By Wall Street Journal
Nov. 11, 2021 Anno Domini
Russia’s Vladimir Putin is causing trouble in Europe again, first by massing troops on the border with Ukraine and now with a refugee crisis and energy threats through his ally in Belarus. Western Europe is upset but has itself to blame for being so vulnerable.
Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko stole last year’s presidential election and arrested opposition leaders. His increasingly violent crackdown prompted several rounds of European Union sanctions. He has retaliated by facilitating the movement of mostly Middle Eastern migrants to Europe’s borders.
Polish security officials have accused Belarusian forces of helping migrants break through border barriers. They say Belarusian units have pointed their rifles at Polish forces and simulated throwing grenades across the border. Hundreds of migrants tried to break through the Polish border this week, and thousands remain camped nearby. Some have died in the freezing conditions.
Now Mr. Lukashenko is playing the energy supply card. “We are heating Europe, they are still threatening us that they will close the border. And if we shut off natural gas there?” Mr. Lukashenko said Thursday, according to Reuters. “I would recommend that the Polish leadership, Lithuanians and other headless people think before speaking.”
This has the look of a Putin-inspired hybrid political campaign. The intention is to destabilize Poland and its neighbours while generating division within the E.U. So far the strategy has largely backfired. Warsaw’s spat with Brussels over rule-of-law issues is now on the back burner, and Brussels rightly has laid blame for the humanitarian crisis on Belarus. One senior EU official, reversing Brussels’ previous position, has said financing a border wall with Belarus is possible.
Russia is controlling the marionette here. Mr. Lukashenko once played Russia and the West off each other, but since the popular protests against him he has thrown in completely with Moscow. Mr. Putin is taking advantage, flying Russian strategic bombers over Belarusian airspace this week. The Kremlin has called on Europe to pay Minsk to halt the migrants while blaming Western intervention in the Middle East for the chaos. This trolling is Mr. Putin’s specialty: Create or encourage a crisis, blame the victim, and demand concessions to resolve the issue.
The larger strategic context is that Mr. Putin and his crony believe they can act with relative impunity because Europe is desperate for Russian gas amid an energy crunch. European leaders—especially lame duck German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron—cling to the illusion that talking to Russia will improve ties. Mr. Putin told Ms. Merkel in a phone call this week that Europe would have to negotiate directly with Minsk—giving a pariah state the legitimacy it craves.
The best near-term approach is to impose harsher sanctions on items like potash exports and to pressure Middle Eastern countries to halt flights into Minsk. In the long run, Europe will have to lessen its dependence on Russian energy. Killing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would be an important start, if anyone has the nerve.