Lukashenko’s Safe Bet

Using human missiles, i.e. migrants, against another state for political reasons is one of the oldest tricks in the diplomatic playbook.

Turkey’s Erdogan used it quite successfully since the Syrian refugee crisis that began ten years ago—and got the Europeans to take in a million refugees, give him money and turn a blind eye to his regime’s domestic authoritarianism and foreign policy antics. Castro’s Cuba used it long before Erdogan, for instance in 1980 and 1994, creating internal problems for his archenemy—the U.S.— and gaining political oxygen by diffusing both the internal and external pressure for change.

Lukashenko, who has lured immigrants from the Middle East by giving them hopes that they will be able to cross over into the European Union through Poland, knows that Europe has no appetite for foreign fights, much less with Putin, his puppeteer, who has been acting in perfect coordination with him by amassing troops on Ukraine’s borders and therefore turning one international threat into two—to the Europeans’ horror.

Although Putin’s ambitions on Ukraine are anything but new, one of the objectives of the recent menace against that country’s border is the protection of Belarus’ dictator, who controls one of the few territories of the former Soviet Union that is still tied to Moscow.

The electoral fraud with which he obtained a sixth consecutive mandate earlier this year triggered massive protests and an international outcry that shook his regime. His response was the refugee crisis with which he diverted domestic and international attention elsewhere and managed to neutralize, or at least significantly reduce, the pressure from the international community (even though the limited sanctions against his regime are still in place).

By renewing his threat against Ukraine while Belarus created a refugee crisis on Poland’s border, Putin sent a clear message to the EU: messing with Lukashenko will cost you dearly.

Although millions of Belarusians see themselves as Europeans and are repelled by Lukashenko’s regime and his close alliance with Putin, the truth is that Belarus will remain in Moscow’s camp. A political union was signed at the end of the 1990s, followed by a military alliance in 2002 and, in 2014, an economic union.

Although the political union is still more theoretical than real, the umbilical connection between Minsk and Moscow guarantees that Lukashenko will remain in power for quite a while longer.

If Putin was willing to do anything to save Assad’s neck in Syria and take over Crimea, one can only imagine the extent to which he would go to protect Lukashenko was his stability seriously jeopardized by domestic or foreign trouble.

The Belarusian tyrant, who has been in power for a quarter of a century, knows this well—and is therefore sure to continue to create problems for his neighbors, not to speak for his millions of victims inside the country, in 2022.

There is nothing rash or reckless in what he has been doing—it is a cold, studied move aimed at keeping power and pleasing his master, which is almost the same thing.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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