Amid a series of provocative actions from the Minsk regime, would a gunshot or an armed incident lead to war?
The Belarusian regime, which, according to Lithuanian authorities, is complicit in facilitating irregular migration to Lithuania, is taking more extreme measures to force migrants over the border. Belarusian border guards started firing flares and gunshots, forcing migrants to enter Lithuania, the State Border Guard Service (VSAT) reported.
On August 17, VSAT shared a video of twelve Belarusian officers armed with riot gear pushing a group of irregular migrants into Lithuania and then entering the country’s territory. In response to the incident, Vilnius has handed in a diplomatic note to Minsk.
The same day, VSAT reported four migrants loitering in Lithuanian territory after crossing from Belarus. In what the service said was a provocation, the migrants then headed back to Belarus, where they were filmed by Belarusian officers testifying about alleged beatings at the hands of the Lithuanian authorities.
Later in August, Lithuanian authorities also filmed a group of Belarusian officers in riot gear pushing migrants toward Lithuania.
Incident may have been accidental
The incident on August 17 marked the first time that Belarusian border guards entered Lithuania’s territory, according to chairman of the Lithuanian Border Guard Trade Union (LPPPS) Jevgenijus Amelinas.
“I’d say the situation was caused by the lack of professionalism from Belarusian border guards, or even out of confusion. Why? If Belarusian guards wanted to make any impact [...] they would have pushed them [the migrants] further, [...] given additional signals to our officials,” says Amelinas.
The Belarusian officers returned to Belarus after repeated warnings from Lithuanian guards. They may not have realised they had crossed the border after the first warning, Amelinas believes.
Right now, the officers should “not react to provocations” of the Belarusian regime, Amelinas says.
"Border guards are humans, and so are the migrants. The one responsible for such a bad situation is the [Belarusian] state, and there’s nothing worse than that,” he says. “When you try to fix this bad situation, you have to deal with people that aren’t responsible for it. They are mixed up in it and are, most often, victims themselves.”
Border guards commonly report gunshots in Belarusian territory, Amelinas points out.
“Maybe it’s shooting exercises? Perhaps gunshots come from hunters? It’s happening in another country, you do not see any negative consequences of the gunshot, nor other dangers or signals,” he says.
If gunshots came from an unusual location, officials would look into the risks and inform the country’s intelligence agency, the State Security Department (VSD), says LPPPS chairman.
According to Lithuania’s laws, border guards are only permitted to use weapons when there is a direct threat to them or somebody else, Amelinas says when asked what would constitute as Belarusians “crossing the line” and what measures could Lithuanian officers take.
However, a Belarusian guard firing a gunshot into Lithuanian territory does not make it an attack, he says.
“If we saw a Belarusian border guard [...] aiming the gun at us, if we recorded a gunshot by the border, in that case the first thing we do would be to evaluate the reasons for such an action, what the gun was aimed at, what were the circumstances,” Amelinas says.
“A commander once told me that no gunshots are [fired] without reason. You shoot to warn someone, to give a signal, to hurt someone,” he says. “So, we would have to evaluate what the purpose of the gunshot was.”
Not giving in to provocations
“It’s a provocation, because [they] crossed the border to another country and they know that well. It’s irritating and provoking,” says MP Arvydas Pocius, the former chief of defence of Lithuania.
“Let’s keep in mind that the Zapad [joint Belarusian–Russian military drills] have already started. Their active phase will begin in September, but exercises are already taking place there,” he adds. “Belarusian border is protected by the State Security Committee, therefore [...] both the forced plane landing in Minsk and refugee situation are coordinated actions of the same service.”
While there will undoubtedly be more of such incidents, Lithuanian officials are right not to give in to provocations, Pocius believes.
“If dozens of armed Belarusian soldiers or other officers [...] entered the territory, I think then there should be some reaction to that. A gunshot is an extreme case that needs a response as well,” details Pocius. “If any of our officers is wounded or murdered, then obviously a response is due.”
Force was not needed
“Border guards could have given a more severe response, but the question is whether that was necessary. In this situation Lithuania’s reaction was appropriate, I think,” says Valdas Tutkus, Pocius’ predecessor to the chief of defense.
“Had our border guards used physical force, it could have ended with a gunfight by the border, which could have had some brutal consequences.”
Unless Belarusian guards get deeper into the territory, there is no point in firing gunshots, Tutkus says.
However, according to him, repeated provocations from the regime warrant a response from NATO.
“I would like a public reaction from the EU. [...] our strength lies in being a member state of both NATO and the EU. Which means that when our resources aren’t enough, we have all the right to ask for a reaction from these organisations,” Tutkus says. “In my opinion, our politicians should demand a reaction from the EU and NATO, since armed officers entering the territory of a NATO member state is a very bad sign.”
The growing tensions between the countries could lead to armed incidents. However, according to Tutkus, both sides will try to avoid a broader conflict.
“A gunshot does not mean war, but this is an unwanted, difficult incident for both sides,” he says. “In general, everyone will try to avoid conflicts. If Belarusians are the ones to start a conflict, it would be hard for Lithuania to respond on its own.”
“But we are a NATO member state, and Article 5 can be invoked [...] I have no doubts that NATO would immediately react if a military intervention in Lithuania began.”
Deploying military may lead to armed conflict
“Until a physical barrier is installed, deploying the military at the border is very dangerous, [as it could lead] to armed conflicts,” the former Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė wrote in a Facebook post. “Because of this, declaring a state-level extreme situation without a clear explanation on how the military force will be used is very dangerous when considering armed conflicts.”
The troops, who are patrolling the border with Belarus, were given the right to be able to give mandatory orders to civilians and prosecute and detain those who refuse.
While an armed conflict is “possible in theory”, as a NATO member state, the Lithuanian government should not doubt its own decisions, Pocius says.
“I think that the current chief of defence and VSAT leaders are planning their actions together and evaluating situations,” he says. “I think that the head of state, who is a commander-in-chief of the armed forces, should also say his firm words at a certain point. We are a NATO member state, and the president should talk to our allies, [...] the managing bodies of not just the EU, but of NATO as well.”
Tutkus, meanwhile, says that Lithuania should call on all available forces to tackle the ongoing migrant crisis.
“If we just talk and give interviews, and wait for the EU to come help us, the crisis won’t solve itself. We need to solve it with current resources. What do we have? Border guards, police, volunteers, military, the Riflemen’s Union,” he says. “[We should] fear Lukashenko? He has already done enough anti-Lithuanian activities, even without our military by the border.”
Moreover, with armed forces protecting the border, Belarusian officers may refrain from provocative actions, according to Tutkus.
“If an incident still occurs, in other words, if armed Belarusian officers try to break through, then that would warrant a military response.”