Home / Articles / From the Migrant Crisis to Aggression in Ukraine: Belarus is Still on the Baltic Agenda
As Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine enters its fifth month, a significant date has recently passed in another country — Belarus. May 23 marked one year since Belarusian authorities hijacked a commercial Ryanair flight transporting passengers, including Belarusian opposition figure Roman Protasevich, from Athens to Vilnius. While the incident may have faded from popular memory in some parts of the world, the situation in Belarus and on its borders is still top of mind for its regional neighbors in the Baltic countries. Trapped between its desire to diversify partnerships and its alignment with its single supporter, Russia, Belarus has pursued toxic policies that have brought new security challenges to the Baltic region.
Migrant crisis: Testing the resilience of the Baltic countries and the solidarity of the EU
The European Union responded to the May 2021 plane diversion with sanctions on Belarus, most of which were set to become fully operational by December 2021, and threatened hard times for Belarus’ economy. Hoping to thwart the EU’s sanctions policy and punish the Baltic states — vocal critics of the Belarusian regime and pacesetters of European sanctions — in summer of 2021, Belarus orchestrated a massive state-organized migrant crisis on the borders with Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. Belarus lured large numbers of predominantly people of Middle Eastern origin to Minsk “with the false promise of easy entry to the EU,” then pushed them across the border into the unprepared countries. With minimal support systems in place, Baltic countries have never been top destinations for refugees and asylum-seekers, and the border crisis came as a surprise. The countries did not have infrastructure and experience to address the needs of thousands of people who sought asylum at their doorstep. More than 4,000 people entered Lithuania, and around 120 were accepted in Latvia, however, almost 15,000 were stopped from entering the two Baltic countries. The crisis has now slowed, and so far Lithuania and Latvia have maintained control over national security; however, their push-back and detention strategies received wide criticism concerning their ethical and legal implications. But while Lithuania, Latvia and Poland dealt with the situation on the ground, Belarus’ goals were much broader, seeking to not only destabilize their neighbors, but also cause a rift in the EU to the benefit of both Belarus and Russia.
Migration issues are the EU’s stumbling stone, and the Baltic countries have been particularly reluctant to accept foreign people on their soil prior to hosting refugees from Ukraine. When Belarus initiated the migrant crisis, it likely anticipated that the EU would push Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland to make accommodations and process asylum applications according to international law. One could also expect that other EU countries would be unwilling to share the migrant burden with the Baltic countries. Indeed, during the migrant crisis of 2015, the Baltic countries failed to empathize with Southern European countries, leaving an opening to put European solidarity at risk in this new crisis. The controversial migration management methods used also could have further deteriorated the (already tense) Latvian, Lithuanian, and Polish relationships with the EU. However, the EU maintained surprising unity, imposing further sanctions on Belarus, loosening asylum management procedures, and providing financial support to the targeted member states.
During the 2015 European migrant crisis, EU authorities provided aid to Turkey in exchange for stemming the refugee and migrant flow into the EU. Belarus, therefore, had reason to expect the EU might offer similar support to Minsk to stop the crisis. The geographic location of Lithuania and Latvia, their poorly secured border with the eastern neighbor, and their critical political stance towards the Belarusian government gave Belarus an opportunity and motive. However, the EU maintained the economic pressure levied on Belarus and refused to negotiate with authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka, demonstrating no significant financial or political concessions to the country.
