Foul play: Lukashenko and von der Leyen wrestle over migration in an escalating Belarus-EU conflict

  • The EU’s targeted sanctions against the Belarusian regime keep on coming, and now with greater scope and severity. 
  • Lukashenko’s weaponization of illegal migrants at the EU’s Eastern borders is the latest hybrid attack that is driving conflict escalation.
  • Von der Leyen grapples with this crisis and divided European leaders, increasing pressure on Belarus without losing sight of EU values.
Ursula von der Leyen, EC President / Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus
Ursula von der Leyen, EC President / Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus

Why is Lukashenko in conflict with von der Leyen?

Answer: his weaponization of illegal migrants as a response to continued EU sanctions. 

A state of enduring tension between Belarus and its Western neighbours is, by all means, business as usual. The issues of authoritarian repression, human rights abuses, and a deep-running allegiance to Putin have shaped Alexander Lukashenko’s relations with the EU throughout the 27 years he has spent as President of Belarus. However, the state of escalating conflict between Minsk and Brussels that is now apparent has its roots in August 2020, with the presidential elections that sent Belarusian society into a frenzy and Europe into firm opposition. Within two months, the EU Council imposed targeted sanctions against those responsible for electoral fraud and violence against protesters, opposition members, and journalists.

This would be the first of many rounds of restrictive measures—including individual travel bans, asset freezing, and a region-wide airspace ban⁠—imposed by the EU against Belarus throughout the past year. Nonetheless, as the Council’s blacklist has grown lengthier, Lukashenko’s regime has grown emboldened, sending out one vindictive signal after another. On May 23, a Ryanair flight was driven into forced and unlawful landing in Minsk, resulting in the detention of a dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega. On June 21, Brussels followed up by extending travel and financial sanctions to 166 persons and 15 entities connected to the regime; this new package also focused on the most profitable sectors of the Belarusian economy⁠—oil, potash, and banking⁠—thus emphasizing a willingness to adopt a tougher approach. On June 28, Lukashenko responded by dismissing the EU’s representative in Belarus, and suspending the country’s participation in the EU’s Eastern Partnership program.

This diplomatic tug-of-war has seen Ursula von der Leyen struggling to maintain a perception that the EU, a strong institution and a beacon of democracy, holds a position of power over the Belarusian dictator. Meanwhile, Lukashenko has focused on finding ways to outdo himself and hit Europe where it hurts the most. Earlier this year, he landed on illegal migration. What first started as a threat to stop cooperation at the country’s Western borders—shared with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia—has now been deemed an “ongoing hybrid attack,” with Belarus openly sponsoring and facilitating inflows of migrants into the EU. This particular terminology is used in the broader context of Russian-based hybrid warfare, whereby the lines between traditional armed combat and other hostile activities are blurred, redefining the current notion of conflict. 

The operation, which mainly involves Iraqi and Syrian nationals, starts with the arrangement of visas and flights to Minsk through government-sponsored fraudulent travel agencies and Belarusian embassies abroad, and ends with Belarusian border guards escorting migrants over the line. Throughout the summer months, Lithuanian officials have reported a fifty-fold increase in the number of irregular arrivals; Poland now records about 500 attempted crossings every day. Both countries have declared states of emergency, deployed troops along their borders, and called for Brussels to finance physical barriers. On October 22, von der Leyen sought out consensus-building among EU leaders. Despite her condemnation and announcement of further restriction measures against Lukashenko’s regime, the Council President most notably opposed a key demand: “there will be no funding of barbed wire and walls.”

What does Lukashenko want?

Answer: to retain power, play by his rules, and ridicule the EU.

With the advance of Lukashenko’s aggressive policies against the 27-nation bloc, it has become more clear that his goals are more egoistic than strategic in nature. Power—the need to retain it, gain it, or perceive it—has remained at the center of his every action. Having quashed his opposition at home, the Belarusian leader has shown his resolve to think bigger by directing a similar campaign of intimidation and irregular violence against his Western neighbours. This allows him to take revenge for the international efforts to subvert his regime, through sanctions and sponsorship of anti-government protests in his streets. 

However, Lukashenko is aware of the undeniable reality that the EU’s economic and geopolitical power is no match to any offensive capabilities Belarus could muster, Putin’s support considered. It is in these circumstances that hybrid warfare becomes the only option for retaliation, and plane hijackings or human trafficking become prominent features in the leader’s unscrupulous toolkit.

These recent developments have shed light on Lukashenko’s willingness to sacrifice his country’s economic interests, autonomy, and welfare for the sake of preserving his strongman identity. Despite the arguable ineffectiveness of EU targeted restrictive measures up until now, the breadth and scope of sanctions is starting to rapidly increase, with two direct consequences. For one, the rising price of regional tensions with the EU bloc is a chokehold on the Belarusian economy; secondly, complete isolation from the West pushes Lukashenko further into Putin’s shadow, solidifying Russia’s direct control over Belarus. The continued provocations on Lukashenko’s part are testament to his individualistic priorities.

However, besides strengthening his regime, the leader also seeks to weaken its opponents—not only by inflicting objective harm, but also by making a mockery of them. Engaging the EU in foul play and forcing von der Leyen to contend with a regime her leadership does not recognize, Lukashenko is working to destabilize the Union from within. Taking a page out of Erdogan’s book, his introduction of an issue as delicate as migration has given Minsk the opportunity to engineer a humanitarian crisis, blame the EU for the situation at its Eastern borders, and create divisions between the organization and its most affected member states.

