Belarus and Russia must resolve the migrant crisis on their own
It appears that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s scheme to fling thousands of refugees from Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East across the European Union’s borders into Poland, Lithuania or Latvia may have begun to backfire — but only up to a point. Having faced resistance from his neighbors who refuse to take in any of the migrants, Lukashenko finds that his country may well have to absorb them, unless he repatriates them — at Belarus’s cost. In some respects, however, Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin, his puppet master in the Kremlin, already have won.
Lukashenko desperately wants to be recognized as the winner of the 2020 presidential election, whose rigged results gave him 80 percent of the vote. He also wants to demonstrate to Putin, who holds him in little regard, that he can be a useful tool in the Russian’s efforts to destabilize the West. And he is determined to have the European Union relax the four rounds of sanctions that it imposed on Belarus, initially in response to the election, and a fifth round that targeted airlines bringing the migrants to Belarus. It appears that, at a minimum, Lukashenko has come close to realizing his first two objectives.
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel phoned Lukashenko this week to discuss ways of ameliorating the crisis that he has created, she implicitly recognized that he was president of his country. Berlin denied that she had done so because she called him “Mr.” and not “President.” But that is a distinction without much of a difference; its nuances will be lost on the general public. Like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who seized upon his meetings with former President Trump to boast he was on a par with the most powerful world leader, Lukashenko now can brag that he has dealt directly with the head of Europe’s leading economic power and the EU’s most important player.
In addition, whatever Putin may think of Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus has materially demonstrated that he indeed can disrupt the EU — and especially create headaches for his neighbors, who are among Russia’s harshest critics. Certainly, there can be little doubt that the Russian president is Lukashenko’s puppeteer. Even if Putin did not encourage Lukashenko to precipitate the crisis, he can limit the Belarusian’s options. Thus, once Putin announced that Belarus should not try to halt Russian gas from flowing to Europe, Lukashenko ceased to threaten the EU that he would do so. Putin thereby demonstrated that however nominally independent Belarus might be, it remains as subservient to Russia as the Soviet Byelorussian Republic was to Moscow when, at the creation of the United Nations, Joseph Stalin insisted it be given a separate seat as an ostensibly independent state.
Precisely because Putin controls Lukashenko’s levers, the West should focus on him as much as on the Belarusian leader. To begin with, the EU should make it clear that it has no intention of removing any of the sanctions that were imposed after the election. Second, it should stand by the sanctions it imposed on flights to Belarus from Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Third, because technical reasons are holding up final approval of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, the delay should remain in place until Belarus — or, for that matter, Russia — accepts all the migrants at the EU’s borders.
Many Western legislators, including in the U.S. Congress, have opposed the pipeline because it will render Western Europe even more economically dependent upon Moscow, and therefore vulnerable to Russian intimidation. Russia has employed the gas spigot to bully Ukraine on multiple occasions. There is no reason to expect that in a crisis — for example, an attack on Ukraine — Russia would not use the threat of a gas cutoff to neutralize NATO’s European members, just as Lukashenko tried to do.
It is unfortunate that President Biden reached an agreement with Germany’s Merkel to provide $50 million each in green energy investments in Ukraine in exchange for removing any pressure from Washington to cancel the Nord Stream 2 deal. Nevertheless, because there is no timetable for activating the pipeline, two can play at Lukashenko and Putin’s game. Washington should stand with the EU in threatening Lukashenko and Putin that Nord Stream 2 gas will remain tangled in bureaucratic red tape indefinitely — at a minimum, until Belarus completely backs away from its current stance and, together with Moscow, brings to an end the humanitarian crisis that it willfully created.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.
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