Alexander Lukashenko, the thuggish, authoritarian president of Belarus, has long threatened his own people. But now he's threatening neighboring nations, using mostly Mideast migrants as human pawns in an unconscionable act of asymmetric warfare against Western sanctions.
Lukashenko, who cruelly cracked down on massive demonstrations against the widely held belief by Belarusians and Westerners alike that he stole a 2020 presidential election, has ramped up his retribution against European Union nations by manufacturing a migration crisis at Belarus' border with Poland and Lithuania.
The scheme (scam, really) has worked like this: Lured by the false promise of an easy passage to the European Union, Belarusian travel agents in nations such as Iraq and Syria offer flights to Minsk, where migrants are granted a visa, then sent to the border, sometimes with wire cutters.
Armed Belarusians make sure the migrants don't return east, and to the west the migrants face razor wire and troops ordered to repel illegal entry, leaving them stranded, and increasingly freezing, in the borderland woods.
Lukashenko has demanded no more sanctions, and even threatened to cut off Russian natural gas supplies as Europe's winter approaches. That was a step too far for his political protector, Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose motivation is mercantile, not moral. Putin publicly disavowed Lukashenko's energy pipeline threat, but hasn't stopped the human pipeline of people lured to misery, or even death.
The E.U. rightly didn't flinch from responding to what it called a "hybrid attack." On Monday, on top of the economic penalties put on Lukashenko's government for the stolen election and the brutality against Belarusians protesting it, the E.U. readied a new round of sanctions and extended them to "individuals and entities" party to the migration con.
Likely on this list are at least two dozen Belarusian officials, the Syrian airline Cham Wings, the Hotel Minsk and perhaps even the Minsk Airport. Meanwhile, U.S., U.K. and Canadian sanctions are also being considered and coordinated.
"Today's decision reflects the determination by the European Union to stand up to the instrumentalization of migrants for political purposes. We are pushing back on this inhuman and illegal practice," Josep Borrell Fontelles, a E.U. representative for foreign affairs and security policy, said Monday.
The E.U. is right — in preparing more sanctions and in describing Lukashenko's tactics as illegal and inhuman.And as it continues to respond, it must keep in context Putin's malevolent role.
The crisis "is not taking place in isolation," Daniel Fried, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, told an editorial writer. Fried, a former diplomat whose portfolio included stints at the National Security Council and U.S. ambassador to Poland, added that "Putin is meanwhile building up his military near Ukraine, with a clear threat to invade." It's part of a broader trend, Fried said, of Putin "leaning forward with an aggressive design."
The West must push back against Putin's lean forward, and continue to back the Belarusian opposition, many members of which have sought refuge in Poland. The stakes are much higher than an isolated border crisis in Eastern Europe.
"If we care about democracy in general and Europe that we fought two world wars and the Cold War to get to this state of a united Europe, we ought to care," Fried said. "It's also a sign that the Biden administration's effort to have a 'stable and predictable relationship with Russia' — their [the administration's] term — is not working out as they hoped."
The policy isn't flawed, Fried said, "but it doesn't matter what we want. It matters what Putin is going to do. And he's blowing that up."
Western solidarity, more elusive in recent, rocky years, needs to hold firm on Lukashenko's hybrid attack. But what sets Western leaders apart from Putin, Lukashenko and others is prioritizing humanitarianism.
So somehow — ideally after a coordinated effort to staunch the flow of unsuspecting migrants from coming to Belarus — the West must do everything to save the endangered migrants. True, it's Lukashenko's, and by extension, Putin's responsibility. But they've shown themselves more favorable to inhuman abuses than humanitarian impulses.