Timo Hellenberg, CEO at Hellenberg International
The immigrant emergency caused by the flow of migrants to the Belarussian border has resulted in numerous concerns and questions being posed in the Western capitals. On Monday 15 November, the European Union moved to crack down on a border crisis with Belarus amid fears that Russia may use the cloak of chaos for its own benefit. On Monday EU foreign affairs ministers agreed to expand EU´s existing sanctions on Belarus. With the new sanctions the EU can tackle with any airlines or officials involved in bringing migrants from their home country to Belarus and further to the EU border — a ploy the EU calls a “hybrid attack” against the EU. There are currently several thousand migrants trapped on the Belarus side of the border with Poland. Lukashenka is trying to cling to power resorting to any means that suit the purpose. Artificially created migrant crisis, uncomfortable and alarming to the EU, suits him well.
The President of Belarus stated on Monday he would send the migrants via the Belarusian state-run airline Belavia to Germany if Poland does not provide a humanitarian corridor: “We will send them to Munich on our own planes if necessary.”
Apparently Lukashenka can count on Russian support in this migrant crisis, although there is no evidence that Russia is directing migrant flows. This drastic situation, however, is linked to Moscow’s interest in preserving its near-neighbourhood, with its ongoing desire to secure its defence zone in the Leningrad oblast, St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad. Moscow has struggled internally and externally at the cross-waves of well-earned Western sanctions and its propaganda-flavoured Covid-19 responses. Minsk itself had relatively good relations with the West until Russia plunged itself into war in the eastern part of Ukraine and occupied the Crimean Peninsula.
The origins of the ongoing border crisis between Belarus and the European Union can be drawn to the crisis that erupted in Kyiv at the end of 2013 as the result of the failure of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement, which was five years in preparation. The Prime Minister announced that Ukraine was not ready to sign the agreement due to new calculations of the losses that would come with the signing, some $160 billion, which would be needed as compensation from the European Union. At the same time, Ukraine’s suggestion for tripartite negotiations between Ukraine, the European Union and Russia were proposed, which the EU could not accept. The power game was hard and it is still going strong. Russia’s geopolitical ambition was clear then and it remains: to restore the security zone of “friendly” countries around it. Russia wanted to keep Ukraine within its own sphere of influence, and the signing of the association agreement would inevitably have meant Ukraine moving westward and forward.
The ongoing crisis repeats the crisis management methodology, using innocent civilians and the most vulnerable groups of society in the “russkiy sposob delat’ veshchiis” to create an immediate shock among its enemies. The equivalent methods can be found in the centuries-old thinking of Novgorod and Moskovits, such as in 1558, when the Russian infantry, along with barbaric mercenary groups, took over Ida-Virumaa (Eastern Estonia) with a heavy hand. The first written records go back to the times of the Russian raids of 1367, when the troops of Novgorod and the Livonian Order fought a battle in Jõhvi. St Michael’s Church was destroyed, to be later rebuilt as a powerful fortified church, which was again destroyed in the Livonian War in 1558. Tsar Ivan the Terrible laid siege to the church twice, and finally captured it on 3rd February 1558. It had no strategic value, but doing so sent a clear message with lost holy infrastructure and devastated peasants to Reval (Tallinn).
These sacrifices, like the migrants’ tragic stories in today’s news, played the role of multi-influencing (or hybrid operation), having no strategic value but seeking to shock the decision-making system and in order to extract possible volunteers and allies. As at the time, the motive for the Russian moves today is to use the softest tissues of our societies to paralyze us psychologically.
Moscow has a long tradition of border conflicts and using them to their own purposes, of which Finnish history gives a good example. The shelling of Mainila (in Finnish ‘Mainilan laukaukset’) was a military incident which occurred on 26 November 1939 in which the Soviet Union´s Red Army shelled the Soviet village of Mainila. The Soviets declared that the fire originated from Finland across the nearby border and claimed to have suffered losses. Using its disinformation and propaganda machinery, Moscow gained a “casus belli” for launching the Winter War four days later. Russia’s actions today follow these age-old political-strategic and tactical-operational methods aiming at shifting our attention to the things they choose, to suit their purpose. The systemic weakness of the European Union and the West is its clumsy crisis decision making machinery and inability to prevent these events by defining and ensuring its interests. The current crisis seems to draw attention to those countries that criticized the ongoing wars in eastern Ukraine, as well as to hint as possible future events, ie. to tease Poland and Lithuania. It is noteworthy that Latvia has not been so much involved in this operation.
Is it time for us now in the West to learn something from this ongoing Russian multi-impact operation, a centuries-old tradition, but one we have not yet learned to prevent? Russia has plenty of muscle to support Minsk – or to keep it on track. Russia’s nearby ground forces consist of four divisions and six brigades, a total of 45,000 men. If necessary, two motorized brigades and one marine brigade, a total of 14,000 men specialized in CBRN combat skills, can leave from Kaliningrad. Moscow can also detach 15 battalions from its north-east defensive area, which includes 4 heavy armoured battalions, to engage in a “peace meditation process” at the Belarussian border. The first responding force, already seen in action, will be airborne troops, which were brought in spectacularly by Il-76 transport planes to a joint military exercise with Belarus on Friday 12 November in Ghoza, near the Polish border. It was organized close to the Suvalki corridor – a vital terrain which connects NATO with the Baltic States. If this ground is not controlled by Poland and Lithuania, it puts at risk needed support from NATO to the Baltic States.
Should we finally determine our societal resilience to the Russian strategy for its near-neighbourhood? Let´s move towards comprehensive and coordinated EU level preparedness and an interest-driven response instead of repeating our collective reactiveness year after year. And let’s not find our EU crisis decision-making mechanism paralyzed by external shocks that seek to hinder the responses needed.