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Countering the Baltic Migrant Crisis (Layne Philipson)

Big Picture:


Belarus holds a critical geopolitical position in Europe, protecting the continent from illegal immigration, drug trafficking and Islamic extremism. Alexander Lukashenko, president of an increasingly autocratic Belarus, intensified friction between the Russian-Belarusian axis and its European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) counterparts through his manipulation of the 2020 Belarusian presidential election. Following a series of harsh economic sanctions in response to Lukashenko’s reelection, Belarus made good on its threat to manufacture a migrant crisis as a political weapon. The persistent EU-Belarus standoff offers the U.S. a unique opportunity to mend its transatlantic partnerships, which have been threatened by past “America First” rhetoric and the abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan in Aug. 2021. 


Operative Definitions:


  1. European Commission (The Commission): The executive body of the EU that formulates and enforces laws.

  2. Hybrid Warfare: The integration of military force and irregular methods (disinformation, economic pressure, cyber attacks, etc.) to defeat an enemy.

  3. Ghostwriter: A hacking and misinformation group that targets Eastern European and Baltic states, promoting anti-Western propaganda. Since 2016, the EU claimed Russia was behind Ghostwriter. Recent reports claim it is actually a branch of the Belarusian state. 

  4. U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID): An international development agency designed to promote peace, democratic governance and human rights through economic funding. 

  5. U.S.-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP): An unsuccessful proposal to enhance trade between the U.S. and EU member-states, initiated in 2013 and abandoned in 2016. 

Important Facts and Statistics:


  1. 1994: Alexander Lukashenko was elected as the first president of the Republic of Belarus. 

  2. August 2020: Lukashenko is accused of election fraud after his reelection with 80% of Belarusian votes. 

  3. May 2021: Lukashenko arrests a dissenting journalist, Roman Protasevich, on a Ryanair flight. The West states its disapproval of the situation. 

  4. May 2021: Lukashenko states Belarus will open its borders to migrants from the Middle East. 

  5. July 2021: The migrant crisis at Lithuania’s border intensifies, leading the government to start constructing a 320-mile, metal fence.

  6. August 2021: Latvia declares a state of emergency as migrant numbers increase at its borders. 

  7. November 2021: Airlines stop flying to Belarus from the Middle East. 

  8. December 2021: the EU suggests that the Baltics detain migrants who cross their borders for 16 weeks. 


Five-Point Plan:


(1) Understand the complex cultural history of each Baltic state. 

Lithuania and Latvia have little experience as independent states. Both countries have struggled for their identity throughout history amidst external control from neighboring forces, and both remain alert to threats to their sovereignty. Any interventions into the domestic policies of the Baltic states must be aware of each population’s perspectives. To force solutions unpopular to the people is to ensure resentment and lackluster efficacy. The U.S. must be attuned to the objectives of each Baltic state, providing appropriate economic and humanitarian support. The West should respect the Baltic’s wishes to the fullest, and not engage in invasive geopolitics that tries to create a one-size-fits-all solution.


(2) Combat Belarusian misinformation campaigns. 

Similar to Russia, Belarus regularly attempts to discredit Western institutions. These misinformation campaigns, led by Ghostwriter, most often target NATO and EU members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Following Lukashenko’s reelection, 16 of Ghostwriters’ 19 campaigns attempted to create tensions between the Polish and Lithuanian governments and instill doubt in NATO’s intentions in the region. Demaskuok.lt, a Lithuanian website that translates to “unmask,” works aside Lithuania's Military Strategic Communications to identify disinformation news pieces in the Russian and Lithuanian languages. However, Europe and the U.S. have not yet accepted a universal method of “debunking” disinformation narratives and lack a uniform definition of disinformation campaigns. Such challenges limit the efficacy and legitimacy of the Lithuanian initiative, as they prevent the EU and U.S. from most fully engaging with Demaskuok. The U.S. must help Europe define this concept and unite transnational efforts to combat disinformation.


(3) Enhance economic cooperation with the Baltics. 

The U.S. must provide economic aid to the Baltics, both to address the immediate crisis and to limit each nation’s long-standing economic vulnerabilities. USAID may be employed to address the humanitarian crisis at the borders, but the U.S. must devise a long-term plan to enhance the Baltic economy. For instance, the U.S. should revitalize efforts towards the TTIP, paying particular attention to pieces of the plan that were most divisive to present a modified proposal. The Russian energy market levies great influence over the Baltics and the U.S. should support them. For example, Lithuania’s efforts to transition from a reliance on Russian gas pipeline to its desired clean energy market. Such transitions are valuable for American national security, as Russia has long sought to exert political pressure over the West and Western transitioning nations through its energy production. Furthermore, the U.S. should assist Lithuania in breaking its ties to Belaruskali, a Belarusian fertilizer company that provides 20% of the world’s supply of agricultural potash fertilizers. Despite U.S. and UN-led sanctions against Belarus, Lithuanian Railways continued its partnership with Belaruskali and has since exposed the nation’s reliance on business with a state-owned, Belarusian company. The U.S. should help Lithuania transition to new regional partners, including Ukraine and the Balkans, and isolate Belaruskali from dealings in the region. 


(4) Increase economic sanctions on Belarus. 

It is recommended that the EU and U.S. not become complacent, or consider their existing sanctions as a short-term solution to a deep-rooted and enduring problem. The U.S. should increase its sanctions against Belarusian state-owned companies, such as Belaruskali, to prevent Minsk, the capital of Belarus, from levying further economic control over the Baltics. The U.S. Department of the Treasury should continue imposing sanctions targeted at Belarus’s sovereign debt to expand its December 2021, order that sanctioned 32 peoples and entities on its list of Specially Designated Nationals (SDN List). Since Belarus has transitioned to the Russian equivalent of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) banking system and System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS), Lukashenko has anticipated increased sanctions against his country. 


(5) Push to present Belarus as a burden to Russia. 

Though certainly focused on economic reprieve from the West, Lukashenko’s efforts have brought his relationship with the Kremlin into question. Two theories dominate the conversation: that Lukashenko is attempting to distance himself from Putin’s overbearing nature or demonstrate his worth to the Russian Federation. In either case, the U.S. will benefit from promoting Belarus as a burden to the Russian economy. In doing so, the West can further isolate Belarus from its patron and thus further cripple Lukashenko’s status-quo system. In such an environment, Belarus will be forced to resolve the problem it has created.  


Why This Initiative is Important:


The United States and its allies should remain committed to maximizing weaknesses in the Belarusian economy and political system. American policies in these crises provide the U.S. an opportunity to demonstrate its priorities, concerns, and commitment to its allies. The U.S. and its allies would benefit from a tailored approach to the Belarus and Baltic conflict that acknowledges the distinctiveness of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. 


Acknowledgment:

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.


Sources:

Official Website of the Republic of Belarus. “Belarus History.” https://www.belarus.by/en/about-belarus/history. Accessed 11 Dec. 2021. 

Reuters. “Minsk's Standoff with EU and Belarus Border Crisis.” 9 Nov. 2021. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-belarus-migrants-timeline-idAFKBN2HU1SV. Accessed 11 Dec. 2021.

Roncone, Gabriella, et al. “UNC1151 Assessed with High Confidence to Have Links to Belarus, Ghostwriter Campaign Aligned with Belarusian Government Interests.” Mandiant, 16 Nov. 2021, www.mandiant.com/resources/unc1151-linked-to-belarus-government. Accessed 9 Dec. 2021.

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