What the hell is Putin doing?

The migrants at the Belarusian border are pawns in a wicked and heartless ruse. Russian troops are massing on Ukraine’s border. What is Putin trying to do?

Monique Camarra, Siena

On May 23, using the phony claim of a bomb threat, Belarusian fighter jets forced a Ryanair passenger jet en route to Vilnius from Athens to land in Minsk. This was a pretext to arrest one single passenger—the Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich.

In response to this act of piracy, the European Union levied heavy sanctions against high-ranking Belarusian apparatchiks. Belarus’s dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, vowed to flood the EU with migrants and drugs: “We were stopping [them],” he raved. “Now you will catch them and eat them yourself.”

He kept his promise. Over the summer, Iraqi and Belarusian travel agencies sold visas in tourist packages to Minsk to migrants seeking to enter the EU. As soon as they arrived in Minsk, Belarusian authorities picked them up at the airport and escorted them to state-approved hotels, then bussed them in the dead of night to the Lithuanian and Polish borders. Belarusian border guards gave the migrants wire cutters to penetrate the border fences, which they used.

Using migrants to destabilize Europe is Vladimir Putin’s playbook. In 2015, Russian bombing forced Syrians to flee into the EU. The ensuing crisis gave far-right, pro-Kremlin figures and proxies the narrative they eagerly sought. Kremlin-aligned media have been portraying the events on the Belarusian-Polish border as “a humanitarian crisis,” one that reveals Europe’s pitilessness and hypocrisy. They do not, of course, tell viewers who orchestrated this crisis. Unfortunately, some in the Western media, including CNN, have followed their lead.

The Kremlin’s proxies feed their domestic and Western audiences videos and photos of the border edited to emphasize the suffering of women and children in the cold and the inhuman demeanor of Polish border guards. “Questions about why this happened are unnecessary,” wrote opinion columnist Vladimir Boroda on the RT Telegram channel:

… for 30 years the European Union has been shouting that the rights of all people are equal, that it does not matter where a person lives and where he comes from, and that EU countries are open to everyone who wants to settle in Bern, Berlin, Lyon or Marseille. Well, except for the Russians, because they are evil and unpredictable. …

Those 3,500 refugees who are now sitting at the Polish checkpoint may want and know how to work. Perhaps they are just really kind and polite people who left the death zone for the sake of hope for the future. Which, by the way, the European Union even promises them. But it does not [allow them in], coming up with completely ridiculous reasons for refusing them—from Belarusian aggression to the Russian conspiracy. Although the reason is simple, it cannot be voiced under any circumstances—otherwise you will have to admit that not all people are the same for Europe, not all are valuable, not all deserve the benefits of European life. And this is the collapse of the entire value system of the liberal Western society, for the protection of which it is not a sin to put up barbed wire and shoot. So far—over our heads.

The majority of the migrants were, indeed, people who left the death zone in the hope of a better future in Europe. They had been led to believe that this was where they were going. Now they find themselves in warehouses in Bruzgi, sleeping in cargo storage units.

Some in the Western media, seeing what is undeniably a humanitarian crisis, have chastised the EU: “The images from the Belarus-Poland border, however harrowing, shouldn’t be surprising,” wrote Charlotte McDonald-Gibson in The New York Times. “This is what the European Union’s migration policy looks like.” She allowed that the greatest share of blame for the crisis lay with Lukashenko, but faulted the EU for fearing “the political effects of large-scale migration.”

This, she argued, had “given authoritarian states a road map to blackmail.” European officials, she wrote,

use the language of moral superiority and humanitarianism without the policies to back it up, weakening their authority to call out countries such as Belarus and Russia. They should start redressing those double standards immediately.

She is not wholly wrong. Europe has repeatedly capitulated to blackmail in its dealings with autocratic states who have used the threat of opening the migrant valve to wring concessions from Europe. In a trivial sense, it is true that if Europe opened its borders to everyone, it could not be blackmailed. Europe would do well to provide more legal pathways, as she suggests, for work visas and refugee resettlement.

But Europe cannot provide a legal pathway to every migrant who wishes to settle in Europe, and lost in her narrative is a focus on Belarus’s geopolitical calculations—and because Belarus doesn’t act independently, Russia’s. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, noted as much when she said, “This is not a migration crisis. This is an attempt of an authoritarian regime to try to destabilize its democratic neighbors.”

