Estonia warns of hybrid warfare, including manipulation of migrant flows

Last year’s migrant crisis “was definitely not orchestrated by the migrants themselves, but by Belarus—and even Russia itself,” Estonian President Alar Karis told the Financial Times on Saturday.
Travelers wait at the the departures board ahead of their flights at the Boryspil airport some 30 kilometers outside Kyiv on Feb. 13, 2022. (Photo: AFP)
Travelers wait at the the departures board ahead of their flights at the Boryspil airport some 30 kilometers outside Kyiv on Feb. 13, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – The President of Estonia, Alar Karis, in an interview with the Financial Times on Saturday, warned of the variety of tactics that Russia could employ in the context of the crisis over Ukraine.

“Hybrid attacks, cyber attacks: these things can happen,” Karis said. Last year’s migrant crisis “was definitely not orchestrated by the migrants themselves, but by Belarus—and even Russia itself,” he continued. “This is what we have to be prepared for.”

Hybrid warfare does not involve the use of weapons, and it is not conducted between military forces. Indeed, as Karis suggested, among the multiple and various forms that hybrid warfare can take is manipulating groups of innocent people, who do not even recognize what is happening, when it is happening.

As such, hybrid warfare is a form of deceit, the success of which depends, to a large extent, on a lack of strategic awareness in those who are targeted.

On the other hand, one important counter to such warfare is having a good understanding of the broad, overall situation.

Hybrid Warfare Directed Against a Population

Hybrid warfare is the appropriate term to characterize events last fall, when thousands of Iraqis, including from the Kurdistan Region, travelled to Belarus in the misguided belief that they could gain easy entry into the European Union (EU.)

Instead of easy access to the EU, however, they ended up trapped between two opposing forces. As winter approached, and the cold and snow followed, they faced the prospect of dying in a remote and inhospitable land.

Read More:Violence used against migrants on Belarus' border with Lithuania, Poland: K24 source

It was a terrible situation—and quite unnecessary. The migrants failed to consider what kind of government exists in Belarus, and why none of its promises should have been believed.

The Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, is regularly referred to as Europe’s “last dictator.” He has ruled Belarus for the last 30 years—since it became independent from Moscow, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 2020, elections returned Lukashenko to office for a sixth term. But the vote was widely considered to be rigged, and it triggered large-scale protests. They were brutally suppressed, which led the European Union (EU), along with the US and UK, to impose sanctions on the country.

Lukashenko was left with only one significant ally: Russian President Vladimir Putin, and he then responded to the sanctions by triggering a migrant crisis on Belarus’s borders with the EU countries of Lithuania, Poland, and Latvia.

Political Map of Belarus. (by Nations Online Project)
Political Map of Belarus. (by Nations Online Project)

“Lithuania accused Belarus of ‘weaponizing’ migrants last summer by pushing them to its border,” the Financial Times reported, and “Minsk later deployed the same tactic against neighboring Poland and Latvia with suspicions in all three countries that Moscow had played a part.”

Iraq/Kurdistan Region Deliberately Targeted?

Fully half of those migrants were from Iraq, many of them from the Kurdistan Region.

Indeed, Lithuania’s Foreign Minister, who visited the Kurdistan Region last month, stated that over 90 percent of the Iraqi migrants detained in his country were Kurds, even as the vast majority—around 90 percent—did not qualify for asylum. 

Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region, may well have been deliberately targeted by Belarus and Russia, as an informed European source suggested to Kurdistan 24.

That is because they are aligned with the West, and the migrant crisis along the Belarusian borders was essentially a hostile action against the West.

Targeting Iraq would have served two purposes. The most obvious is Minsk’s aim to exert counter-pressure on the EU, after it imposed sanctions. But Moscow could have sought to achieve a second goal of its own.

Russia had close ties to Saddam Hussein, and it opposed the 2003 US-led war that overthrew his regime. Two years later, in 2005, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued a report based on captured Iraqi documents. The report revealed that Russian officials, including those from the Russian Presidential Council, had received millions of dollars from the sale of Iraqi oil under a UN-authorized program meant to provide for Iraq’s humanitarian needs while the country was under international sanctions following the 1991 Gulf War.

Thus, in 2021, tour operators in Belarus, working with “travel agencies” in Iraq, offered what they touted as a package deal to travel to Belarus which included visas to that country. After arrival in Belarus, there would be a relaxing stay in a Minsk hotel, before travelers proceeded onto the EU.

There was no easy onward voyage into Europe, of course. It was a trick—hybrid warfare, and the tragedies that ensued underscore the need to be properly informed about major international events, particularly for those planning travel abroad.