On Monday, images of hundreds of migrants trying to forcibly enter Poland from Belarus spread across the world. The disturbing incident has prompted debates on whether the European Union and NATO have leverage against the Lukashenko regime.
“Perhaps the time has come for us to decide whether Article 4 of the NATO Treaty should be activated. Our border is under a physical threat, and Belarusian structures are involved,” Polish opposition leader Donald Tusk told Gazeta Wyborcza.
Article 4 of the NATO Treaty calls for consultation over military matters when "the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of any of the parties is threatened". But Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda said on Tuesday that he sees no reason to activate Article 4 over the situation on the border with Belarus.
Read more: Migration crisis in Baltics and Poland
“NATO’s Article 4 is a tool of last resort. We are certainly keeping it in our arsenal in case there are reasons to seriously consider activating it,” Nausėda said.
On Monday, NATO condemned the Belarusian regime’s “unacceptable” actions in using irregular migrants for putting pressure on the EU countries.
“We have been watching a wave of migrants attempting to enter the territory of our allies Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland via Belarus. We call on Belarus to respect international law,” said Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of NATO.
But according to political experts, NATO’s involvement in dealing with incidents at the Polish or Lithuanian border with Belarus is unlikely.
“One thing is clear: NATO has no role to play here, as there is no military threat emanating from these incidents. This is a political and humanitarian crisis, not a military one,” Benno Zogg, senior researcher at the ETH Zurich Centre for Security Studies, told LRT.lt.
According to Gustav Gressel, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), NATO could only get involved “if the situation spun out of control, ie if lethal force was used by Belarus to facilitate a border crossing or armed services of Belarus crossed the border to bring migrants across”.
Sanctions on airlines
According to the experts, the EU has more chances than NATO to stop the migrant flow at the Polish and Lithuanian borders.
“There’s not much NATO can do without escalating, but there are things the EU can do,” said Elisabeth Braw, a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).
“First of all, it should tell the government of Iraq that it will no longer receive EU financial support if the flights from Baghdad to Minsk continue, and it should tell the Lebanese government the same thing.”
“Secondly, it should force Irish companies to stop leasing aircraft to Belavia. And thirdly, it should freeze assets belonging to aides of Alexander Lukashenko,” Braw added.
According to the ECFR Fellow Gressel, sanctions on airlines could extend even further.
“New research in the Bild newspaper indicates that the bulk of the flights transporting migrants are conducted by Aeroflot and Turkish Airlines,” he said. “Banning them from the European airspace should be a sufficient pressure tool, as they make most of their money from flights to the EU.”
Who is to blame?
The EU shares responsibility for the crisis at its eastern border, as it is not effectively redistributing the asylum seekers across the Schengen area, said Benno Zogg of ETH Centre for Security Studies. According to him, the Lukashenko regime is exploiting the EU’s internal divisions over migration.
“The militarised response by the Polish authorities, in particular, feeds Lukashenko’s narrative of its neighbours as [being] hostile,” Zogg said.
“In the end, it makes no one look good: not the Belarusian regime which uses migrants as weapons, nor Poland or the Baltic states that have partially met this political and humanitarian crisis with hard security tools, even violence,” he added.
But in the words of the AEI Fellow Braw, Poland’s actions are adequate.
“While keeping virtually all migrants arriving from Belarus out might seem heavy-handed, letting large numbers in would encourage Lukashenko to keep up his aggression,” she said.
According to Braw, if Lukashenko decided to organise similar incidents on Lithuanian and Latvian borders, he could do so freely.
“At the moment Lukashenko can do as he likes. If he decided to mount a similar attack against Latvia or Lithuania using migrants as his weapon, it’s unlikely the EU would help these countries in any substantial way. So, he may be tempted to try it,” she added.