Julie Fisher: Russia must help Belarus, Lukashenko ease tensions with EU

Friction between the European Union and Russia-backed Belarus escalated Monday, while a top U.S. diplomat in the region called on Moscow to exert its influence over Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko to stop inflaming regional tensions.

U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Julie D. Fisher, a career diplomat appointed by former President Donald Trump, said Monday that Russia could play a constructive role amid European claims that the Lukashenko government has attempted to flood Middle Eastern migrants into Poland, Lithuania and other EU nations as a way to destabilize the region and protest EU and U.S. economic sanctions.

“Russian disinformation efforts use actions in Belarus such as the migrant crisis to stoke tensions and undermine European unity and trans-Atlantic unity,” Ms. Fisher said Monday. “But it is important to recognize that Moscow has influence, unique influence over the Lukashenko regime. And we welcome Moscow using that influence in a way that moves Belarus forward.”

She made the remarks on a video call hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars at a moment of rising regional tension over Belarus. Mr. Lukashenko on Monday once again sharply criticized the EU, this time calling out what he said was the bloc’s refusal to hold talks on the migrant standoff.

A week after EU officials announced plans to level sanctions against the Lukashenko government for flying migrants from Iraq and other Middle East nations into Belarus as a pathway into Europe, Mr. Lukashenko publicly demanded on Monday that the migrants should be allowed to enter EU territory.

Mr. Lukashenko specifically urged Germany to accommodate about 2,000 migrants who have remained on Belarus‘ border with Poland in recent days, and openly slammed EU officials for refusing to talk. “We must demand that the Germans take them,” the Belarusian leader said, according to a report from Moscow by The Associated Press.

The Belarus leader accused Western governments and aid organizations of using the migrant standoff to score “publicity points” against his government, according to the country’s BelTA news agency.

“We will cope with these people ourselves if Berlin does not take them in. What are we supposed to do? There’s no other way around it. But we should urge Berlin to take them in,” Mr. Lukashenko said.

The Belarus regime has been under steady pressure since a widely discredited 2020 election gave Mr. Lukashenko, in power since 1994, another term in office. EU officials have accused Mr. Lukashenko of engineering the migrant surge as part of a “hybrid attack” as retaliation for EU sanctions after the Lukashenko government cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrations. 

Russian role?

But the migrant situation has prompted some analysts to claim Mr. Lukashenko is being used by Russia to try and foment EU political divisions over immigration and to destabilize Poland and Lithuania at a time when Moscow’s own relations with the West are on shaky ground.

The Biden administration has tied the migrant crisis at the border to the Kremlin, claiming that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government is using Belarus to signal his unhappiness with the U.S. and its Western allies and to cloak Moscow’s border troop build-up and military intimidation campaign targeting other former Soviet states in Ukraine and Georgia. Polish officials said there were over 300 attempts by migrants on Sunday to get through a razor-wire border fence separating Belarus from the EU nation. 

Many of the hundreds of Iraqis stuck in limbo in Belarus have booked flights back home, while others remain under guard in crowded migrant centers on the Belarus side of the border. Officials said over the weekend that of about 1,900 migrants in those centers, more than 1,200 are Iraqis. About 700 have applied for international protection and are waiting for a decision on whether they will be allowed to stay in the EU.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has begun warning of a possible new migrant surge by the Lukashenko regime — this time from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.

Mr. Morawiecki claimed on Sunday to have knowledge of “diplomatic” contacts that Belarus and Russia had with Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. “There is a threat of an even more difficult scenario,” he said. “There will most probably be an attempt at using the crisis in Afghanistan as a new act in the migration crisis, putting to use the West’s remorse related to the disorderly pullout from Afghanistan.”

Mr. Morawiecki said “only the full pullback of the migrants and steps toward deescalation can lead back to any kind of a constructive scenario with Lukashenko.”

Regional experts say Mr. Lukashenko has engineered the migrant crisis to pressure the EU into granting sanctions relief.

Oleg Ignatov with the International Crisis Group, in a Q&A analysis published by the group on Monday, said the Lukashenko government has already “drawn an analogy between the present situation and the Greek-Turkish border crisis in 2015.”

“In that crisis, more than a million refugees from the war in Syria entered the EU, and Brussels cut a deal with Ankara to halt further entries,” he said. “It committed to provide [$6.7 billion] in exchange for Ankara’s agreement to prevent the migrants from leaving its territory.”

Like Turkey, Mr. Ignatov added, Belarus “is angling for a deal of its own.”

Ms. Fisher suggested in her own remarks on Monday that the Biden administration will stand with the EU in efforts to confront the Lukashenko government

“As long as the regime in Belarus refuses to respect its international obligations and commitments, undermines the peace and security of Europe, and continues to repress and abuse people seeking to live in freedom, we will continue to pressure the Lukashenko regime and we will not lessen our calls for accountability,” she said.