When Belarus directed a politically motivated wave of migrants across its borders with Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland in 2021, the three countries pushed many of the migrants back and began erecting border fences.
The forceful response caused consternation among some human rights activists and European Union (EU) officials, who considered the arrivals a humanitarian crisis much like earlier waves of developing world migrants.
But even then it was clear that Belarus was testing its Western neighbors’ defenses against gray zone aggression — that is aggression below the threshold of armed military violence. Now the three countries once again see cause for concern as hundreds if not thousands of Wagner Group fighters led by Yevgeny Prigozhin arrive in Belarus. They’re right to take precautions at their borders because President Aliaksandr Lukashenka has a history and an enthusiasm for causing harm to his neighbors.
How should these eastern members of NATO countries protect their borders? At first glance, it seems very easy. They have border guards who check people’s passports and inspect luggage, and in case of an armed invasion, the military responds and tries to push the invading force back. But what if the events at the border involve something between regular travelers and less than an armed invasion?
That’s what Lukashenka tested when he launched his 2021 scheme. The well-executed Belarusian effort saw authorities and companies recruit migrants in the developing world with promises of low-cost travel and EU entry, and then helped them reach Belarus’s Western border. That scheme has continued, even though the numbers have dropped since the three countries built fences along a previously quiet border. (Just this year, Latvia blocked 2,000 people trying to cross in the first four months.) Such is the threat, the three neighbors have also begun constructing border walls, which are now in various stages of completion.
That decision turns out to have been wise. Because Belarus will now be hosting Russia’s most notorious warlord and an unspecified number of his foot soldiers, many of them battle-hardened convicts whose causal disregard for the laws of war is a characteristic.
What will they do in Belarus? I remember one of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s sons once telling me about his father’s simple pleasures during his exile in Saudi Arabia: they involved spending a lot of time shopping. Prigozhin and his men are unlikely to be tempted by such peaceful activities. They’ll want to get back into action.
That leaves Lukashenka with two choices: use Wagner fighters for the benefit of the Belarusian government, or try to push them out of the country. There is a third possibility, however. The so-called Wagnerites can get up to no good on their own. The Wagner presence in Belarus “does potentially pose a threat. The threat would probably not be a frontal military threat, but the threat of attempted infiltration into Europe for unknown purposes,” Latvia’s prime minister, Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš, told reporters on June 29.
In response, “we have strengthened our borders, the border with Belarus and Königsberg [the exclave Russia calls Kaliningrad]. We are aware of these threats and respond to them, anticipating attacks. After all, we have been dealing with a hybrid attack on the Polish border for two years now,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland explained a few days after Prigozhin’s expulsion to Belarus.
That’s a good step. But the challenge facing gray zone defenders is that they can’t predict which tool the aggressor will use. Will Poland face border provocations by Wagner soldiers? Will the Wagner soldiers try to enter the country leading large groups of migrants? Nobody knows, and as a result, the defenders can only prepare in the most general way.
But as a result of the artificial migrant crisis Belarus created two years ago, the three countries are much better prepared than they would have been without the crisis. They’ve had two years to plan a response, two years during which to build fences and walls, and two years to think about what sort of gray zone aggression Belarus might be able to use against them. They still can’t predict what it will be, especially since human and signals intelligence focuses on individuals known to the defending governments, whereas gray zone aggression can involve anyone. The defenders can, though, practice how to respond to disruption.
Indeed, they can keep practicing responses to disruption regardless of how many Wagner fighters arrive in Belarus and how long they stay, because gray zone aggression is here to stay, and defenses involve more than just government action. Latvia, for example, has conducted contingency exercises with the country’s largest companies. The Czech Republic, for its part, also conducts regular gray zone exercises with leading firms. Without such preparedness involving the private sector, not to mention civil society more generally, chaos is guaranteed regardless of what shape the gray zone aggression takes.
As Wagner fighters begin to arrive in Belarus, ordinary Latvians, Lithuanians, and Poles might give some thought to what they’d do if they encountered one of these battle-hardened criminals. Condemnation on social media, as is the Western won’t, won’t go very far.
Elisabeth Braw is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges. She is also a columnist for Foreign Policy and Politico Europe and the author of ‘The Defender’s Dilemma: Identifying and Deterring Gray-Zone Aggression’ (AEI Press, 2022) and ‘God’s Spies’ (Eerdmans, 2019), about the Stasi.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.