Belarus borders: theatre of operations

Since July 2021, the Belarusian government literally projects migrants to the borders of Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. Those people come from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Algeria, Morocco, the Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Venezuela (Yuras Karmanau, “Explainer: What’s behind the Belarus-Poland border crisis ?”, AP, November 11, 2021).

These migrants all come from countries ravaged by war, economic crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change. The Belarusian government equips them to cross the border fences.

Among other responses, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania are currently building walls and giant fences on their common borders with Belarus. They also receive the aid and support of the EU, NATO and Ukraine. The Polish Government mobilizes more than 15.000 men of the police forces and special units at its border (“Poland starts building 350 millions border fence with Belarus”, Euronews with AFP, 26/01/2022).

Through this “offensive by migration”, the Belarusian authorities trigger a massive political inner crisis in these countries as well as in the European Union and with NATO. This happens in the larger context of the Russian/Ukraine/NATO and EU energy crisis tensions (Hélène Lavoix, “Ukraine Crisis Package – Understand the Roots of the Crisis”, The Red Team Analysis Society).

Moreover, this exceedingly strange strategic situation has to be understood as a signal of the emerging new ways of warfare. Indeed, this new “art of war” is inherent in the geopolitical consequences of the current planetary condition known as the Anthropocene.

In this article, we shall see how the Minsk’s strategists are engineering and weaponizing a “polycrisis” that is utterly inherent to the Anthropocene conditions.

Weaponizing the war and climate crisis of the Middle East

Engineering migration

In 2020, the EU, UK, Canada, and the U.S. refused to recognize the (sixth) re-election of Belarusian President Lukashenko. After the repression of political protests in Minsk in 2021, the EU imposed economic sanctions on Belarus. In a countermove, the Belarusian government launched a constant flow of migrants on the borders of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, all EU members (Karmanau, ibid).

This sudden flow of migrants highly likely aims at destabilizing the EU. Indeed, since 2015 and the influx of a million refugees, migration issues trigger violent political debates between member-states (Aida Sanchez Alonso and Christopher Pitchers, “Migration back to the forefront of EU politics in 2021”, Euronews with AFP, 29/12/21).

Air bridge

Since June 2021, the Belarus government has launched a media offensive, particularly on social networks. Its aim is to attract people from the Middle East, the Maghreb, Africa, Central Asia and Latin America in Belarus. These advertisements promise to offer means to enter the EU. For example, as the advertisement narrative runs, migrants would be able to ask for refugee status or attain Germany to find work there (“2021-2022 Belarus-European Union border crisis”, Wikipedia).

During the following weeks and months, the number of Belarusian, Syrian, and Iraqi airlines flights from the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia markedly increased. Almost 17.000 people from these regions arrived in forest camps in Belarus. From there, they tried to infiltrate the EU.

Meanwhile, the Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian police forces tracked them down by. From November 21 onwards, a strange, protracted guerrilla took place in the borders’ forests. Those have become a theatre of operations, where Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian forces block and stalk the migrants. Those border forces use drones, tear gas, fences, water cannons to stop them reaching EU territory (Wikipedia, ibid).

Importing the geopolitical and climate crisis

War and climate change as commons

However, this begs the question of knowing what motivates people coming from another continent to accept to take such risks. In order to answer this question, we have to understand the conditions that shape their decision. For example, in the case of Syrian Iraqi, Iranian, Kurdish and Lebanese people, they share the collective experience of war and of the consequences of climate change.

Indeed, the whole Middle East and Central Asia region are aridizing (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Will there be climate civil wars?”, The Red Team Analysis Society, November 30, 2021). Besides, in 2021 Syria, Iraq and Iran had to endure a “new” historic drought (“Syria Reservoir Dries Up for First Time”, Phys.org, November 11, 2021).

This super drought follows on the other previous “historic” cycles of 2006 and 2016. As a reminder, the 2006-2012 drought cycle was instrumental in ravaging the Syrian countryside. As it happens, the reasons for this vulnerability to drought take root in the agricultural policy of the Assad regime since the 1990s. (Aden W. Hassan et alii, “The impact of food and agricultural policies on groundwater use in Syria”, Journal of Hydrology, 29 March 2014).

At that time, the regime forcibly developed cotton cultivation for export to the international market. Cotton cultivation is very water intensive. So, the number of wells doubled between 1998 and 2006, thus overexploiting the rather limited Syrian water supply (Asan, ibid). So, Syria was already suffering from an acute lack of water when the 2006 long drought started.

