You can say this much for Belarus’s dictator, Alexander Lukashenko: The man does not lack chutzpah. In the year following the grotesquely fraudulent election that prompted the largest wave of public protests in the country since his arrival in power in the 1990s, the strongman has picked not just one but two fights with the West, gradually upping the ante.
In recent weeks, Lukashenko’s regime has brought into Belarus thousands of migrants, mostly from Syria and Iraq, prompting them to attempt illegal crossings into the EU. Perhaps as many as 4,000 of these migrants are near Belarus’s Polish and Lithuanian borders, according to the Polish government, with some 10,000 more heading in that direction. New “travel agencies” in Syria and Iraq are luring prospective migrants and asylum seekers to pay for one-way trips to Belarus, as Belarusian consulates hand out tourist visas. Earlier this week, the Lithuanian government declared a state of emergency along the country’s border with Belarus, banning all travel within 5 kilometers of the border. The government also started building a border wall to keep the situation under control.
Lukashenko’s brazen actions, surely conducted with the approval of the Kremlin, are carefully timed. Given Eastern European November weather and the calculated harshness of Belarusian authorities, the situation can easily descend into a humanitarian disaster. And it may take just one misstep of, say, Polish border guards going viral on social media to turn sophisticated public opinion in the West against Warsaw’s handling of the situation—an easy proposition given the Polish government’s ongoing legal standoff with Brussels, magnified by the controversial anti-abortion ruling from the Polish constitutional court last year and that ruling’s tragic consequences.
Lukashenko might very well get away with this attempt to drive a further wedge between Poland and Lithuania and their Western partners. He did, after all, get away with an earlier instance of use of force against the EU—in May, when his regime used a fighter jet to hijack a Ryanair flight between Athens and Vilnius in order to abduct a Belarusian citizen on board, a critic of the regime. The EU’s reaction was minimalistic, calling for an “international investigation” and promising to eventually deploy additional sanctions.
There are, furthermore, reports—sketchy, unconfirmed, but provocative nonetheless—that Lukashenko is bringing foreigners into Belarus for the purpose of conducting terrorist operations in the EU.
Short of an actual shooting war, it is hard to imagine a more clear-cut case of using hard power against other countries than what Lukashenko and his Russian sponsor have been doing lately. Alas, Poland’s and Lithuania’s Western partners are out to lunch, notwithstanding verbal expressions of solidarity from, say, the U.S. Department of State and other foreign ministries.
Already the May hijacking was solid ground for a comprehensive trade and investment embargo, cutting Belarusian banks off SWIFT (the standardized system of transactions between banks worldwide), and seeking to exclude the regime from the U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization. NATO members ought to be talking about deploying military assets on the Lithuanian and Polish borders to dissuade Lukashenko and Putin from any further shenanigans—while working behind the scenes the facilitate regime change in Minsk. Unfortunately, the most one can reasonably expect is an expansion of existing sanctions against Belarus.
This Veterans Day—this anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War—there is one lesson that appears forgotten in most Western capitals: Effective deterrence has to be disproportionate. If, in contrast, gray-zone aggression by malevolent actors produces only meticulously proportional and predictable pushback, it is quickly factored in as a mere nuisance in the decisions made by regimes in Minsk, Moscow, Beijing, or Tehran. From Vladimir Putin’s perspective, facing another round of economic sanction is trivial compared to, say, a 5 percent chance of peeling Poland off the EU and Western alliance. To make his or Lukashenko’s regime hurt is neither easy nor costless for the West. Yet, unless effective deterrence is restored, the West might sleepwalk into a real conflict more easily than most of us would like to imagine.