When thousands of migrants massed on the Polish-Belarusian border, the Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki lost no time in identifying who he believed the true culprit to be. Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko was just an “executor,” Morawiecki told his parliament. The true “enabler” was “President Putin, who shows a determination to carry out the scenario of rebuilding the Russian empire, the scenario that we, all Poles, have to forcefully oppose.” The columns of refugees were part of the “neo-imperialist politics of Russia,” Morawiecki said. “They are part of a more coordinated attack, a new kind of war.”
Without a doubt, Polish fears of Russian imperialism are well grounded in history. Equally certainly, Putin has plenty of form on using hybrid forms of warfare, from disinformation and botnets to murky military proxies and soldiers in disguise to influence elections and invade neighbors. But is Putin really behind Lukashenko’s decision to weaponize migrants? There’s no evidence that he is — and much argument to suggest that Lukashenko’s latest stunt is actually an inconvenient embarrassment to the Kremlin.
First and foremost, Putin currently has every incentive to improve rather than destroy Russia’s relations with the European Union. The Kremlin’s biggest strategic victory of the year was Washington’s dropping of sanctions against Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline in May. That, combined with Europe’s rush to decarbonize by replacing coal with gas power and the spiking gas prices that have resulted, represents a golden opportunity for Russia. Locking more Europeans into long-term contracts with Gazprom not only fills the Kremlin’s coffers but also gives Putin political leverage over his customers. In that sense, the goals of COP26 represent a short-term economic and diplomatic boon for Russia.
Lukashenko’s agenda is the opposite. He is willing to use any means necessary to browbeat Europe. Though he does not own the gas in the pipelines that cross Belarusian territory, he warned that: “We are heating Europe, and they are threatening us… And what if we halt natural gas supplies?” Unsurprisingly, Putin quickly stepped in to smack down the notion of closing off the gas pipes.
Second, Putin has very recently railed against the dangers of allowing migrants into Russia — or any part of the former Soviet Union. In August he warned of “militants under the guise of refugees” in an effort to dissuade Central Asian states from co-operating with US plans to relocate fugitives from the Taliban regime. The idea of actively encouraging thousands of Syrians, Afghans and Kurds to enter Belarus, as Lukashenko appears to have done, runs contrary to Putin’s vision of keeping his country secure from Islamic fundamentalism, especially if those migrants have little to no chance of actually crossing into Europe.
Third, there is anecdotal evidence from inside Putin’s inner circle that he is frustrated and even angered by Lukashenko’s antics. “Luka[shenko] is the number one pain in [Putin’s] backside at the moment,” says a senior Kremlin pool TV reporter who travels to Putin’s Novo-Ogaryovo residence several times a week. “They would love to get rid of Lukashenko if they could… He’s not under their control and never has been.”
Putin’s current twin obsessions — as evidenced by his speeches and articles this year — are to ensure that Washington does not ignore Russia and its interests, and to reverse US political and military support for Ukraine. That’s why he massed troops on the Ukrainian border in March and again this month. But to achieve those goals he needs European money and European allies. For the Kremlin, sparking a war with the EU over refugees now would be ultimately self-defeating.
“I see not just no evidence of a Russian hand, but a deep awkwardness,” says Mark Galeotti of the School of Slavonic and East European Languages at London University. Lukashenko may be one of Putin’s very few remaining regional allies, but he is an ornery and often a recalcitrant one who is perfectly capable of independent, and often embarrassing, stunts. The Russians will “exploit the situation as far as they can,” says Galeotti. “But they’re stuck with Lukashenko and he knows it, and is driving things towards a confrontation Moscow absolutely doesn’t want.”
To be clear: the fact that an action may be stupid, provocative and self-defeating certainly isn’t on its own proof that Putin didn’t do it. Indeed the ‘why would we ever do such a crazy, foolish thing?’ argument is tediously familiar from official rebuttals of Kremlin involvement in the Skripal and Litvinenko poisonings. But the obvious answer to that rhetorical question is: you tried to liquidate those turncoat former spies because you thought you could get away with it. Murdering British citizens on British soil with chemical weapons caused a massive diplomatic and economic backlash far in excess of any possible benefit to Russia from eliminating traitors to the Motherland. It was worse than a crime — it was a mistake. But it was a blunder of execution, not of strategy.
The crisis on the Belarus-Polish border is the opposite of a clandestine operation. It’s noisy, provocative and designed to trigger Europe’s deepest fears of migrant invasion. More, it’s also doomed to fail, because Warsaw and Brussels cannot allow thousands of refugees to successfully storm Europe’s borders, for fear of encouraging copycats. That’s not the kind of fight that Putin picks.
All Putin’s actions fall within a spectrum carefully defined by what he perceives are his own and Russia’s interests. He’s often wrong but rarely irrational. Putin ordered the 2014 annexation of Crimea because he and his advisers believed that Kiev’s “Revolution of Dignity” was a western-organized coup and that NATO had imminent plans to take over the Russian naval base at Sevastopol. He (or people close to him) ordered the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny because his smart voting system showed dangerous signs of threatening the Kremlin’s grip on local elections. Putin has ordered 100,000 troops to the Ukrainian border because he believes it sends a sharp message to both Kiev and Washington about the dangers of Ukraine’s flirtation with NATO. But weaponizing refugees to bait Brussels just isn’t something that fits into any of Putin’s current strategic goals.
Putin has in the past been guilty of plenty of illegal, subversive and outright criminal acts. But on the Belarus border crisis, even he deserves the benefit of the doubt.