Accessibility links

Breaking News

As Belarus Facilitates Migrant Crisis With EU, Putin Could See Chance To Use Clout

Many believe that Alyaksandr Lukashenka's dependence on Moscow has only increased as he falls deeper into disfavor with the West, giving Vladimir Putin increasing power over a leader who has frequently played Russia off against the West
Many believe that Alyaksandr Lukashenka's dependence on Moscow has only increased as he falls deeper into disfavor with the West, giving Vladimir Putin increasing power over a leader who has frequently played Russia off against the West

As thousands of migrants stream into Belarus and toward its borders with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, fears are mounting that the former Soviet republic’s strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka is exploiting the desperation of new arrivals from the Middle East and Africa to settle scores with governments that have ostracized his regime.

Since his deeply disputed claim of reelection in an August 2020 vote widely seen as rigged, Lukashenka has brutally cracked down on opposition to his 27-year rule and engaged in an escalating war of words with Western officials who have backed the imposition of sanctions on his regime and warned of further punitive measures against the backdrop of the current migrant crisis.

“Lukashenka is banking on provoking some sort of small war to distract attention from domestic problems in Belarus today,” Warsaw-based political analyst Dmitry Bolkunets told Current Time on November 9. “He wants to focus attention on himself and force Western countries to begin negotiations with him.”

'Gangster-Style Approach'

On November 9, the European Union's executive commission accused Lukashenka of an “inhuman and really gangster-style approach” to those who arrive in Belarus hoping for easy passage into the EU.

But some calls for a de-escalation have focused less on Minsk than on Moscow: On November 10, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to use his influence with Belarus to halt its "inhumane and unacceptable" use of migrants, her spokesman said.

Crisis Intensifies As Migrants Mass On Belarusian-Polish Border
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:05:19 0:00

Russia has long supported Lukashenka with subsidized energy shipments and verbal backing in disputes with the West, and many believe Lukashenka's dependence on Moscow has only increased as he falls deeper into disfavor with the West, giving Putin increasing power over a leader who has frequently played Russia off against the West in the past.

Indeed, as Lukashenka continues issuing defiant statements and warning Poland of consequences if it continues sending troops to its border with Belarus as part of a transparent campaign to shore up defenses, Russia may be eyeing a role as an arbiter in the standoff much in the way it has in previous conflicts in the post-Soviet space.

Lukashenka has consulted regularly with Putin in the past year, both in numerous in-person summits and by phone. In a call broadcast on Russian state TV on November 4, Putin pledged to back Lukashenka against foreign “interference” and praised relations between the ex-Soviet countries as the two men signed a series of agreements on closer integration.

"We will together resist any attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of our sovereign states and Russia will of course continue to provide assistance to the brotherly Belarusian people — there is no doubt about that," Putin said.

Some EU leaders have suggested that Moscow is ultimately behind what Merkel has described as “state-backed human trafficking” by Lukashenka’s government. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who met with the European Council president on November 10, said the current crisis marks the first time since the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe that “the integrity of our borders is being tested.”

Morawiecki blamed Russia a day earlier, saying in the Polish parliament that "the attack which Lukashenka is conducting has its mastermind in Moscow, the mastermind is President Putin."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected the suggestion as “irresponsible and unacceptable.”

But the most bellicose wording has come from Lukashenka in recent weeks, including his threats of using assistance from the Russian armed forces to provoke a military standoff on Belarus’s border with Poland.

'Known Racketeer'

Some critics believe this is little more than bluster from a veteran strongman who has long invoked his close ties with Russia to extract concessions when he’s up against the wall.

“Lukashenka is a known racketeer, he has long exploited Putin, and [Putin] has paid money,” Petras Austevicius, an EU parliament MP from Lithuania, said in an interview with Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America. “And obviously he uses the Russia factor to intimidate and predict certain events."

Russia has so far refrained from prognosticating a serious escalation in the current crisis, though on November 10 it sent air force bombers into Belarusian airspace on what its Defense Ministry said was a routine exercise. Official commentary regarding the border standoff has sought to highlight what Moscow asserts is the hypocrisy of Poland and other EU countries over the issue of migration and border policing.

Pushing that line, senior Russian officials have cited troop contributions by Poland and other EU states to Western military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and alleged that those countries are at least in part to blame for the instability that reigns in those countries today and forces thousands to seek better lives elsewhere.

Russia's UN ambassador and the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman have advanced the same narrative, seeking to turn the tables by suggesting that Poland is to blame for the border crisis, not Belarus, while presenting no evidence to counter accusations that Minsk is engineering a flow of migrants to EU borders.

Abbas Gallyamov, a political analyst and former Kremlin speechwriter, said that, at the very least, Merkel’s call on Putin to exert influence with Minsk may be used as fodder for that same official narrative -- to suggest to the Russian people, at least, that the West is desperate for Putin to step in as an arbiter and save the day.

“They can mention with pride on TV how the West has crawled on its knees to Putin,” he said.

With reporting by Current Time correspondents Vladimir Mikhailov and Iryna Romaliyskaya
  • 16x9 Image


    RFE/RL journalists report the news in 27 languages in 23 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established. We provide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.