Migrants stand behind a fence inside the newly built refugee camp in the Rudninkai military training ground, some 38km (23,6 miles) south from Vilnius, Lithuania, Aug. 4, 2021.

Migrants stand behind a fence inside the newly built refugee camp in the Rudninkai military training ground, some 38km (23,6 miles) south from Vilnius, Lithuania, Aug. 4, 2021. AP / Mindaugas Kulbis

Belarus’s Weaponized Migrants Offer a Primer on Gray-Zone Warfare

Western governments would do well to study Minsk’s actions—and prepare their populations to be on guard.

First Belarus arranged for a few hundred migrants to cross the border into Lithuania. Then the number grew to several thousand. Then Belarus brought more migrants to Minsk and pushed them into Latvia and Poland; thousands have since made their way to Germany. All this is likely just the start: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is sharply increasing the number of airline flights from Middle Eastern cities to Minsk. 

This is how to destabilize a country—indeed, a continent. Every NATO member state should pay attention and think about how they would protect themselves should they be the next target.

It’s not as if Belarus is doing this in secret. In May, after Lithuania and the rest of the EU loudly protested the abduction of an opposition journalist, Lukashenko vowed to “flood the EU with migrants and drugs.” Soon Iraqis and others began crossing into Lithuania by the dozens, then hundreds, then thousands, applying for asylum in the Baltic state. (In 2019, 46 undocumented migrants entered Lithuania from Belarus.) Then migrants began crossing Belarus’s borders with Latvia and Poland as well. In October alone, Poland recorded 15,000 illegal border crossings

The whole scheme has been organized by Minsk, which issued tourist visas to all these thousands of migrants, even though nobody has tourism in Belarus in mind. It also arranges for airlines such as Iraqi Airways to increase their previously practically non-existent flights to Minsk, and the frequency of these “tourist flights” is set to accelerate further still. Minsk Airport’s newly released winter schedule is said to include a mindboggling 55 weekly flights from Middle Eastern airports. Indeed, the Belarusian government is so intent on getting migrants into the country that it allows passengers to board the flights without visas, instead issuing the visas upon arrival. Lately, it has begun to issue group visas

Once the prospective migrants have arrived in Belarus, the government helps them travel to the three countries’ borders. It’s a brilliant scheme that has already forced the three countries to divert significant resources to their Belarusian frontiers. Lithuania is building a fence, Poland will build a wall, all three have increased their border-guard presence, and Poland is also stationing 10,000 troops at the border.

This is where Lukashenko’s sinister game gets even cleverer. The Belarusian ruler knows that immigration is a hugely divisive issue within the European Union, and within individual EU member states. Poland’s strategy of pushing migrants back into Belarus has already caused a rift with Brussels—and thus worsened Poland’s already tense relations with EU headquarters. Indeed, Lukashenko knew that migrants forced by his regime into Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland would be unlikely to remain there. In September and October, German police registered 7,300 migrants arriving in Germany via Poland and Belarus. This sudden influx of migrants has, in turn, caused German far-right activists to travel to the border to try to keep the migrants out.

It’s easy to predict the next installments in this ugly sequence set in motion by a dictator hell-bent on destabilizing countries that have dared to challenge the legitimacy of his rule. Many more migrants will arrive in Belarus this winter and be transported by the Belarusian authorities to the borders of Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, whose authorities will go to great lengths to keep them out. But because Belarus refuses to take them back, the migrants will be left in limbo in cold temperatures, which will cause a toxic split within the EU. Many migrants who do manage to cross the borders will try to reach Germany, which is likely to cause an increased far-right vigilante presence at the border. That, in turn, is likely to draw far-left activists to the border as well. This migrant crisis created by Belarus could lead not just to clashes between far-right and far-left activists but also to a breakdown in relations between Poland and the EU, and unhappiness in Latvia and Lithuania over lackluster EU support. 

Indeed, the situation at the Polish-Belarusian border is already seeing encounters that could trigger an even more dangerous escalation, an accidental war even. Belarusian troops have fired blanks at Polish troops. But targeted soldiers can’t always discern what sort of shots are coming their way—especially when the shots are fired by hostile troops.

By callously using human beings as a weapon, Lukashenko will succeed in his plan to harm the EU. But because no soldier has crossed an EU or NATO border, neither the EU nor NATO has a strategy for how to lessen the blow of the aggression, let alone punish it. When I started writing my book The Defender’s Dilemma two years ago, it wasn’t obvious that gray-zone aggression would accelerate quite as rapidly as it has. Now it’s firmly here. Indeed, by brazenly embracing gray-zone aggression—by comparison, Russia and China have conducted their versions of it rather surreptitiously—Lukashenko has paved the way for other regimes to similarly plumb the depths of devious creativity to find ways to harm the West. 

That’s why countries should learn from Latvia’s, Lithuania’s, and Poland’s situation. The most obvious lesson is that even longstanding administrative cooperation accounts for nothing. When Lukashenko decided to weaponize migrants, decades of excellent cooperation between the Latvian, Lithuanian, and Polish border guards on one hand and the Belarusian border guard on the other vanished overnight. Indeed, while Western countries should continue to support a rules-based international order, Lukashenko’s gray-zone aggression demonstrates that rules, too, can mean nothing. People-smuggling is illegal, but what to do when a regime engages in it? Consider the consequences for the United States should a Latin American government decide to weaponize migration.

And the three countries’ experience should also teach their allies the importance of involving the public in preparedness. Doing so means publicly discussing vulnerability of modern society, not just to government-directed people-smuggling but all forms of gray-zone  aggression, ranging from cyber attacks to hostage diplomacy. It means creating ways for citizens to become involved in keeping their countries safe at the direction of their governments. It means convincing an increasingly cynical public that liberal democracy is worth defending. 

It may not be easy to galvanize a public that has been asked to do little, beyond paying taxes, to ward off foreign threats. But people just need to look at daily life in Belarus, China, or Russia to conclude that their countries’ way of life is worth protecting. 

Elisabeth Braw is a Senior Fellow at AEI, specializing in defense against gray-zone aggression.