Migrants as pawns in Putin’s hybrid warfare

Special to WorldTribune.com

By John J. Metzler

The setting is remote. The players are highly improbable. Yet in the deep and forgotten forests along the Belorussian/Polish frontier, thousands of migrants from far off Syria, Iraq, and even Afghanistan are massing and milling trying to enter Poland.


Because Poland forms the easternmost frontier of the European Union (EU) and thus becomes the path to freedom and prosperity in Germany or elsewhere in Europe.

Migrants try to cross from the Belarus side of the border with Poland, near Kuznica Bialostocka, Poland, in a video grab released by the Polish Defense Ministry on Nov. 8.

An international standoff continues along this remote border on the verge of Winter.

But the obvious question arises; how do all these largely Middle Eastern migrants end up in the remote landlocked country of Belarus?  And why in Belarus, a glaring retro version of the former Soviet Union?

The roots of this current migrant crisis are real enough; people wishing to escape the endless conflict, chaos and sectarian violence in the Middle East. Why Belarus, when the path through Turkey has been one of the traditional paths into Europe’s soft underbelly?

Turkey largely provided the route during 2015. Near Biblical migrant movements from Syria witnessed more than a million people flee to Germany and Sweden. Now more than 3,000    people, mostly Kurds, are camped along the Belorussian/Polish frontier but are being blocked entry into Poland (read the EU) by Polish troops, police and barbed wire fences. Clashes between migrants and Polish police have flared.

The Belarus regime of Alexander Lukashenko remains at political loggerheads with the European Union over rigged elections and a spate of human rights violations.  Intelligence sources claim it’s an open secret that Russia’s Vladimir Putin, has cajoled his protege Lukashenko into using migrant flows to destabilize Poland and probably Lithuania, two EU and NATO countries bordering Belarus.

Thus Putin can pressure Europe through a witting proxy who’s always looking for a fight.

Germany’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, accused Lukashenko of “using people’s fates, with the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, to destabilize the West.”

Remote Belarus is hardly a transportation nexus until you realize that the migrants are flying from a number of countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Turkey to Belarus via scheduled and under the radar charter flights to the capital Minsk.

The Belarus state airline Belavia maintains daily flights from Istanbul while other carriers such as Russia’s Aeroflot operate flights to Minsk.

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that his country faces a “new kind of war,” whose “ammunition is civilians.”

The European Union accused Belarus of mounting a “hybrid attack” by pushing migrants across the border into Poland which has reached “has reached a new alarming dimension. Groups of migrants are escorted by armed Belarusian security forces towards the borders of EU member states with the aim to force illegal entries.”

The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell Fontelles in Brussels stated   unequivocally, “We stand in full solidarity with the Member States affected by this hybrid attack and will continue assisting those most directly impacted.” In other words, Poland and Lithuania.

Following an urgent closed door discussions in the United Nations Security Council, a special statement on the border crisis by Estonia, France, Ireland, Norway, the United States and the United Kingdom underscored, “We condemn the orchestrated instrumentalization of human beings whose lives and wellbeing have been put in danger for political purposes by Belarus, with the objective of destabilizing neighboring countries and the European Union’s external border and diverting attention away from its own increasing human rights violations.”

The EU threatens more economic sanctions on Minsk. The dictator Lukashenko, Putin’s proxy from central casting, huffs, bluffs, and pushes hapless people towards Poland’s sovereign frontiers. Tragically, a number of these migrants have died during the brutally cold nights being marooned in this no man’s land on the doorstep of Europe.

Poland has every right to protect its international borders and state sovereignty.  So does Baltic Lithuania.  This does not say that the poor people caught in this limbo of no man’s land are the culprits.  Hardly.  But they are the unwitting pawns manipulated and guided by professional   people traffickers who send the hapless victims into uncharted territory.

Armed troops, high emotions and perhaps unseen provocations make this an accident waiting to happen.  Moreover, could Vladimir Putin be manipulating the Belorussian crisis to draw attention from Moscow’s plans regarding Ukraine?  Russia has massed tanks and mechanized infantry on the Ukrainian border in a bid to intimidate the Kiev government even as Winter approaches.

Poland bears the brunt of the crisis now but downstream it shall likely be Germany, France and Britain.  Poland chooses not to become the victim again.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]