On November 15, the EU Council amended its sanctions regime to tackle hybrid attacks and instrumentalization of irregular migrants. For those who had been following events in Belarus during the year since its autocratic ruler Alexander Lukashenka lost election to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, it was a long-expected but somehow belated step, attempting to counter the hybrid aggression coming from the bizarre autocratic alliance of Lukashenka and Putin.
For more than 20 years, the autocratic ruler of Belarus was skilfully playing the swing policy, flirting with both Russia and the West, extracting benefits from their growing antagonism in the form of Russia-subsidized gas and oil prices, loans, trade preferences, all kind of grey schemes including sanctions evasion and human trafficking.
Many in the West, especially after the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine, genuinely believed that Lukashenka chose to stick at that moment to a West-friendly neutrality policy and bought his claim of Belarus as the «donor of stability in the region». Simultaneously, the Kremlin with its imperial ambitions became anxious seeing the growth of a new, pro-Western generation in Belarus, which values the country’s sovereignty, and started building up pressure on Lukashenka to speed up the Belarus–Russia integration within the Union State treaty, signed in 1999 by Lukashenka and Yeltsin. This pressure was again used by Lukashenka to present himself to the West and his own population as the «guardian of sovereignty of Belarus», which, together with limited liberalization, saved him from the Western criticism for continued human rights violations.
It all came to an end, however, in the run-up to the presidential campaign in 2020. Dire situation with Covid-19 due to the government mismanagement and Lukashenka’s personal Covid-dissent, deepening economic crisis led to popular protests and the emergence of the candidates for presidency who were critical of Lukashenka and uncontrolled by regime. The most dangerous ones were put in jail, leaving Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, wife of one of the detained candidates, as the only true Lukashenka’s rival.
Lukashenka and his circle, apparently, miscalculated not only her, but also Belarusian people, who united behind Tsikhanouskaya and put their ballots in her favour, queuing up to enter the polling stations.
Massive electoral fraud and the loss of election by Lukashenka were obvious. People were disgusted and fed up with Lukashenka’s rule, so they took to the streets. Unprecedented violence was unleashed immediately, and Lukashenka, the «guardian of Belarus’ sovereignty», flipped and turned to Putin for support against what the now illegitimate ruler called a «Western plot» to overthrow the president, take over Belarus, and attack Russia.
In exchange of Putin’s support, Lukashenka had to offer something. Kremlin very much wanted progress in the integration, both in political and economic areas, and in the second part of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, it seemed that the Kremlin has got its way: the so-called integration roadmaps were back on the negotiations table, and the reform of the Constitution was announced as well as a possibility to give a larger role to political parties in Belarus. The latter were viewed by the Kremlin as an influence resource and a symmetry to the Russian State Duma, which would ease political integration and ensure a better control of Lukashenka. However, Lukashenka had no intent to loosen his grip over the country. He believes in personal control over the political system and has puppetized the country’s economy, turning it into his own private pocket. Therefore, in spring 2021 it became already clear that no party reform was in the pipeline, and that changes in constitution will ensure keeping Lukashenka.
The integration decree signed by Lukashenka on November 4, 2021 enables implementation of 28 roadmaps, which, according to our sources, have no specific timeframe or benchmarks and do not affect Lukashenka’s control over the country’s wealth. Most likely this was a tick box operation that would save the Kremlin’s face and allow Lukashenka to blackmail his own population and the West by a prospect of a loss of Belarusian sovereignty.
However, there was another good that Lukashenka sold to Putin. This good was the neutrality of Belarus that had been repeatedly sold by Lukashenka to the West in previous years, using a claim that Belarus could be «Eastern Europe’s Switzerland». Immediately after the August 2020 election loss, Lukashenka changed his rhetoric, shaming and blaming the NATO, the West, Poland and the US specifically for attacking Belarus, «the last frontier of Russia» and the «besieged fortress». This demonstration of willingness to escalate the situation had actually several target audiences: the Kremlin, demonstrating Lukashenka’s loyalty to it and his readiness to act as a proxy if need be; the West; the pro-democracy part of the Belarusian public to blackmail them; the general population to instil fear of a violent conflict, and his own elites – to show that he is still in control and supported by Putin.
In a sweeping manner Lukashenka destroyed Belarusian independent civic and media space, those who annoyed both him and the Kremlin.
After the visit of the Kremlin’s security services patriarch Patrushev, more than 300 Belarusian NGOs were deregistered, many of their leaders were detained and are facing bogus charges.
Lukashenka started verbally attacking Ukraine to please the Kremlin and is sending mixed signals regarding possible recognition of the Crimea as part of Russia.
It seems that the Kremlin has bought this message of loyalty at least partially, as it needed Belarus to make Ukraine more vulnerable through expanding a possible attack line at the Belarus-Ukraine border and put more pressure on the West and especially on the population of the countries possibly targeted by the Kremlin – Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. However, the Kremlin’s appetites go beyond a mere escalation – it wants to have a full-fledged military presence in Belarus in the form of a military base. Currently Lukashenka has only given in for a joint military training centre, which some experts see as a military base in disguise. One may assume that currently Putin should be even more satisfied by Lukashenka signing the joint military doctrine.
