20 years under Putin: a timeline

Since June, the Belarusian state has been importing migrants from Africa and the Middle East, transporting them west from Minsk to the borders of the European Union, and deploying armed guards to prevent the refugees from returning to Belarusian territory. Russian officials’ failure to denounce the actions of its Union State partner make the Kremlin complicit in this scheme, even if there is—as of yet—no hard evidence directly tying Russian security services to the Belarusian human trafficking operation.


November 13, 2021: Migrants at a makeshift camp on the Belarusian side of the Belarus-Poland border. Photo: Leonid Shcheglov | BelTA pool photo via AP.


The first reports of Iraqi refugees crossing the border from Belarus into Lithuania started to appear in early July of this year, shortly after Belarusian national carrier Belavia began offering daily direct flights between Minsk and Baghdad. After detaining a total of 81 illegal migrants in all of 2020, Lithuanian border guards had taken over 4,000 into custody by the start of August 2021. European pressure on the Iraqi government resulted in the Baghdad-Minsk route being reduced to one flight per week, but since the end of summer, the flow of migrants has only increased, as twelve Belarusian travel agencies enjoying official permission to sell transit visas to passengers arriving from cities including Istanbul, Irbil, Amman, Damascus, and Dubai operate freely on the territory of Minsk National Airport. On the European side, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland have all fortified their eastern borders with barbed-wire fencing, at a cost to taxpayers of over $400 million. Currently, between 4,000-5,000 migrants sit sandwiched between Belarusian border guards and Polish regular army troops in the Bialowieza Forest. 

The Belarusian government deliberately created this crisis, and its motivation for doing so is clear: revenge against its Western neighbors who, since August 2020, have recognized exiled opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as the rightful winner of last year’s Belarusian presidential election, have imposed a raft of sanctions against the regime of Alexander Lukashenko over its inhumane treatment of peaceful protesters, and have denied Belavia access to European airspace (this after the Lukashenko regime forged a Hezbollah bomb threat for the direct purpose of grounding the Athens-to-Vilnius Ryanair flight of an exiled activist Roman Protasevich). It is also clear that, without the direct support of Moscow, Lukashenko’s grip on power in Minsk would be significantly weakened.  

Since the start of its political crisis, Belarus has suffered an exodus of IT specialists and has been hit with economic sanctions banning its export of potash and petroleum to Europe, yet through it all, Russian support has continued to keep the Belarusian economy viable. This dependence of Minsk on Moscow means that the Kremlin controls all of the economic levers necessary to influence the Lukashenko regime’s behavior in the international arena, which is why, even in the unlikely scenario that the Belarusian security services really did plan and execute the ongoing migrant export scheme with no input whatsoever from their Russian counterparts, Moscow still deserves a significant share of the blame for the current situation.

The Russian government could have—and still can—put pressure on its dependent in Minsk to stem the tide of migrants. Instead, Russian officials have actually been providing Lukashenko with rhetorical cover. On November 9, for example, the day on which the Belarusian commander-in-chief publicly suggested that the Polish troops massing along his western border might represent the first wave of a coming NATO invasion, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov still saw fit to compliment the “Belarusian specialists working responsibly” to alleviate the crisis, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed that Europe pay Minsk compensation for the trouble that the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was now causing Belarus. Given the public statements of such high-ranking government officials, Russia is, at the very least, a willing accomplice to Lukashenko’s crimes.

Unfortunately for the West, there is probably no sanction capable of dissuading the Russian government from its support of the Lukashenko regime (tying final certification of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline to the question of presidential succession in Minsk is the one potential demand that could actually compel the Kremlin’s compliance, but such a proposal would require overtly politicizing an officially apolitical European Union bureaucratic procedure). Russia’s unwavering support for Lukashenko’s Belarus is not the result—primarily—of concern in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle that a more Western-leaning Minsk might actually become the staging ground for a NATO invasion of Smolensk Region, nor is it because certain well-connected Russian business interests might have their privatizing eyes set on the state-owned Minsk Tractor Works, nor is it because a disturbingly large segment of ex-KGB fantasists still harbors the impossible dream of reuniting the Russophone lands under the rule one divinely-appointed czar. Rather, the Putin regime is concerned with the survival of the Lukashenko regime mainly out of a simple instinct for self-preservation, for if the Russian people ever got the idea that peaceful protest might be enough to replace an election-manipulating president-for-life with anything better, then Vladimir Putin’s already fraught options for regime preservation beyond 2024 would only become more uncertain. This is why the Russian government went to such lengths to discredit and destabilize Ukraine following the Maidan revolution of 2014, and it is why the Belarusian government’s weaponization of women and children has been met in Moscow with tacit approval. The Lukashenko regime, like the Yanukovich regime of pre-Maidan Ukraine, is of minimal geopolitical, economic, and cultural significance to Russia, but it is of great personal concern to every individual member of Putin’s inner circle, which stands to lose everything from any transfer of power in Moscow—even from a peaceful one. Lukashenko’s fall would create an existential risk not for the Russian state, but for the current Russian regime; therefore, nothing short of an existential threat to their political survival could convince the Kremlin’s current occupants to cease their support for the powers-that-be in Minsk.     

The above should not be taken as a policy recommendation. Creating existential threats against a cabal of nuclear-armed kleptocrats with a tenuous grip on objective reality comes with risks that are advisable to avoid whenever possible. Fortunately, in the case of countering Russian support for Belarus, running such risks is wholly unnecessary. The greatest asset the West has in this struggle is the inherent capacity of democratic systems to muddle through crises, and the European Union—with as much assistance from The United States as is necessary—must demonstrate both cooperation and patience if it is to outlast the authoritarian challenge emanating from its eastern border. It is not by accident that Belarus is sending brown-skinned, Muslim migrants into the Polish countryside at a moment when the notoriously xenophobic administration of Polish president Andrzej Duda is using homophobic propaganda to consolidate a critical mass of societal support for anti-democratic judicial reforms and anti-EU budgetary priorities. Even as individual Polish citizens search the woods for migrants in need of assistance, Amnesty International has taken note of Polish border guards’ harsh treatment of anyone caught cutting through the barbed wire fence—a topic that the cynical Russian state media has parroted almost daily in its attempts to discredit “liberal Western values” in the eyes of Russians and Europeans alike.

Under such circumstances, it is in the enlightened self-interest of the greater Western world to ensure that Poland is given all the necessary resources to cope effectively and humanely with the influx of migrants. This means establishing temporary migrant camps patrolled by a multinational peacekeeping force and staffed with an international cadre of consular officers. After being thoroughly vetted, any legitimate refugees ought to be resettled in European countries farther west, while all economic migrants must be publicly returned to their countries of origin so as to forestall the potential next wave of Iraqis and Syrians who might yet be tempted to risk their life savings on a direct flight to Minsk. By responding to this deliberate provocation in a patient, cooperative, humane manner, the West can eliminate the demand for Lukashenko’s human trafficking services without compromising the selfsame democratic values that inspired hundreds of thousands of Belarusians to take to the streets against their president-for-life just one year ago.  

Successful navigation of the migrant crisis, unfortunately, will not magically lead to peaceful coexistence between the Russian-Belarus Union State and its western neighbors. However, by mustering an effective joint response to the current border situation, the European Union and its transatlantic partners can reaffirm their will to stand up for democratic values while simultaneously expanding their capacity to deal with the next challenge arising from its east, whatever creative form that inevitable challenge might take.


* Michael Wasiura is a political analyst based in Moscow.