Nov 10, 2021 - World

"Hybrid warfare" in Belarus tests West

Polish soldier

A Polish soldier at the Belarus-Poland border. Photo: Irek Dorozanski/Polish Ministry of National Defence via Getty Images

European leaders have accused the dictator of Belarus of funneling hundreds of Middle Eastern migrants to the borders of Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, creating scenes of chaos and desperation on the EU's eastern front.

Why it matters: Experts and Western officials say Alexander Lukashenko is manufacturing a humanitarian crisis that is testing Europe and its American allies with the kind of "gray zone" warfare long practiced by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

  • Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a co-chair of the Free Belarus Caucus, told Axios that Lukashenko's behavior "amounts to state-sponsored human trafficking."
  • "He is a tyrant and his efforts to recruit and facilitate the travel of migrants to exploit them for political purposes demands action from the U.S."

Background: Lukashenko ruled Belarus relatively unchallenged from 1994 until August 2020, when he claimed victory in a blatantly rigged election that set off a mass protest movement.

  • The man known as "Europe's last dictator" initiated a brutal, months-long crackdown.
  • Opposition leaders who weren't arrested were sent into exile in neighboring European Union countries.
  • One of them was Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a teacher-turned-activist who claims to be the legitimate winner of the election. She met with President Biden at the White House in July.

Between the lines: Lukashenko has long been a thorn in Putin's side. But the Russian president came to his neighbor's defense when the West called on him to resign after the election, and experts say Russia is happy to exploit Lukashenko's erratic behavior for its own political gain.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), another co-chair of the Free Belarus Caucus, told Axios the crisis is "a test of American resolve."

  • Wicker said President Biden should "waste no time" sanctioning both Belarusian and Russian officials.
  • "Putin and Lukashenko regrettably only speak the language of force," he said.

Driving the news: Polish authorities say up to 4,000 migrants have massed at the border and are being actively encouraged by Belarusian agents to rush the razor-wire fence.

  • Amid the scenes of chaos, Biden met on Wednesday at the White House with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
  • Von der Leyen told reporters the EU will move to expand sanctions against Belarus next week, and she's been informed the U.S. will join them in December.

What they're saying: "I have no doubt that Lukashenko is carrying out this campaign with Vladimir Putin’s oversight," Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Axios.

  • "It is a manufactured crisis designed to destabilize the EU and NATO, which is exactly what the Kremlin wants."
  • "Anyone who cares about the future of independent democracies in Europe should care about this hybrid-warfare campaign."

What to watch: Wicker called on Biden to invite Tsikhanouskaya to next month's "Summit for Democracy" in a show of U.S. solidarity with the people of Belarus.

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