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LMC 2021

The Price of Leadership? Weaponised Migration on the Lithuanian-Belarusian Border

associate professor and director of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University

Margarita Šešelgytė

Associate Professor and Director of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science, Vilnius University

Migrants gather near a fence at a temporary detention center in Kazitiskis, Lithuania in August 2021.
Migrants gather near a fence at a temporary detention center in Kazitiskis, Lithuania in August 2021. Photo: Reuters/Scanpix

Illegal migrants began crossing into Lithuania in May, 2021 after Alexander Lukasheno threated to flood the country with “migrants and drugs” in response to harsh EU sanctions.

Weaponised migration is not a rare phenomenon in international politics; according to Keelly M. Greenhill political leaders often manipulate migrants and refugees to pursue political, military, and economic goals.

Lukashenko may pursue a number of goals by weaponising migrants. First, by dividing EU members and silencing Lithuanians, he may hope to soften EU sanctions or receive financial aid from the EU to “solve” the crisis. Additionally, Lukashenko attempts to intimidate Lithuania for its criticism of his regime and support for its opposition while attempting to undermine the legitimacy of Lithuania’s fight for democracy.

This case’s uniqueness is the broader geopolitical battle that goes beyond sanctions and involves multiple powers. Hybrid operations, specifically cyber and information warfare, are a daily reality in Lithuania (especially after the beginning of the war in Ukraine). These offensive measures manipulate existing vulnerabilities to destabilise politics, reduce societies’ loyalty and question the values of democracy, the EU, and NATO. Lithuania is being punished for its criticism of the Russian regime and its staunch support for democracy.

Lithuania is being punished for its criticism of the Russian regime and its staunch support for democracy.

The migration crisis is, therefore, a move in the broader geopolitical game where Lukashenko, possibly with Kremlin backing, skilfully manipulates existing vulnerabilities to damage Lithuania.

An active, value-oriented foreign policy makes Lithuania quite visible internationally. However, as sanctions against Belarus hit Lithuanian businesses and the migrant crisis challenges national stability, doubts about its aims and results rise. Should Lithuania have chosen a more pragmatic stance?

The way the Government has managed the migrant crisis has been heavily criticised: the reaction is too slow, communication is inconsistent, there is a lack of coordination between institutions, and unwillingness to take leadership. The power games between the President and the Government (which started before the crisis) do not help the situation – they hamper unity and make both institutions less credible.

Moreover, the toxic situation is aggravated by the upcoming Russian-Belarusian joint military exercise, Zapad 2021, adding to fears of external manipulation.

While the security community discusses potential challenges from influxes of illegal migrants (such as increased criminality, potential terrorist attacks, and hostile activities of infiltrated foreign forces) societal instability could become the gravest problem for Lithuania, leading to a political crisis and, in the long run, opening the door to radical political forces.

As society slowly recovers from the epidemic and strict quarantine, strong feelings of insecurity, anxiety, and dissatisfaction provoke divisions that may turn explosive.

It seems the Lithuanian government is slowly learning how to manage the crisis through experience. It utilised EU support – human and technical assistance under the Frontex mission is a great help for Lithuania’s border guards.

In sum, there are several lessons learned in this situation.

First, Lithuania received the epiphany that leadership is a dangerous job with a high price and punishments. Specifically, small states with limited resources are vulnerable to the power games of larger undemocratic powers.

Second, an ambitious foreign policy needs internal unity and careful study. In the long run, a well-defined and articulated foreign policy strategy involving a clear definition of goals, means, expected results, available resources, and the cooperation of various institutions to achieve these goals is needed. Practicing various scenarios and evaluating potential risks is important.

Finally, skillful leadership never wastes a good crisis; hopefully, Lithuania will use this as an opportunity to build sustainable foreign policy leadership for the future.

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