The border crisis can only be understood in the larger context of the Kremlin’s foreign policy objectives. Lukashenko, an isolated dictator, could not have carried out an operation of this magnitude on his own. The Kremlin has poured billions of dollars worth of aid—financial, military, intelligence, logistical—into Belarus. Putin is Lukashenko’s senior partner in the Russia-Belarus Union State, which came into being last September; the Union State Agreement formally integrated the two countries’ economies and tax systems, as well as their defense and intelligence apparatuses. The so-called Military Doctrine of the Union State subordinates the Belarusian military to Russia’s, codifying Belarus’s role as a Greater Russia satellite state.

The orchestration of the migration crisis required resources Belarus does not have. The money, logistics, know-how, and connections to the underworld of human trafficking and organized crime could only have come from one place—Belarus’s Big Brother. Belarus is infamous for smuggling, but not on this scale.

For Putin, Belarus is a critical launchpad for destabilization and military operations in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The geography of the border crisis, at the opening of the Suwałki Corridor, is no accident. Endless hours of NATO war planning have been devoted to this narrow finger of land between Belarus and Kaliningrad, one of the most significant—and vulnerable—territories in NATO. Cut this off, and you cut off the land bridge between the Baltic littoral and the European plains.

Kaliningrad, until 1946 known as Königsberg, is in turn cut off from Russia, surrounded by EU and NATO territory. It is an obvious flashpoint, not least because Baltiysk, just to the West of the city of Kaliningrad, is Russia’s only warm-water port on the Baltic Sea.

For the past decade, Russia has been bolstering its military presence in Kaliningrad, pouring in troops and arms, including Iskander-M Ballistic missile launchers. Their range is depicted in this map from the Polish Defense Ministry:

As tensions over the migrant crisis grew, Russia sent nuclear-capable strategic bombers to practice bombing runs east of the Polish border, then paratroopers to the border for surprise joint Russo-Belarusian drills—an unambiguous signal to the West.

Pavel Latushko, who is widely viewed as the de facto leader of the Belarusian opposition in exile, has alleged that operatives of Russia’s largest military intelligence agency, the GRU, are training combat veterans at a base near the village of Opsa in northwestern Belarus, which belongs to the Special Active Measures Department of the Belarusian National Border Committee. Latushko says Belarus intends to send these operatives into the EU to “realize terrorist acts.”

Lukashenko may have hatched up the migrant scheme, initially, for domestic consumption—a chance to cast himself as a man with a tender heart for blameless immigrants, softening his well-earned image for criminal brutality—but owing to Belarus’s geography, this plot clearly served Putin’s wider objectives.


Greater Russia

The Soviet Union was dissolved on December 26, 1991. The thirtieth anniversary of this event may well be on Putin’s mind. We know that Putin dwells on significant anniversaries; the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, for example, was assassinated on Putin’s birthday. Were Ukraine to be integrated into the European sphere, successful, and prosperous, Russians in St. Petersburg and Moscow might want the same thing. This would pose a grave risk to Putin, so it must never happen. Ukraine must remain under Russia’s control.

Last summer, Putin published an essay in which he averred that Ukraine and Russia were one people and one nation. The creation of an independent Ukraine, he wrote, was a mistake. On November 18, he delivered a foreign policy speech:

It should be borne in mind that Western partners exacerbate the situation by supplying Kiev with lethal modern weapons, conducting provocative military maneuvers in the Black Sea, and not only in the Black Sea—in other regions close to our borders. As for the Black Sea, this generally goes beyond certain limits: strategic bombers fly at a distance of 20 kilometers from our state border, and they, as you know, carry very serious weapons.

Yes, we constantly express our concerns about this, we talk about “red lines,” but, of course, we understand that our partners are very peculiar and so—how to put it mildly—treat all our warnings and talk about “red lines” casually. We remember well how NATO’s eastward expansion took place—there is a very representative and professional audience here. Despite the fact that relations between Russia and our Western partners, including the United States, were uniquely good, the level of relations was almost allied, our concerns and warnings about NATO’s eastward expansion were completely ignored.