The proliferation of super drought

Faced with this disaster, the Syrian state and its political authorities were basically impotent. This crisis was even more profound as it took place in the larger climate-politics nexus of the 2011 Arab Springs. Thus, the ensuing civil and international war took place in a context of water depletion and aridification. Meanwhile the Syrian basic infrastructures were hammered by war.

Hence, when the 2016 and 2021 drought impacted Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, they deeply hurt countries that war had already weakened.

Welcome to the Anthropocene

As it happens, the twin reinforcing aridification of the Middle East and multiplication of super drought cycles is a strong signal of the changing geophysical parameters.

The drivers of this planetary alteration are the modern forms of human development. So, this process and geophysical period is qualified as the “Anthropocene Era”. (J.R McNeil, Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration, An Environmental History of The Anthropocene since 1945, Belknap Press, 2016).

Middle Eastern countries are already being literally “immersed” into the new and adverse geophysical conditions that are besieging them. (Jean-Michel Valantin “Hyper Siege: Climate change versus U.S National security”, The Red Team Analysis Society, March 31 2014, and Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth, The fate of the Humans in the Anthropocene, 2017).

Degradation and Despair

In the Middle East, the consequences of climate change and of the water cycle disruption are worsening because of the Turkish strategies. As it happens, Ankara uses its upstream dams to lower the downstream flows of the Tigris and the Euphrates, as well as their surface networks of rivers.

This water retention is part of Ankara’s war in Syria against the Kurds. Consequently, since 2003 and the U.S invasion of Iraq, the dire degradation of life conditions in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Kurdish zones drives a mammoth refugee crisis.

In other words, life conditions in this part of the world are bordering a phase transition towards death conditions (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Shall we Live or Die on our Changing Planet?”, The Red Team Analysis Society, February 11, 2019 and Harald Welzer, Climate Wars: what people will be killed for in the 21st century, 2015).

In the Kurdish region of Iraq (KRI) alone, one million people of the 6 millions people strong region are refugees who fled Iraq between 1991 and the Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks and 2014 and ISIS Threat. Among them, at least 4.000 to 8.000 are part of the 17.000 migrants that Belarus projects at the European borders.

They try to flee to Europe via Belarus in order to have a chance to escape the death conditions that subvert their existence. (Benas Gerdziunas, “Interview: why did some many Kurds went to Belarus?“, Euractiv, 4 January, 2022 and Bekir Aydogan, “Why Iraqi Kurds seek refuge in Europe?”, Amjjaj Media, 23 November 2021).

Hybridation of hybrid war

Hybrid offensive

In other terms, the weaponization of Middle Eastern refugees against Europe by the Belarusian political authorities reveals a profound interlock between geopolitical strategies and planetary change. Indeed, the Belarusian strategy appears as being an “hybrid offensive” against the European Union.

The means of this new way of war are the “continuation of politics” by the strategic use of non-military means, such as diplomacy, law, medias, economics… In the Belarusian case, it is the mix of the use of social medias and the  importation-exportation of refugees (Lawrence Freedman, The Future of War: a History, 2017). This “mix” is then the ways and means used to trigger a political crisis in the European Union.

Weaponizing despair and migration

However, the very efficiency of this strategy lies in the consequences of the combination of war and of the Anthropocene signals in the Middle East. It is because of the geopolitical-geophysical catastrophe that, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, people become desperate enough to become “war and climate refugees” in Belarus.

There, they become parts of the “weapon of mass migration” that the regime aims at the EU borders (Kelly M. Greenhill, “Weapons of Mass Migration, Forced displacement as an instrument of coercion”, Strategic Insights, vol.9, issue 1, Spring-Summer 2010).

Hybridizing strategy and the Anthropocene

In other terms, Minsk can develop its offensive thanks to the social consequences of the Middle eastern wars and climate catastrophes. So, they “hybridize” their “hybrid offensive” with conditions inherent to the Anthropocene era.

We now need to see how this situation relates to the current crisis around Ukraine involving the U.S., the EU and NATO on the one hand, and Russia on the other.

Featured image: Photo by Sandor Csudai, licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0.

Published by Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris)

Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red Team Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy. He is the author of "Menace climatique sur l’ordre mondial" (Climatic threat on the world order), "Ecologie et gouvernance mondiale" (Ecology and world governance), "Guerre et Nature, l’Amérique prépare la guerre du climat, "(War and nature: America gets ready for climate war) and of "Hollywood, the Pentagon and Washington".

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