Soldiers of the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service line up at the border with Belarus in the Volyn region, Ukraine, on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021.

Soldiers of the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service line up at the border with Belarus in the Volyn region, Ukraine, on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021. Ukrainian Police Press Office via AP

Belarus Is Laying Tinder for a War. How Will NATO Respond?

The weaponization of migrants shows how gray-zone tactics flummox an alliance set up to deal with conventional or nuclear attacks.

Belarus Is Laying Tinder for a War. How Will NATO Respond?

If you wanted to cause a war, here’s a formula with high odds of success. Send thousands of migrants to your border, have your border force try to push them into a neighboring country, and fire warning shots when your neighbor’s soldiers try to keep the migrants out. In such a tense situation, the other country’s soldiers might misinterpret the shots and fire back. At Belarus’s border with Poland, such an accidental conflict is now a concrete risk. What will NATO do if it comes to pass?

“The potential for escalation is extremely high,” Estonia’s defence minister, Kalle Laanet, told a defense conference on Nov. 10. 

The situation on Belarus’s border with Latvia, Lithuania, and especially Poland was, in fact, already escalating. For weeks, Belarusian authorities had been arranging for migrants to fly to Minsk and then transporting them to the border, where the migrants tried to illegally enter the three neighboring countries. But over the weeks the migrants had grown bolder, or more desperate, as all three countries reinforced their borders with barbed wire and more guards. As Laanet spoke, crowds were again trying to force their way into Poland. Some of the migrants were using shovels and felled trees to try to bring down the fence now protecting the border, and others were being shoved by Belarusian forces. 

A week earlier, Belarusian soldiers had threatened to open fire at Polish forces across the border. In a subsequent incident, Belarusian forces fired shots—thought to have been blanks—at Polish soldiers. Polish soldiers, meanwhile, have fired warning shots into the air as migrants lunged at the border; on one occasion, migrants hit a soldier with a tree branch. There are concerns in Poland that migrants are receiving tools from Belarus with which to attack Polish forces. 

It takes no flight of the imagination to consider what might happen next. Polish soldiers hearing Belarusian guns must instantly decide what sort of shots are being fired at them. They may conclude it’s live rounds.

This is a realistic possibility, considering that President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus—the instigator of his country’s weaponization of migrants—seems hell-bent on harming the EU and NATO. In fact, Lukashenko seems to revel in his growing reputation as not merely an authoritarian leader but a madman, which gives him the liberty to launch any action conceived by his imagination. 

And the long-time Belarusian leader is bringing Russia into the fray. On Nov. 11, the two countries announced they’ll begin conducting joint combat alert patrols at Belarus’s border with Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine. “This ring around the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine must be monitored by Russian and Belarusian servicemen," Lukashenko said in a statement. On the same day, Russian nuclear bombers conducted a monitoring mission in Belarusian airspace.

Skirmishes involving troops on the border, skirmishes involving migrants, and now the addition of Russia: the situation at Belarus’s border with its NATO and EU neighbors is an accidental conflict waiting to happen. It would take just one group of Polish or Baltic soldiers responding to Belarusian shots—or shooting at migrants attacking them with clubs, logs, and similar tools—for a dangerous escalation to erupt. The Belarusians, now assisted by Russian forces, would clearly fire back, and the other side would respond to that fire. What’s more, in Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania there are NATO troops stationed there as part of the alliance’s Enhanced Forward Presence, or EFP. “They demonstrate the strength of the transatlantic bond and make clear that an attack on one Ally would be considered an attack on the whole Alliance,” as NATO explains in an EFP factsheet. And on Nov. 12, Poland announced that British troops had been sent to its border—with NATO allies—on a reconnaissance exercise.

Does an accidental conflict involving breaching of borders and escalating shooting constitute an armed attack? That’s not an abstract question. In Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, NATO’s member states “agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence.” Should a shooting war erupt at Belarus’s border with a NATO country, the alliance’s members would swiftly have to agree whether the situation constitutes an armed attack.

NATO has some experience discussing this kind of question. The alliance deemed the 9/11 attacks, which used civilian aircraft against civilian buildings, an “armed attack,” and subsequently helped the United States topple the Taliban. But the 9/11 attack was backed by Afghanistan, not a major geopolitical rival. 

Two decades later, the alliance hasn’t figured out how to respond to something that looks and walks like an armed attack by a rival but officially isn’t one. Some of the alliance’s 30 members would likely argue that NATO should try to defuse the situation. Others would argue that weaponizing migrants and triggering a conflict constitutes a 21st-century armed attack and that NATO should punish Belarus. What that punishment would be is, of course, entirely unclear: part of the beauty of aggression in the gray zone between war and peace is that that liberal democracies can’t respond in kind. NATO just isn’t going to send thousands of migrants into Belarus.

Given that aggression in the grey zone between war and peace is extremely attractive—involving minimal cost in blood and treasure—Belarus’s weaponization of migrants highlights a troubling reality: NATO is set up for conventional and nuclear war, but its adversaries have long expanded beyond conventional and nuclear war. 

Aleksandr Lukashenko will force NATO to quickly decide how to respond to gray-zone aggression. And let’s not forget that EFP was set up precisely to assure the Baltic states and Poland of NATO’s support if their Eastern neighbors should try any tricks. If one of the EFP soldiers is harmed in clashes with Belarusian forces, migrants, or both, NATO will have little choice but to respond with force.