Playing the escalation game is one of the Putin’s favourites. However, Lukashenka is a partner difficult to control or to keep his mouth shut. Lukashenka in this game pursues his own interest – to pit even more Putin against the West and to blackmail the West with a view to coerce it to recognize him as a legitimate president and engage in a subsequent dialogue. He knows that every escalation step he takes would be seen now as supported and approved by the Kremlin, which adds to his feeling of impunity. A slow response by the West with sanctions expansion led Lukashenka to feel indomitable and resulted in a forced landing of the Ryanair plane. Only then the EU introduced at least partially serious sectoral sanctions, affecting Lukashenka’s ability to derive revenues. The UK and the US sanctions followed, but did not hit the Minsk regime hard enough to keep it from further acts of external aggression.
The current migration crisis on the EU and NATO borders did not come out of the blue. According to various sources, operation Gateway had been functioning quietly for years, trafficking human through Belarus to the EU. Some interviews with the migrants currently stuck at the Belarus-Poland border confirm that the Belarusian corridor to the EU was known to function, but the numbers were kept low. The trafficking system was already in place before the current crisis erupted and the whole idea of the weaponization of migration was also there as the Kremlin had already quietly used it for a while to undermine the EU countries. It also fitted nicely into another season of Putin’s attempts to destabilize the EU and the NATO through escalation around Ukraine, the gas blackmailing, hybrid activities in the Balkans – you name it. This new escalation season looks like a somewhat asymmetrical and mockery response to the US demand to de-escalate relations, put forward during the Geneva Biden – Putin summit.
The migration crisis in the summer on the borders of Lithuania and Latvia seems now to have been a testing of the ground to see what the reaction of the West would be. As the reaction was somehow limited in terms of sanctions, but didn’t bring any benefits in terms of coercion to dialogue with Lukashenka, he went on and attacked Polish border with the thousands of migrants. Here we should note that Poland is among most hated states by Putin, so definitely here Lukashenka has had his full support, at least at the start of the operation.
In the eyes of both Putin and Lukashenka, it could not fail. For Putin it is another attack on the West in his favourite form – through proxies. His formula «they are not there» (about Russian military man in Crimea and Donbass) was almost verbatim repeated in his recent comments to the media on the migrants crisis and in his conversation with Angela Merkel, when he mockingly sent her to talk to Lukashenka directly, thus trying to force Germany and the West in general to accept Lukashenka as a negotiation party, give up the non-recognition policy and, subsequently, accept Kremlin’s re-divide of the world. The operation is aimed at deepening rifts in the societies of the EU countries, radicalizing both left and right narratives, shifting criticism from the situation in Belarus (and Russia) to the situation inside the EU, and possibly deepening divisions among the EU and NATO members. All obvious choices for response are bad: if the EU opens the border to the current group of migrants, hundreds of thousands would easily follow through Russia into Belarus and on to the EU borders. If the borders remain closed, the EU would and already is accused of being inhumane, and provocations against the Polish border guards would be used to instigate violence.
However, there is a one caveat, that Putin has foreseen, but Lukashenka has not. Migrants brought by the regime into the country came as tourists and do not wish to stay inside the make-shift refugee camp at the border. They are flooding Minsk and other cities, provoking fear and unrest of the population, thus further de-legitimizing Lukashenka inside the country.
For Putin, the crisis on the border gave him an opportunity to send in his bomber planes barraging through Belarus skies, and send in his landing forces for a sudden military exercise, passing yet another threatening message to the West: enhancing military presence of the EU at the borders of Belarus, according to the newly signed joint military doctrine, might lead to the armed conflict with Russia, including use of the tactic nuclear weapons, according to experts.
Lukashenka was victorious. However, the Kremlin did not hesitate to show Lukashenka his place.
A warning message to Lukashenka came directly from Putin when the former declared in a rage that he would block the gas transport to Europe. It seems that this warning was one of the subjects of a recent Putin–Lukashenka phone call. The Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on Lukashenka earlier remarks, when he had quoted parts of his phone call with Putin at which they allegedly discussed «arms being shipped from Donbass to the Iraqi Kurds» in the makeshift refugee camp, adding that «Kurds are known to be fighters». According to observers, this statement by Lukashenka caused a lot of anger in the Kremlin.
As we closely monitor the Kremlin and Lukashenka-controlled media, it seems that Lukashenka is fearing to lose control over the situation with migrants as they are too unpredictable. He is already trying to shift the blame to Poland, stating that actually Poland needed the crisis on the border. Lately, he also offered to «ship» the migrants off to Germany, bypassing Poland – using Belavia flights (Belavia is banned from flying to the EU after the forced landing of the Ryanair plane).
However, this does not mean that the crisis will resolve itself any time soon. First, it was a lucrative business: according to various sources, the «tourists» paid up to 5000 euros to be transported and let through the Belarus–EU border, and it had functioned quietly before it became weaponized by bringing thousands of people to the border at once. Secondly, the deeper is the crisis, the more benefits Kremlin derives from it, both in terms of harming the EU and biting off pieces of Belarusian sovereignty.
As we are writing this article, we are still unaware what entities will be on the EU sanctions list in the upcoming designation. What we know, though, that even the threat of the EU and possibly the UK and the US sanctions made airlines like Aeroflot, Turkish Airlines and others take preventive steps. But this will not prevent charter flights of no-name companies in taking up the job. This is why not only the executors of the operation should be targeted, but the centres of the command, their financial systems, the revenue-deriving schemes and the regime’s wallets. Until all the loopholes are sealed off, the Putin-Lukashenka alliance will continue to terrorize the West and their own population.