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The weaponization of human tragedy
Russia is trying to expand its sphere of influence and recreate the geographic buffers it has viewed as critical to its national security since the days of the Tzars. Their efforts can be seen in how Belarus, one of their few remaining vassal states, has gotten creative in how it seeks to influence the actions of its neighbors by precipitating a migrant crisis on its border with Poland. While the impacts of this crisis continue to send shockwaves through eastern and central Europe Russia is simultaneously laying the groundwork for further military intervention in Ukraine. Although Russia’s attempts to re-establish control over the countries that have traditionally fallen under its sphere of influence has been a persistent feature of world affairs since the end of the Soviet Union, an inability to prevent a more aggressive territorial grab would represent a fundamental change in the post WWII world order and threaten the territorial integrity of other vulnerable states. Russia is using its ally Belarus as a tool in its hybrid war with the west, betting on western apathy and preoccupation with domestic matters to create an opportune moment to seize Kiev.
Belarus’s efforts to weaponize the plight of migrants has led to thousands of refugees becoming trapped between the border of Poland and Belarus. Armed Belarus soldiers have been corralling refugees towards the border, firing shots into the air to move them along while security forces in Poland do everything they can to keep the refugees from getting through and claiming asylum in the European Union (EU). The EU has accused Belarus of deliberately orchestrating the crisis as a part of a hybrid war designed to punish the EU for sanctions imposed on Belarus in June in response to the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsky on 23 May 2021, the detention of journalists Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega, and other human rights abuses. Belarus denies the accusations.
The majority of the migrants come from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, seeking to move overland to Poland after flying to Minsk. Although many are males, they include numerous families and small children that lack food, shelter, basic hygiene supplies and access to medical care. Belarus has recently relaxed its visa protocols to 76 countries allowing easier entry, and its state air carrier Belavia has increased the number of flights to Istanbul, a popular lay point for migrants seeking to get to Europe. Its soldiers have been videotaped leading migrants to the border with Poland to remote points away from main crossings, and the migrants themselves report that Belarus soldiers have cut holes in the border fence to let them into Poland. This type of low intensity, “hybrid” approach to imposing costs on states without crossing the threshold of war as a way to influence behavior is reminiscent of Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine, leading experts to speculate Russia is backing the effort and for world leaders to call on Vladimir Putin to use his influence to restrain Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko. However, Putin himself is currently setting the stage to potentially destabilize the region and expand his control.
The Long Game
Over 100,000 Russian troops have recently massed at the border with Ukraine and in the Russian occupied territories, along with the associated heavy weapons and logistical support necessary to launch an invasion. Both U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence estimates indicate that Russia could be preparing to launch an invasion as soon as January, with Ukraine believing the size of Russia’s force could make them capable of seizing their capital, Kiev. Ukraine is using this to ask for increased military, intelligence, and diplomatic support. Russia massed a similar number of troops at the border for their Zapad 21 military exercise earlier this year, demonstrating they had the logistical support and coordination to undertake such an invasion.
An invasion of Ukraine would likely be a short term domestic political boon for Putin, demonstrating Russian state strength and distracting from economic and covid 19 exacerbated health concerns at home while completing the campaign they launched seven years ago. The pandemic driven political turmoil embroiling several European states may also effectively hinder the EU’s or NATOs ability to credibly respond to an invasion. Additionally, the U.S. appears wary of getting directly involved in a new war after ending its campaign in Afghanistan and has been cautious to avoid getting directly involved in the ongoing conflict with Russian forces in western Ukraine, even as they expanded military aid to the government in Kiev. It’s likely Putin himself hasn’t decided if he will invade or not, and is waiting to gage the western response to his actions and events such as the border crisis before determining if now is the time to attack.
Responding to an invasion would be difficult for the U.S.. Ukraine is not a NATO member, an invasion of which would require a U.S. response in order to maintain the alliance’s credibility. However, a Russian takeover would pose a threat to the territorial integrity and political sovereignty of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia which are NATO members by consolidating Russia’s control in the region. A successful invasion may embolden Russia to engage in hybrid warfare to destabilize the governments of those countries to prompt a pretense of intervention, either directly by Russia or through Belarus as a proxy while handing a disinterested west the political cover needed to claim that article 5 of the NATO charter had not been triggered.
To avoid this, every effort should be made to deter an invasion, beginning with further expanding U.S. military aid to Ukraine. Additionally European countries can expand their military presence in Ukraine and conduct joint military exercises to signal their ability and willingness to project power despite current unrest at home. This would be a difficult and potentially costly use of limited resources at a time of economic and political fragility, but the costs of failing at deterrence would be catastrophic for the whole continent. Finally, European countries must continue to diversify their energy infrastructure to reduce their reliance on Russian oil and gas and increase their freedom to confront Russia without fear of the potential repercussions.
The weaponization of the migrant crisis to try and exert influence over a neighboring state is troubling, but not unprecedented in the world of geopolitics. Its use as a potential shaping operation for military action by another state though represents an evolution in the Russian approach to hybrid warfare, a technique that they have already used to great effect and that the west continues to struggle with identifying and responding to. Political instability and crises have always been used as opportunities for expansion by nations seeking to grow their power and prestige, but the consequences of failing to act assertively and early enough will have repercussions far beyond the borders of the territory Russia is eyeing to conquer.