Finally, the migrant crisis also had much to do with the bilateral relationship between Belarus and Russia. For years, the Belarusian authorities have been masterfully exchanging economic benefits (lower gas and oil prices, favorable credit conditions, and access to Russia’s market) for theoretical military loyalty to Russia. Yet, practical gains for Russia were limited in this arrangement; for Russia, friendship with Belarus was uncomfortable. Moreover, Belarus enjoyed some political autonomy in pursuing a multi-track foreign policy when deemed beneficial. In 2020, things changed for Belarus following Lukashenka’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators protesting his fraudulent reelection. The EU, other organizations, countries, and businesses suspended their relationships with Belarus, and the country became exclusively dependent on Russia’s favoritism. In this new reality, Lukashenka had to demonstrate his value to Russia in words and deeds. Belarus’ orchestrated border crisis and Lukashenka’s aggressive rhetoric vis-à-vis the West facilitated tension in NATO’s Eastern flank and boosted their military presence at the border close to Russia’s territory. Given Russian military superiority in the region, the temporary relocation of small numbers of forces to NATO’s eastern frontier objectively threatened neither Belarus nor Russia. However, the situation enhanced the Belarusian claims of NATO’s hostility and the possibility that the Alliance could further encroach on Russia if regime change came to Belarus and undercut its role as a buffer zone. Through the border crisis, Belarusian authorities demonstrated the importance of pro-Russian leadership in their country to their key ally, and signaled that Lukashenka remains its best guarantor.
Belarus’ new constitution enhances Russia’s military threat to the Baltic countries
In early 2022, Belarus held the third constitutional referendum under Lukashenka’s rule. The proposed amendments projected the illusion of lessening presidential power, but in fact, designed scenarios for keeping Lukashenka in the state system. The new constitution, approved on Feb. 27, allows Lukashenka to extend his presidency until 2035 and, afterwards, to lead the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, which has significant influence in domestic, foreign and military affairs. Onwards, the president will also enjoy lifelong immunity from prosecution. Apart from significant domestic repercussions, Belarus’ amended constitution is also problematic for neighboring countries. Especially bothersome is the updated Paragraph 18, which abandons Belarus’ political neutrality and gives up its non-nuclear status. Although the legislative constraints do not matter much in the country, the amendments pave the legal way for Russia’s nuclear and conventional military presence in Belarus.
The nuclear threat as such is not a new phenomenon in the Baltic region. Short-range nuclear weapons are known to be stationed in the Kaliningrad, directly threatening Lithuania and Poland. Their deployment in Belarus would expose the wider Baltic region, given that the Baltic countries lack air defense capabilities. The Baltic countries’ vast military aid to Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s irritation with foreign assistance to Kyiv, and Russia’s nuclear blackmailing should set alarm bells ringing for NATO. The ongoing upgrades to NATO’s defense plans ahead of the Madrid summit have provided an excellent opportunity to finally resolve the air defense vulnerabilities in the Baltic countries. The summit preparation phase has moved defense planning in the right direction. Recently, ground-to-air NASAMS short-to-mid-range missiles have been deployed to Latvia and the short-range “Ocelot” air defense system has been deployed to Lithuania within the rotational NATO Enhanced Forward Presence framework. In the current security context, more permanently stationed air defense capabilities are of paramount significance for the credible defense of the Baltic countries. Improved air security would also facilitate allied access to the Suwałki Gap and the Baltic Sea.
On a broader scale, the new security reality requires crossing Russia’s “red lines” associated with the deployment of air defense systems in its proximity. For far too long, Russia has defined limits of acceptable security actions in Europe, resulting in some of Europe’s nonsensical behavior during the war in Ukraine: Russia’s offensive bombardments of Ukrainian civilian targets have been internationally condemned but not prevented; meanwhile, Ukraine’s defensive strikes on Russian territory (to limit damage to the civilian areas) are hampered and considered intolerable even by many Ukraine supporters.
The war in Ukraine may also grant Russia a long-awaited permanent conventional military presence in Belarus. Russia has sought an army base there since 2013, but could not achieve the goal while Belarusian foreign policy was underpinned by balancing security risks and economic gains. Priorities shifted in 2020, and the Belarusian ruling elite’s desire to stay in power now prevails over any other consideration. Joining with Russia best assures Belarusian authorities positions for now, and jeopardizing national security is no longer an obstacle for the elite. The use of Belarus’ territory in service of the Russian military campaign in Ukraine demonstrates this assumption well. Before the invasion of Ukraine, Belarus had admitted some 30,000 Russian troops and claimed they would stay in the country “indefinitely.” This contingent later formed the northern front in the war on Ukraine, which has lost its relevance for now, but Russian hardware and personnel movement still occur in Belarus. Once Russian weapons stockpiles are gathered in Belarus, men may remain stationed in the country. In doing so, Russia would establish leverage over Belarus’ geopolitical course in the long run, as in Georgia and Moldova. Additionally, Russia’s military assistance might even be welcomed by Belarusian authorities when the armed and trained Belarusian voluntary combatants fighting on behalf of Ukraine return home. (At least three self-organized Belarusian groups comprising thousands of people have joined the war on Ukraine’s side. Indeed, a slogan of the Kastus Kalinouski battalion reads, “for our and your freedom.”)
