The risks of border policies  


During the Crimean War of 1854, Lord Cardigan, then commander-in-chief of British troops, gave his cavalry ambiguous attack orders based on a catastrophic misunderstanding of the situation around him. This resulted in the infamous charge of the Light Brigade that ended in one of the most notorious military fiascos in contemporary history. 

More than a century and a half later, cognitive dissonance of a similar calibre is rarely in short supply in this part of the world, threatening to produce even greater debacles than that of the British general. The umpteenth such misinterpretation is taking place before our eyes, in the form of a reverse hostage-taking in which the legal framework of the international refugee protection system is being used to force the political price of a humanitarian ransom on neighbouring countries. 

As sometimes happens, it is easy for the forest - in this case Bialowieza - to blind us to the branches, an error of judgement that leads us to make categorical errors such as labelling the situation on the border with Belarus as a migration crisis. What is happening now with Poland, and a few months ago with Latvia and Lithuania, is nothing more than a crude exploitation of the anxieties that once led the EU to the Khartoum Process and the Valletta Summit, where the management of migration waves with repressive regimes such as Sudan and Eritrea was outsourced to repressive regimes. The same is true of the subsequent agreement with Erdoğan, whereby Turkey pledged to readmit any person irregularly arriving on Greek shores. Even post-Brexit London is considering making use of this system, as evidenced by recent reports in The Times of plans to process refugees in transit to the UK in Albania. 

Lukashenko, who is to Putin what Kim Jong-un is to Xi Jinping, has therefore had to use his imagination to figure out how to make trouble for the EU, profiting in the process by granting tourist visas to migrants through state-owned companies such as Zentrkurort and private companies such as Oscartur, which operate in the Middle East. 

Given that Lukashenko's aspirations that if he can exert sufficient pressure on the well-off EU countries to lift sanctions and bribe him to prevent the flow of migrants are evident, beyond noting that the modus operandi of his entourage does not differ much from the extortion methods of La Cosa Nostra, what interests us, for the purposes of understanding the scope of the problem, is to determine who benefits most from the situation that has been created. 

There can be little doubt that it is in the best interests of Vladimir Putin to create internal instability in the European Union, who has turned the fire hose technique of flooding the media with a torrent of information and disinformation to control the news cycle into an art form. Against this backdrop, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg's warnings about "possible aggressive action" in light of reports of Russian troop concentrations on the Ukrainian border and the deployment of airborne forces in Belarus make sense.  

Once again, Putin's manoeuvres have had the desired effect of producing unease in Western Europe, reinforcing his reputation for strategic sagacity that is dubiously deserved, given the results of his tenure to date, which might lead one to believe that Vladimir Putin is not far behind Lord Carrington both in his ability to misread his circumstances and in being trapped in his own role. Thus, when it comes to Ukraine, Putin seems unable to understand or accept that EU membership does not necessarily entail membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.  

As early as 2013, the belief in this automatism led him to force Viktor Yanukovych, then president of Ukraine, to reject the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union, which implied Ukraine's renunciation of NATO membership. However, more than ten years after the Maidan, Putin remains convinced that he can reverse the de-Russification process in Ukraine that began under Petro Shelest during the triumvirate of Brezhnev, Kosygin and Pidhorny after Nikita Khrushchev's fall from grace, The possibility that the goals of the former satellite countries of the USSR might diverge from those of Moscow does not enter into his calculations, which leads him to promote a Russocentric geopolitics, of which the rhetoric of the finlanisation of Ukraine is part, i.e. that Kiev should be under the parameters of Russia's foreign policy, while maintaining its political independence.   

This claim is obsolete and inconsistent, as the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement of 2013 in fact allowed Ukraine to achieve the real status of Finland, i.e. to be part of the European Free Trade Association, the European Economic Area and the Customs Union, but not to be a member of the EU, not to be integrated into NATO structures.  This prospect being anathema to a Russian president, Putin is to a large extent boxing with his own shadow, not only by denying sovereignty to the countries of the East, but by disregarding China's agency in a world that is no longer bipolar, and believing he can create systemic threats that force Washington's hand to negotiate a Yalta-style understanding that returns Moscow to its former sphere of influence, as if the US were in a position to do such a thing, even if it wanted to.  

The real risk, therefore, is that Putin, being a slave to his own character, will be forced to make his actions not look like a bluff, making them credible enough to convince NATO that he is willing either to open hostilities in Ukraine or to annex Belarus, and that this state of affairs will lead some Lord Cardigan on either side to make an error of judgement comparable to the charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava.