The EU Scrambles to Respond to ‘Hybrid Warfare’ on the Poland-Belarus Border

There is growing frustration across Europe with the European Union’s slow reaction to what the bloc’s leaders are calling “hybrid warfare” at its eastern border with Belarus. But fraught relations with Poland, the member country most affected by the crisis, are complicating a collective response, with growing concerns that a further round of sanctions will escalate the conflict not only with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, but also with his main ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

To get a better sense of what’s happening at the Belarus-Poland border today, we have to go back to August 2020, when Belarus held a presidential election that the domestic opposition and international observers largely agree was rigged to guarantee Lukashenko’s reelection. When the country subsequently erupted into months of mass protests, state security forces responded with a brutal crackdown. Months of severe repression culminated in May, when the Belarusian air force forced the landing of a Ryanair flight traveling through Belarusian airspace from Greece to Lithuania in order to arrest a Belarusian dissident on board. Having already applied sanctions for the fraudulent election and crackdown on protests, the EU imposed a new round of measures targeting Lukashenko and key members of his administration after that incident.

In response, Lukashanko has for months now been incentivizing migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere to fly to Minsk, from where the Belarusian government transports them to the country’s border with Poland and sends them across in wooded areas away from the official border crossings. Before now, the Belarus-Poland border was not a hotspot for undocumented migration into the EU, in part because the passage by land is impractical, but also because Poland, which is not a very welcoming place for migrants, is usually not their intended final destination. But the migrants currently seeking to cross the border have reportedly been told by Belarusian officials that once they make it into Poland, they will be able to proceed onward to any EU country without facing a border control. Belarus is also sending migrants over the border with Lithuania and, to a lesser extent, Latvia, both of which—like Poland—are EU member states within the bloc’s passport-free Schengen Area.

Poland, in turn, has been carrying out brutal “pushbacks” to force the migrants back across the border into Belarus, a practice that international NGOs say is a violation of international migration and asylum norms and law. Warsaw is also preventing outside observers from going to the exclusion zone at the border to see what’s going on for themselves. What little we know is therefore largely coming from the Polish government and media, which many in Brussels and across the continent distrust because of the degree to which state-run media outlets amplify the messaging of Poland’s right-wing government. For the ruling Law and Justice party, the crisis is also serving as a welcome distraction from its rule-of-law battle with the EU.

For Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, the border crisis is serving as a welcome distraction from its rule-of-law battle with the EU.

European Council President Charles Michel was in Warsaw yesterday trying to improve cooperation between Brussels and Warsaw on the border crisis, but the deep levels of mistrust between the two sides are an obstacle to that effort. Poland has turned down an EU offer to send in agents from Frontex, the bloc’s border guard force, to help secure the frontier. Speaking in Warsaw, Michel called Belarus’ behavior a “hybrid attack” against the EU and warned of additional sanctions to come. He also called for the EU to show its “strong unity.” Meanwhile, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen discussed the situation with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House yesterday, saying afterward that Washington and Brussels are ready to impose joint sanctions against third-country airlines involved in what amounts to a human trafficking scheme masterminded by Lukashenko. “This isn’t a migration crisis,” said von der Leyen. “This is the attempt of an authoritarian regime to try to destabilize its democratic neighbors [that] won’t succeed.” 

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of orchestrating the crisis, calling it a further effort by Moscow, among many, to destabilize the union. He added that Russia is waging “a new type of war in which people are used as human shields” and warned of a possible armed conflict at the border between Poland and Belarus. On Tuesday, Lithuania also declared a state of emergency on its border with Belarus. 

At the very least, it’s clear that Putin could intervene to stop Lukashenko’s “hybrid warfare” with the EU, which is reportedly what German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked him to do in a phone call last night. But by all accounts, Putin was not receptive.

EU ministers are currently discussing expanding existing sanctions against Belarus to target its national airline Belavia as well as its suppliers in the EU. There is also speculation that the sanctions could be extended to airlines involved in the transfers from the UAE and Turkey, the latter of which has also in the past been accused of weaponizing refugees at the EU’s southern border.

Some other voices are going even further, suggesting that EU sanctions should be extended to Moscow. But there are concerns that this might be a step too far, one that could escalate the current tensions into an armed conflict. As European citizens mark Armistice Day today, this fear of out-of-control escalation looms large across the continent.

In Other News

Facebook is still in the hot seat. Following her recent testimony to the U.S. Congress, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has been on a tour of Europe this week, speaking to national lawmakers in Paris, London and Berlin. But perhaps the most important stop on her tour was her testimony Monday before the European Parliament in Brussels, given that EU lawmakers are currently crafting two pieces of legislation—the Digital Services Act and the Artificial Intelligence Act—that could crack down on social media platforms. The EU has claimed the role of being the world’s regulator on tech issues, and it is arguably the bloc’s lawmakers, more than commissioners, that Silicon Valley fears the most. Haugen also met in Brussels with EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, who said after the meeting that “Europe is serious about regulating what still resembles a digital Wild West,” and encouraged the bloc’s lawmakers to pass the Digital Services Act as quickly as possible, by the first half of 2022 at the latest.

Elsewhere, as a reminder of how much Silicon Valley fears Brussels more than Washington, an EU court yesterday confirmed the record anti-competition fine of 2.5 billion euros against Google handed out a few years ago.

Will Johnson invoke Article 16 or won’t he? Negotiations over revisions to the Northern Ireland Protocol of the U.K.’s Brexit divorce treaty with the EU continue. But officials in Brussels are becoming more and more convinced that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government intends to trigger Article 16, the Brexit agreement’s so-called nuclear option for getting out of the protocol in an emergency. In a speech to the House of Lords yesterday, the U.K.’s Brexit minister, David Frost, appeared to back off a bit from the Article 16 threat, saying negotiations will continue for a “short number of weeks.” That appears to set a rough deadline of the end of 2021 before the U.K. would trigger the article. 

For its part, the EU considers triggering Article 16 to be a nuclear option that would essentially be a violation of the divorce treaty agreed to in 2019 and risk unraveling the follow-on permanent status trade deal agreed to at the end of 2020. It would take a year to actually cancel that deal and switch to a full no-deal Brexit. But there are reports that the EU is preparing a temporary package of retaliatory measures in the event that London triggers Article 16 that would essentially amount to an immediate abrogation of the permanent status agreement. Frost responded to these reports in his speech, warning that the U.K. would retaliate in kind. Frost’s EU counterpart, European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic, told member state representatives yesterday that dialogue between the two sides is ongoing. But national governments are calling for a hard line against the U.K. on the Northern Ireland issue, insisting that Johnson implement the measures he committed to in the divorce deal. So the big question remains, Will he trigger, or won’t he?

Dave Keating is an American-European journalist who has been based in Brussels for 12 years. Originally from the New York City area, Dave has in the past covered the halls of the U.S. Congress in Washington, courtrooms of Chicago, boardrooms of London, cafe of Paris and the climate campaigns of Berlin.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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