For the Baltic countries, Russia’s military presence in Belarus would abstractly extend their border with Russia in security and defense planning. Stationing some of the Russian Western Military District’s 400,000 troops in Belarus would reduce the time needed to invade Lithuania or Latvia and create multiple Baltic country seizure routes. That leaves the Baltic countries and NATO with less time for reaction, meaning a much larger military presence, including heavy weaponry, must be stationed in the Baltic region to hinder access of Russian and Belarusian troops.
War in Ukraine: A dead end or an opportunity for Lukashenka?
The final feature of the past year was Belarus’ joining the war in Ukraine. From the pledge: “Russians will never come to Ukraine from the territory of Belarus, especially with weapons” in 2020, to the recognition of Crimea in 2021 and assisting Russia’s aggression in the neighboring country in 2022, Belarus made U-turn in its relationship with Ukraine, and caused irreparable damage to its ties with the West. The EU and like-minded actors enhanced sanctions and repelled Belarusian rapprochement attempts. However, a growing world food shortage resulting from the war may open an opportunity for Belarusian authorities and require mandatory engagement — paradoxically with help from the Baltic countries.
With skepticism, the international community met Russia’s demand to lift sanctions in exchange for safe grain transportation from Ukrainian ports, and alternative delivery options are being sought. One of the most realistic options is the railway route from Ukraine to the Baltic seaports crossing through Belarus. This route’s main advantage lies in the compatibility of the railroad track gauge along the whole route: Considered a significant disadvantage in other circumstances, the Baltic countries are still integrated into the Soviet railroad system (1520 mm rail width, while European standard is 1435 mm), which could facilitate quicker and easier rail deliveries in this case.
Belarus eagerly confirmed interest in such a deal, but conditioned its assistance on political and economic demands that leave Europe and the Baltic countries facing dilemmas. Alleviating a global food crisis means engaging with Lukashenka and lifting economic sanctions the Baltic countries pushed for passionately. Without the Belarusian authorities’ behavior change, loosening restrictions will compromise values-based policies. While millions are running out of food in Asia and Africa, hundreds of thousands are trapped in grave danger in Ukraine and Belarus. More than 1,200 people in Belarus continue to suffer behind bars (some may face the recently reintroduced death penalty). Moral aspects of cooperation with Belarus could be particularly uneasy for Lithuania, which hosts the Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and has become home for thousands of fleeing Belarusians.
The other side of the coin is the economic expediency of renewed financial interaction with Belarus. The Baltic countries heavily depend on Russian and Belarusian freights in their transit sector. Until recently, the port of Klaipeda transported nearly 90% of Belarusian potash, and Belarus is the world’s second-largest producer of this fertilizer. In Latvia, 90% of the total railway cargo volume comes from Russia and Belarus. Both Baltic countries have seen rail company layoffs as a result of diminishing Belarusian freight. Belarusian cargo in the Baltic ports will not solve the pending freight diversification challenge, but may alleviate the suffering of freight workers in their national economies.
While world leaders mull Belarus’ grain transportation bid, it is worth recalling the past rapprochement attempts with the authoritarian country. They all ultimately ended with new repressions domestically and Belarus’ continuing turn to the East in foreign policy. In a recent interview, Tsikhanouskaya correctly noted that the threat to Ukraine will persist without a free Belarus. The same applies to the Baltic countries. Therefore, instead of bargaining with autocrats, enhancing pressure could be more helpful in tackling the root causes of many regional and global challenges. Belarus continues to deserve scrutiny; its authorities are likely to cause more headaches for the Baltic region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.