What does von der Leyen want?

Answer: to better protect EU integrity through a unified vision for external border defense.

In her 2021 State of the Union Address, Ursula von der Leyen made her priority for the EU clear: common action based on shared values. This idea underpinned her commentary on Lukashenko’s latest campaign. The Council President recognized a bitter truth: “as long as we do not find common ground on how to manage migration, our opponents will continue to target that.” She then called for the trust, unity, and commitment of each individual member state regarding the protection of the EU’s external borders.

It appears that von der Leyen’s gravest concern as of late is the growing division that Europe is facing. Despite trying to keep a hopeful undertone throughout her Address, there were inevitably more mentions of conflictive issues than celebrations of true unity. Defense integration, enlargement in the Balkans, and rule of law are only some of the thorns in the side of the EU, and exacerbate the perception of an East-West divide. Poland is increasingly becoming a more contentious actor for EU integrity. Last month, the Polish top court ruled that domestic law takes precedence over EU law, fueling hostility with Brussels; two weeks later, Poland joined calls of neighbouring member states for the EU’s financing of physical walls to contain the migration crisis along its Eastern border.

This situation, driven in part by Lukashenko’s actions but also by the EU’s internal cohesion problems, is posing a great challenge for von der Leyen’s leadership. Her baseline objective of preserving EU integrity—in terms of territory, membership, and values—is clearly being undermined.

What is von der Leyen doing?

Answer: balancing an iron fist and a cool head.

As proved at the EU Council on October 22, von der Leyen plans to maintain a balanced response to Lukashenko’s weaponization of migration. This is on trend with the leader’s determined yet conciliatory approach to crises, also exemplified by her handling of Poland, which was marked by dialogue and restraint. The escalating offenses of the Belarusian regime have been proportionately met with escalating sanctions, which now have broader sectoral targets. In this sense, Brussels is signalling a willingness to keep increasing pressure on Minsk, even if sacrifices must be made. Back in June, Josep Borrell spoke of tougher economic sanctions and their consequences: “you know you do not make an omelette without breaking eggs.” It seems that the EU is ready to bear the collateral damage—on Belarusian civil society, on European member states’ economies—in order to stand up to Lukashenko.

On the flipside, von der Leyen’s approach reflects a concern for playing by the rules, regardless of her opponent. An emphasis on European values— democracy, rule of law, and human rights—is apparent in her refusal of funding border walls as requested by Lithuania and Poland. Instead, von der Leyen has used this as an opportunity to promote cooperation under the framework of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, proposed in September 2020. Urging member states to “speed up the process” of implementation, von der Leyen has clearly chosen the avenue of trust and consensus-building. 

Meanwhile, an issue emerges around Frontex, the hard-power arm of EU integrated border management, whose involvement in this crisis has been met with pushback from Polish authorities, much to the dismay of opposition. This sheds light on von der Leyen’s dual internal challenge: exerting pressure on EU member states for the greater good, while also supporting their domestic authorities through a sense of partnership.

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: Lukashenko for now, but the EU is catching up.

Considering the leaders’ respective goals at a surface level, Lukashenko is partly winning. By using migration as a tool of hybrid warfare, the Belarusian dictator has successfully embroiled the EU in a situation of horse-trading: national security for human dignity, sovereignty for common values. This is not a good look on von der Leyen, who is also under internal pressures from concerned member states. Right now, the struggle is on the Western side of the conflict. However, one must keep in mind that this degradation of European institutions produces nothing more than momentary satisfaction for Lukashenko. A successful offensive strategy does not take away the economic crisis, socio-political unrest, international disapproval or Russian exploitation that Belarus is facing for the long haul.

On the other hand, there is still hope for the European leader, as long as she keeps gearing the EU towards a tougher response. Lukashenko’s cronies and his most vital ally, Putin, are facing increasingly unappetizing costs for the support of the Belarusian regime; the moment protecting the dictator stops being worthwhile, a domino effect could likely bring the Lukashenko era to a close. This cannot be taken for granted, however, and Von Der Leyen will need to do everything in her power to accelerate this process. Furthermore, due to the geopolitical implications of regime change in Belarus—whether it be towards democracy or a new generation of Russian puppets—the definition of a European ‘win’ in the current context may need to be reconsidered. 

As for you, unless you are a resident of Belarus or its bordering EU member states, it is unlikely that this conflict will directly affect you. In any case, it will be interesting to observe how the balance of power in the European continent will continue shifting, especially with Russia’s progressive absorption of Belarus

At the time of writing, the Belarus-EU conflict is a prolific news story and updates are emerging every day; their common denominator is escalation. On November 8, the Polish government held a crisis meeting to address the security threat, later accusing Lukashenko of “state terrorism”; meanwhile at the border, Polish authorities are now using tear gas to repel those crossing from Belarus. The EU is gearing up to adopt more and harsher sanctions, which von der Leyen has promised will come into force in the following weeks. Ten migrants, including at least one child, have died on the Poland-Belarus border, and the increasing risk of hypothermia could multiply this number soon. This conflict is, by all means, one to watch.