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COLUMN-On NATO's eastern flank, 'hybrid warfare', migrants and disinformation: Peter Apps

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

LONDON, Aug 12 (Reuters) - On Wednesday, Aug. 4, as news broke that a prominent dissident from Belarus had been found hanged in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, authorities in Belarus accused Lithuanian border guards of beating to death an Iraqi migrant whose body they claimed to have found.

A year after Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in disputed elections in the face of widespread protest, the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia say his government is waging “hybrid warfare” against them, creating a migration crisis and spreading disinformation most likely with the acquiescence of his primary backer Russia.

Authorities in Lithuania deny any knowledge of the dead Iraqi, saying Belarus has not provided evidence and that Lithuanian border guards did not use any force over the period in question. They say drone footage has shown Belarus border guards “herding” Middle Eastern migrants towards Lithuanian territory, with reports that more flights have been laid on from Iraq to the Belarus capital Minsk to encourage further population flows.

Belarus denies the charge, as well as accusations from Ukraine that it had a hand in the death of Vitaly Shishov, found hanged last Wednesday in a Kiev park. The activist had told his partner he believed he was being watched by agents of the Belarus state, also suspected of staging an incident on a Ryanair flight in May from Greece to Lithuania in order to arrest prominent opposition blogger Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega.

CRACKDOWN

That both events have been occurring simultaneously is unlikely to be coincidence. Russia too is in the midst of a further crackdown against its opposition, making moves in recent days against at least three prominent allies of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Moscow will also shortly hold its major annual Zapad military drills jointly with Belarus, having deepened its military relationship with the country in the year since the election.

In the event of any war with NATO, strategists have long suggested that Russian forces from Belarus could attempt to punch across the narrow Lithuanian territory known as the Suwalki Gap to the Moscow-controlled enclave of Kaliningrad, effectively cutting off the three Baltic states.

Increasingly isolated apart from its support from Moscow, Belarus may feel it has little to lose. On Monday, the United States, Britain and Canada imposed new sanctions, including on the world’s largest potash manufacturer, Belaruskali, that the White House says has been a key source of financial support for Lukashenko’s rule. The moves follow European Union sanctions in June that heavily curtailed financial and aviation access for Belarus following the Ryanair incident.

That sense of isolation has been deepened further by the Tokyo Olympics, which saw several Belarus athletes defect and some Belarus officials banned from the games, accused by the United States and their own teammates of a variety of misdeeds including money-laundering, harassment, dodging sanctions and bypassing visa bans.

Belarus and Russian media accuse Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland and other Western states of inciting protests and violence within Belarus, with Belarus also claiming to have beaten a CIA-backed plot earlier this year to kill or kidnap Lukashenko and his family. Belarus has long had a complex relationship with Moscow, retaining moderate independence but still heavily reliant on support from Russia to keep Lukashenko in power.

PROTEST

Last year, there were briefly suggestions Russian President Vladimir Putin might abandon Lukashenko, or at least facilitate a power transfer. With Russia facing its own protests in 2020, however, the Russian leader was ultimately seen as unwilling to risk allowing Belarus to become an example of protest leading to any form of change.

For the Baltic states – and Lithuania in particular – this situation represents something of a perfect storm. Lithuania also now finds itself in a growing spat with China, which this week withdrew its ambassador to Vilnius, angered by increasing closeness between Lithuania and Taiwan.

In February 2019, Lithuania’s security services identified Russia, Belarus and China as threats to national security, expressing concern about Chinese telecom Huawei. Since then, the government in Vilnius has positioned itself as both a primary backer of the Belarus opposition and also amongst Taiwan’s closest friends and Beijing’s most outspoken foes in Europe.

The three Baltic states have agreed to pool their efforts to tackle the migrant crisis, with Estonia sending barbed wire, drones and border guards and Latvia ordering its own state of emergency as growing numbers also cross into its territory from Belarus. European states have agreed to consider greater sanctions against those they term “people smugglers”, although whether this will truly impact the numbers reaching Belarus is much less clear.

In 2016, following its intervention in the Syria war, Western states accused Russia of deliberately encouraging migrants to flood into Europe, fuelling the rise of the far right and challenging the European Union. If Belarus believes it can do the same to its immediate neighbours that it blames for political discontent at home, it is likely to keep doing so. *** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. (Editing by Giles Elgood)

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