NATO Allies Fear Russia, Belarus Using Migrant Chaos to Destabilize Europe, Hide Agents

NATO allies on its Baltic front lines fear that Russia and Belarus are exploiting the flow of thousands of migrants into the European Union (EU)—perhaps even as cover for their agents—to infiltrate and destabilize Western democracies, and threaten exiled dissidents.

These states on the very edges of NATO's defensive alliance are grappling with what they call a new strain of Russian-Belarusian hybrid warfare as Moscow and Minsk weaponize some of the most vulnerable people in Europe.

Since August, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland have faced a surge in new arrivals—notably from Iraq, Afghanistan, and sub-Saharan Africa—at their borders, which they say Belarus is facilitating with the support of its ally Russia.

At least seven people have died stuck in frozen limbo between Belarusian and EU borders. More than 16,000 have been stopped at the Polish border, more than 4,000 in Lithuania, and almost 1,800 in Latvia.

The Baltic states are among the EU nations now pushing for more sanctions on Belarus and dictator President Alexander Lukashenko, who is at loggerheads with his EU neighbors over the brutal suppression of the Belarusian opposition.

Top diplomats from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia told Newsweek the migrant flow poses national security threats.

"There is a risk," said Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, when asked about the danger of cross-border infiltration by foreign agents or people linked to terrorist organizations. "Already there have been some cases where particular people affiliated with some terrorist organizations have been identified."

It is unclear whether Belarusian and Russian authorities selected certain nationalities or ethnicities to be allowed to travel to Europe's borders. But the war-torn origin points of the Iraqis, Syrians, and Afghans, for example, raise security concerns.

"Given the fact that they do come from countries ravaged at some point in the past by war, there are traces of people with terrorist connections," said Lithuanian foreign affairs Vice Minister Mantas Adomenas.

"As to government agents, I prefer not to comment on that," Adomenas added. Asked whether Lithuanian authorities had any evidence to point to state infiltration, the vice minister replied: "Well, if we did then I couldn't tell you."

The facilitation of new migrant flows is Lukanshenko's latest effort to have EU sanctions lifted. A series of financial measures have been imposed since Lukashenko rigged the 2020 presidential election and began brutalizing opposition leaders and those who protested the official result.

Since then, Lukashenko's administration has drawn further condemnation for diverting a passenger jet to Minsk to arrest an opposition journalist on board. A prominent dissident was also found dead under suspicious circumstances in Ukraine, while others have reported receiving regular death threats.

Any cross-border infiltration by state agents could spell danger for Belarusian and Russian dissidents living in the Baltic states. These nations have become havens for those fleeing authoritarian regimes, but the dictators have a long reach.

"We are doing everything we can, and we are as confident as such asymmetrical situations allow," Adomenas said when asked if dissidents are safe in Lithuania. "It is extremely important that people feel safe here."

He added that other nations—Germany in particular—should have a stronger response to Russian-linked espionage inside their borders. "They do not sufficiently discourage the regime from attempting it again and again. Part of the responsibility for that also lies with the international community," Adomenas said.

"The fact that Germany did not react in any meaningful and forceful way over this assassination by Russian security forces of a Chechen activist in Berlin, again shows that we have to do more in order to lose the hypocrisy which sometimes comes out in these episodes like this."

Estonia's Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets told Newsweek she has confidence in Estonian counter-espionage. "I truly believe that everyone is safe in Estonia," she said.

The broad goal of the migration spike, Baltic diplomats told Newsweek, is sanctions relief and destabilization of neighboring democracies.

"When it comes to support from our EU partners and allies, I think that there is a full understanding that migration this time is being used as a part of hybrid warfare," Rinkevics said. "And the goal of Mr. Lukashenko is to lift or soften sanctions."

"The latest round of sanctions really hits his economy and his power base. I think that most probably he regrets the decision to hijack the Ryanair plane.

"I still believe that we need to introduce another round of sanctions starting with the tourism industry of Belarus. We cannot soften our policy right now."

Rinkevics said that Belarusian and Russian authorities have a direct hand in the humanitarian disaster unfolding at European borders.

"They are promised—this is what I hear from our border guards—that when they cross the Belarusian border they immediately go into Germany, which will provide asylum," he said.

"There are also reports that some of those people have been living in Belarus or in Russia for years. Some of them are affiliated with established terrorist organizations so there are also security concerns."

Adomenas told Newsweek that the Lithuanian government has little doubt about Lukashenko's intentions. "Clearly the original plan was to create a shock in these societies," he said.

"What we saw over the summer was not just migrant groups being pushed into Lithuania, and then later Latvia and Poland.

"But it was also coordinated and synchronized with information warfare, instigating radical elements in Lithuanian society to go and pretty catch migrants themselves, as well as protest against the government in Lithuania which pushed Lithuania into such dire straits. It was a two-pronged thing.

"It didn't work. After the initial shock, I think society mobilized pretty quickly."

Estonian authorities arrested several people who crossed into the EU from Belarus. Estonia is backing its Baltic neighbors in demanding tougher sanctions on Belarus and a response from the United Nations.

"We follow with great concern this inflow of migrants from Belarus towards European countries, especially in Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, because it really creates instability, and you never know when this inflow ends," Liimets said.

"Fortunately, we saw that within one month this inflow was stopped in cooperation with European countries, but also in cooperation with the countries of origin—the Iraqi government, for example, was very cooperative."

Critics have labeled the strategy of pushing back the new arrivals as inhumane. There have been many reports of groups of people stranded in the freezing cold no-man's-land between borders, with multiple deaths.

Thousands marched in Poland on Sunday to demand the end to "push-backs." Demonstrators carried signs declaring: "Stop torture at the border," "Nobody is illegal," and "How many bodies lie in the forest?"

"For us, yes it is a very difficult situation," Rinkevics told Newsweek. "We understand that we must protect our border, and there are very serious security risks, but also we need to address human rights issues.

"The current policy is that we are allowing people with obvious humanitarian needs to come into Latvia where they are getting medical attention. But yes, we are not allowing everyone to come in."

Adomenas, meanwhile, said Lithuanians were largely supportive of the tough approach: "I think there's now a consensus for the policy which was adopted; strengthening the border and preventing people from crossing into Lithuania."

The situation has eased somewhat since mid-summer, but Baltic leaders are wary of a repeat.

"I think Lukashenko may have some cards up his sleeve and may try to exploit those thousands of economic migrants in some other novel way," Adomenas said. "I think we're now better prepared."

Polish guards with migrants at Belarus border
Polish border guards stand next to migrants in the small village of Usnarz Gorny near Bialystok, Poland, located close to the border with Belarus, on August 20, 2021. WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images