Of late, Putin has been dilating on this theme in his oratory and writing: The West doesn’t respect Russia. Russian policy must be less diplomatic and more confrontational; the only language the West understands is force.

No one doubts that Russia’s fear of invasion has an obvious historic basis. But in the modern world, where no one would dream of invading Russia, it amounts to sheer paranoia. Russia is the aggressor, not the West. Nonetheless, Putin will only feel secure if he controls the periphery—anything touching Russia’s borders. The European Union, NATO, and the West are in his mind the enemy. Russian domestic propaganda repeats this theme endlessly.

In 2007, beginning with a massive cyberattack on Estonia, Putin began turning these ideas to action. The catalogue of Putin’s aggression is by now familiar. Russia has conducted massive cyberattacks throughout the West. It has launched proxy wars in Georgia and Transnistria, and tried to stage a coup in Montenegro. It has established networks for disseminating disinformation throughout the world; it has launched hacking, doxing, and sabotage campaigns; it has assassinated dissidents and used chemical weapons on EU soil; it has purchased sympathetic politicians in Germany, Austria, Italy, Serbia, and France. Russia manipulates the supply of gas to Moldova, Ukraine, and Germany. It has attacked Ukraine and annexed its territory, then isolated it through the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which circumvents Ukraine as a gas transit route.

In one prominent school of Kremlinology, Putin has no ideology: He’s an opportunist who takes advantage of the West’s weakness, using these tactics to wring concessions from the US and the EU while always skirting away from a full, kinetic war.

Ideology or none, Putin’s foreign policy since 2007, and especially since 2014—when Russia invaded Ukraine—is clearly revisionist.  


War Games

Russia is waging economic war against Ukraine by diverting its gas supplies, banning key Ukrainian exports, instructing banks to cut financing to Ukrainian industries, and cancelling infrastructure projects.

Last March and April, Russia began building up forces on Ukraine’s border; this continued through September. It left behind equipment it had brought for the Zapad-2021 exercises, in Belarus. (“Zapad” means “West.”) Ukraine’s Defense Minister, Oleksii Reznikov, estimates that there are now 100,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border. The pieces are in place should Russia choose to invade the rest of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian military’s view of the way a Russian attack would occur. The map depicts Russian battalion tactical groups, or BTGs. (From Ukraine military)

On November 15, Kyrylo Budanov, chief of Ukraine’s military intelligence, warned that Russian heavy artillery might be positioned to put psychological pressure on Ukraine, but it could also signal an imminent attack. The military preparations have been accompanied by a significant increase in psy-ops, he said, aimed at destabilizing Ukraine’s political establishment and weakening Ukrainians’ will to fight. He pointed to protests against Covid vaccines in Ukraine, for example, organized by Russia.

The most worrisome movements are those of the 41st Combined Arms Army (CAA), which has moved from the center to the west of Russia, massing on Europe’s eastern borders. During the Zapad-2021 exercises, the 41st CAA was deployed to the Pogonovo training range in the Voronezh region, next to Ukraine. Commercial satellite photos show a buildup of armored units, tanks and self-propelled artillery, as well as ground troops, near the Russian town of Yelnya, near the Belarus border, less than 300 kilometers from Ukraine. From the images, it appears the equipment began arriving there in late September.

The 41st CAA could be critical in a conflict, filling the gap between the 6th CAA in the north, near St. Petersburg, and the 20th CAA in the east, near Voronezh, as an advance force in an attack on the Suwałki Corridor. The 11th Army Corps in Kaliningrad could also support an attack on Poland and Lithuania. If Russia strikes in the Black Sea region, the 41st CAA is flexible; it could push forward into Ukraine from the north and Belarus to cut Kyiv from reinforcements and then station troops on the west bank of the Dnieper River.

Satellite imagery shows a rise in Russian military personnel and equipment in Crimea, too, and military vehicles in Rostov, east of Ukraine. This might signal an imminent incursion into the Donbas. Over the past few days, the tempo of shelling in the Donbas, by Russian-led forces, has picked up.

The images also show that Russia has sent the National Guards, a paramilitary security force, to Rostov. The Guards are a hybrid-ops unit. They have been used in Crimea and other regions of Ukraine to control conquered territory, suppress dissent, and install Kremlin puppets.

