Lukashenko’s domestic standing and removes any modicum left to resist.

In turn, Warsaw and other concerned parties are forced to engage with the pariah Belarussian president. His counterpart in the Kremlin has declared active dialogue with Lukashenko as a prerequisite to end the situation.  Moreover, if the EU Commission reports are true, he has replenished his state coffers with migrants paying up to €10,000 for passage to Europe.

Events have developed to the point where the deployment of this hybrid play can be, and is, stunningly successful. Credit where credit is due to Russia, who wrote the foreword of the playbook in 2016 by driving Syrian migrants to Turkey and later into Europe. The current Belarusian design has split the West, increased Lukashenko’s legitimacy and provided the Kremlin with more propaganda by painting the EU as a hypocritical organization.

As the crisis remains in a sweet spot and well managed by Minsk, it seems illogical that Lukashenko would hope for it to spill over to a more dangerous level. In recent days, there has been a lot of saber-rattling from Minsk that has included snap Belarussian-Russian paratrooper exercises, and the UK sending military advisors to Poland. Both Warsaw and Vilnius have considered invoking Article 4 of the NATO charter. This would be a formal request for consultations with other members of the alliance if one member feels its territorial integrity, political independence or security are threatened.

While solidarity is always welcomed, there is no conceivable military solution to the crisis that does raise the risk of spiralling into a wider conflict.  

Belarus is using the crisis as a petri dish to see what kind of price they can exact. This approach can also be employed by NATO and the EU, within reason. Contemplating new countermeasures must ensure that punishment or disruption impacts the regime not its denizens. While obvious, failure to do so would give Lukashenko further ammunition to tar foreign opponents. 

One area that could be addressed immediately is the creation of an effective hybrid early warning system (EWS) and alarm protocol. Middle East migrants just didn’t get to Europe without help. There have been signs that illegal migrants have been transported to Belarus since September. Given the unusual volume, and complicated travel logistics, alarm bells at NATO and the EU should have been ringing. They then should have taken preventative measures to coordinate with host countries to remove the landing rights of Belarussian, Turkish, Iraqi and Russian air carriers to blunt the influx of migrants from the Middle East. 

They should have the foresight to understand that today its planes, tomorrow could be cruise ships. Any EWS must be adaptable to include all possibilities. To date, the EU has exclusively relied on a cocktail of targeted economic sanctions as well as travel and landing bans to punish the Belarussian regime. Although it is important to show EU citizens, and the wider international community, that the policymakers are acting, there is a limit to their ability to change Belarus’ behavior.

Outside of this default position, NATO and the EU must consider raising the stakes through controlled escalation. For this, the logical instrument to deploy is cyber weapons due to their broad nature. The use of this non-kinetic weaponry to disrupt the electricity and utilities of Belarussian government buildings, or even cripple computer or telecom networks, are viable targets that inflict damage at no cost to citizens. While unthinkable, the time has arrived to consider deploying select ransom wear attacks at Belarus’ regime. Given the plausible deniability of attackers, it offers the perfect cover to use them as a proportional response as Lukashenko escalates the border mess.  

Moving forward, whether it is this crisis or the next, the standard quo is no longer palatable. If the West has learned anything recently, it is that weakness invites further aggression. Although changing the scope of response using Western infused hybrid tactics will be a messy proposition, and not universally endorsed, it is a necessity.

Given the likelihood of poor outcomes at the border, now is the time to test and gather original data.  Any new data derived from these tactics can sharpen the EU’s Strategic Compass and NATO’s Strategic Concept to ensure they are hybrid match ready.

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery; it is time for a set Western hybrid play.

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