AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’ ruler, likes to refer to himself as “Europe’s last dictator.” Combined with his decision to rename his security forces back to the KGB after taking power and his willingness to cross lines even Kim Jong-Un and the Iranian Ayatollahs would balk at – such as hijacking international airliners to kidnap 20-something bloggers and murdering opponents while they are out dog-walking – Lukashenko is the sort of guy you should expect anything from. His recent actions, which involve the Belarussian military rounding up more than 30,000 Middle Eastern refugees at gun point and driving them over the Polish border, are only exceeded in their audacity by the attempt of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to add a financial shakedown to this act of war by suggesting that the European Union pay Lukashenko to stop it.
Make no mistake, Poland, a NATO member state and U.S. ally, is under attack on its eastern border by a rogue Belarussian regime backed by Moscow. That those crossing the border are themselves mostly unarmed does not detract from the fact that armed Belarussian forces are forcing them across, amounting to a physical invasion of Poland. And lest there be any doubt as to the intentions behind it, Lukashenko himself has suggested that the Polish response of moving troops is itself an act of aggression. “We are not bullying … Because we know that if, God forbid, we make some mistake, if we stumble, it will immediately draw Russia into this whirlpool and this is the largest nuclear power,” Lukashenko said recently. Poland has correctly identified that Lukashenko would not act without Putin’s support, but the Belarussian leader’s recent behavior makes him the perfect Russian patsy.
Lukashenko is infuriated at Poland because Poland has continued to allow Lukashenko’s domestic political opponents to operate freely within Polish territory. Last summer Lukashenko held fraudulent elections, where he first arrested his leading opponents and then, when one of their wives chose to run, responded by releasing fabricated results showing him winning nearly 80% of the vote. The result was mass protests and a general strike. Aided by Russian troops bussed in, Lukashenko suppressed the protests, driving his opponents into exile. But this was not enough for the volatile leader.
Lukashenko has long displayed serious signs of paranoia. He has not only turned on his own children in the past, accusing them of plotting to overthrow him, but engaged in a love-hate relationship with Putin’s Russia, alternatingly relying on Moscow for support and accusing Putin of plotting his overthrow. In fact, the Belarussian KGB arrested a number of Russians for what it claimed was a plot to launch a coup in the leadup to the 2020 elections. While Lukashenko seems to have patched up his relations with Putin given the burnt bridges with the West following the 2020 protests, his paranoia has not abated. He seems to view any opposition as a mortal threat. This was demonstrated when Belarussian jets forced a commercial flight between Athens and Vilnius to land and removed a 26-year-old opposition blogger from the aircraft who was promptly charged with terrorism. The U.S. and E.U. responded with sanctions.
Lukashenko’s hostility towards Poland is likely due to a combination of factors. First, there is a historical nationalist view, whereby Belarus’ secession from the Soviet Union, which Lukashenko opposed, was in his view driven by “Poles.” This outlook is the product of decades of propaganda going back to the Russian partitions of Poland in the 1790s, which tried to convince Belarussians that they were Russians who had been occupied by Poles until they were “liberated” by Catherine the Great. In turn, the Soviets treated any anti-Communist or Belarussian nationalists as “Polish spies,” with the Polish minority suffering a near genocide under Stalin. Lukashenko shares with Putin a suspicion that pro-Western sentiment in Belarus – and for that measure any anti-Russian sentiment – is by definition Polish subversion.
Lukashenko also believes that Poland, by supporting the E.U.’s sanctions, is supporting his overthrow. In his mind, allowing bloggers and opposition activists to enjoy asylum in Poland is tantamount to preparing for an “invasion.” Lukashenko was likely furious when a Belarussian athlete at the Tokyo Olympic games defected and was granted asylum in Poland, and sees his current actions as an effort to retaliate.
Finally, Lukashenko probably agrees with Lavrov’s suggestion that if he escalates the border conflict, then not only might the European Union and U.S. be forced to drop sanctions, but they might even be compelled to pay him for “stopping the flow of refugees.” While audacious, such an outcome is far from inconceivable. Neither the United States nor the European Union has much desire for a military confrontation with Russia, which would follow any effort to invade Belarus in order to depose Lukashenko. With that option off the table, it is unclear politically how exactly the Poles can handle this influx of migrants. Lukashenko and likely Putin have bet, not without reason, that shooting refugees will not be politically acceptable. While so far European leaders who have otherwise clashed with Poland have voiced strong support, there is reason to believe that support may not last.
Poland’s government has been subject to a constant campaign of demonization in Western Europe for everything from “undermining democracy” to “assaulting LGBT rights” to most recently a campaign to blame the death of a 30-year old woman on the Polish Supreme Court’s elimination of abortion except in cases where the life of the mother is threatened, a clause which is ignored in coverage of what is almost certainly a case of malpractice by a local hospital. While some of these stories have vague relations to events which occurred and have basis in fact, and many of the authors are genuinely concerned about Poland, it is hard to escape the view that the anti-Polish campaign is too well-funded and too orchestrated not to be part of someone’s agenda. It seems probable that Russian intelligence and money is behind much of this campaign, and recent accusations that Polish border guards “fabricated incidents” were spread by Russian bots.
All of this has left the Poles isolated. Poland has mobilized its military, recently increasing its defense budget, and is making plans for a Donald Trump-style border wall. But Lukashenko and Putin seem to be betting that Poland is the weak link in the Western alliance, and that Biden’s commitment to said alliance is weak in any case. With good reason, they think that if push comes to shove, the political costs of supporting Poland will be outweighed by the short-term domestic benefits of making a deal, which leaves Lukashenko in place, sanctions lifted, and cash payments flowing to Minsk. Not to mention that having proven this sort of blackmail can work once, there will be little to stop Putin and Lukashenko from trying it again, including in Ukraine.
Biden and his team need to realize that they are not dealing with some random crisis, but a deliberate attempt at blackmail through aggression on an ally. Moreover, Biden and European governments have encouraged such aggression by their willingness to openly feud with Warsaw and thereby give the impression to Russia that Poland is isolated and vulnerable to pressure. In fact, even as Poland is under assault, the European Parliament is openly voting on condemning Poland’s abortion law for causing the death of the 30-year old mother. What sign does holding a vote to condemn Poland send to Putin and Lukashenko other than that Poland is alone?
Biden and his team may think they are helping the Polish people by pressuring their government, but all they are doing is empowering attacks, attacks which they will then find themselves obligated to resist as long as Poland is in NATO. They need to learn that both appeasement and incompetent passive aggression do not work. They only encourage very-non passive aggression from the likes of Lukashenko on American allies.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.