Poland is warning of an “armed escalation” as a new kind of “grey-zone warfare” threatens to destabilise an entire continent.
In 2011, months before his death, Muammar Gaddafi was plotting his final revenge.
The brutal dictator, under attack from NATO forces supporting Libyan rebels, vowed to flood Europe with migrants in retaliation.
Gaddafi had long used harsh measures against human traffickers to stem the flow of African refugees across the Mediterranean – in exchange for hefty sums of cash from European governments.
The fall of Gaddafi’s regime later that year would give rise to the 2015 migrant crisis, which saw more than a million refugees from the Middle East and Africa enter Europe to request asylum – mainly from Turkey to Greece via the Aegean Sea, and also from Libya to Italy across the Mediterranean.
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Today, western governments are accusing Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko of provoking a new migrant crisis in Europe, with Poland on Wednesday alleging its neighbour is engaged in “state terrorism” after pushing back hundreds of migrants from its border.
Poland has sent in 15,000 troops along with police and border guards, and has warned of an “armed escalation”, as the United States and European Union urge Minsk to stop what they describe as an orchestrated influx.
“What we are facing here, we must be clear, is a manifestation of state terrorism,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told reporters in Warsaw at a news conference with visiting EU chief Charles Michel.
Lukashenko, closely allied with Russia, has openly threatened to weaponise migrants against the EU in retaliation for international sanctions after last year’s disputed election.
“We were stopping migrants and drugs – now you will catch them and eat them yourselves,” Lukashenko told the Belarusian parliament in May.
Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says Belarus’ weaponisation of migrants is a classic case of “grey-zone warfare”.
“By callously using human beings as a weapon, Lukashenko will succeed in his plan to harm the EU,” she wrote in Defense One.
“But because no soldier has crossed an EU or NATO border, neither the EU nor NATO has a strategy for how to lessen the blow of the aggression, let alone punish it.”
Braw, author of The Defender’s Dilemma: Identifying and Deterring Gray-Zone Aggression, said this was just the beginning, with Belarus planning to sharply increase the number of airline flights from Middle Eastern cities into Minsk over winter to 55 per week.
“This is where Lukashenko’s sinister game gets even cleverer,” she wrote.
“The Belarusian ruler knows that immigration is a hugely divisive issue within the European Union, and within individual EU member states. Poland’s strategy of pushing migrants back into Belarus has already caused a rift with Brussels – and thus worsened Poland’s already tense relations with EU headquarters.”
She noted thousands of migrants had already arrived in Germany via Poland and Belarus, causing German far-right activists to travel to the border.
“That, in turn, is likely to draw far-left activists to the border as well,” she wrote.
“This migrant crisis created by Belarus could lead not just to clashes between far-right and far-left activists but also to a breakdown in relations between Poland and the EU, and unhappiness in Latvia and Lithuania over lacklustre EU support.”
Braw warned that Belarus, by “brazenly embracing grey-zone aggression”, had paved the way for other regimes to “similarly plumb the depths of devious creativity to find ways to harm the west”.
“While western countries should continue to support a rules-based international order, Lukashenko’s grey-zone aggression demonstrates that rules, too, can mean nothing,” she wrote.
“People-smuggling is illegal, but what to do when a regime engages in it? Consider the consequences for the United States should a Latin American government decide to weaponise migration.”
Braw said every NATO member state “should pay attention and think about how they would protect themselves should they be the next target”.
“This is how to destabilise a country — indeed, a continent,” she wrote.
Thousands of migrants have crossed or attempted to cross from Belarus into the eastern EU member states of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in recent months, but the crisis reached a new level on Monday when hundreds made a concerted effort to cross into Poland and were pushed back.
Polish government spokesman Piotr Muller blamed “people linked to Belarusian special services” for organising the breach, and said that a further 3000 to 4000 migrants were massing near the border.
Concern is now growing for the migrants — mainly Kurds from the Middle East — who are trapped at the border, with the UN Security Council to hold an emergency meeting on Thursday over the issue.
At least 10 have died on the Poland-Belarus border, seven of them on the Polish side of the border, according to the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.
The migrants say the Belarusian side is refusing to allow them to return to Minsk and fly home, while Poland does not let them cross and make asylum claims.
Mr Michel said new sanctions against Belarus “are on the table”. European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said she expected “a widening of the sanctions” at the beginning of next week.
“This is the attempt of an authoritarian regime to try to destabilise its democratic neighbours. This will not succeed,” she said, speaking after a meeting with US President Joe Biden in Washington.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday called Lukashenko’s main backer, Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking him “to use his influence” with Minsk to stop what she called an “inhumane” instrumentalisation of migrants.
But Belarus and Moscow have said the West should deal with migrant flows caused by its military interventions in the Middle East.
The Kremlin said it was “irresponsible” for Poland to blame Putin for the crisis, while Belarus’s Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said the EU was causing the crisis because it wanted a reason to impose new sanctions.
“The migrant crisis was provoked by the EU itself and its states that border Belarus,” Mr Makei said on a visit to Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday.
— with AFP
Originally published as ‘Grey-zone warfare’: Belarus accused of ‘weaponising’ migrants to flood Polish border