The troop movements and the massing of weapons on Ukraine’s border, analysts stress, are quite different from what we saw in Crimea a few years ago, or in March and April of 2021. This time, Russia is trying to hide what it is doing. This has profoundly alarmed EU and American diplomats. On November 4, US President Joe Biden dispatched his CIA Director, Bill Burns, to Moscow to warn that the United States was aware of this buildup and alarmed.

German, French, UK, Baltic, and US leaders have all reiterated their support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But EU and US leaders understand full well that their governments and societies will be the object of the Kremlin’s destabilization campaigns so long as the EU, US, and NATO signatories stand by Ukraine.

Alongside the manufactured migrant crisis, Russia’s troop movements, and its patent unwillingness to abide by the Minsk protocol—a set of de-escalation measures to which Russia agreed, in negotiations with Ukraine, France, and Germany—amount to a volatile and dangerous crisis.


Deception and dependence

If you believe Putin is merely an opportunist, you would nonetheless see that an attack on Ukraine would be opportune. Although Germany and France have publicly stated they will not tolerate Russian aggression against Ukraine, neither are apt to act decisively on Ukraine’s behalf.

Germany hasn’t yet formed a government following its recent elections. It is dependent on Russian gas. German establishment figures, such as Wolfgang Schauble, have limply proposed asking the Kremlin for help in solving the very migrant crisis it orchestrated in Belarus. There is no indication German foreign policy will change under the leadership of the SPD’s Olaf Scholz.

It is a French election year. Macron’s views on Russia have always been ambiguous. Could anyone count on him to send French troops should Russia invade?

Europe and the United States alike are mired in the pandemic and its economic fallout. Both are battling a vociferous anti-vaccination movement, catalyzed by Russian disinformation. This not only makes it far more difficult to bring the pandemic to end, but distracts and bitterly divides Western societies.

If Russia attacks Ukraine, realistically, what might the United States do? Americans would be asked to do the heavy lifting. Their EU and NATO partners are unprepared. Russia has encircled Ukraine with more firepower than it has seen in modern memory. President Biden is focused on Covid, climate change, and China, much to the delight of the Russians. The American domestic political environment is toxic. Americans seem more and more divided; they are self-absorbed, indifferent to the severity of the fires blazing abroad.

Would NATO come to Ukraine’s aid? If the West’s response to Russian kinetic and non-kinetic warfare since February 2007 is any guide, the answer is “No.” The endless diplomatic dialogue initiatives and expressions of deep concern have taught the world’s autocrats that they are free to operate with impunity.

In the long term, deterrence requires strengthening the armed forces of the EU member states and increasing the resilience of their societies. This has started, but they need to do more, and quickly.

In the short term, both Ukraine’s and Belarus’s neighbors need support. If Russia attacks Ukraine from Belarus or Crimea, the EU and the US must be prepared to levy crippling sanctions on Russian authorities. They must prepare to send more military personnel and materiel to Ukraine.

For now, the British have sent 600 troops, and the US has reinforced the Ukrainian Armed Forces with radar and medical equipment, ammunition, and precision weapons. On November 10, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro signed a strategic partnership charter to deepen the two countries’ political, security, defensee, economic, and energy ties. The US has sent warships to patrol the Black Sea, and initiated high-level defense meetings with NATO member Turkey. Turkey in turn has announced it will sell more Bayraktar TB2 drones to Ukraine; these destroyed a Russian howitzer in October. NATO has also increased the tempo of meetings and briefings among its defense ministers.

The US House of Representatives has passed an amendment to impose mandatory sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG, the company that runs the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, through an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. (Biden had issued a waiver on sanctions, allowing Nord Stream 2 AG to complete the pipeline.) The amendment is now in the hands of the US Senate, which will vote on it this week.

Ukrainians are fierce. They have been at war with Russia since 2007. If Russia invades, they will fight back.

But leaders and analysts in Europe and the US are divided. Some think Putin is just bluffing. Some seek to de-escalate tensions. Some are calling for more visible solidarity and an immediate show of force.

Ukraine and Ukrainians don’t have time for this debate: They need the EU, NATO, and the US to act decisively, now.


Monique Camarra, a language specialist at the University of Siena, is the co-host of the Kremlin File, a weekly podcast about Putin and the spread of authoritarianism around the world.

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