A New Form of Hybrid Warfare: Belarus and Russia's Strategic Use of Migrants

Irregular migration via Belarus and Russia has sharply increased in recent months, raising concerns among security experts who view it as a deliberate strategy of hybrid warfare

by Sededin Dedovic
A New Form of Hybrid Warfare: Belarus and Russia's Strategic Use of Migrants
© Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Irregular migration via Belarus and Russia was almost non-existent during the winter period. However, the numbers are now rapidly increasing. For security experts, this is considered "hybrid warfare," reports Deutsche Welle. Two Eritreans were found in a taxi attempting to enter Germany illegally.

Or – on the German island of Usedom, three Yemeni men arrived on the beach early in the morning. Or – at the border crossing with Poland, five Syrians were found in a car with a Polish driver. Police reports of similar incidents have been numerous over the past few weeks.

Migration at the German-Polish border is increasing, which is not surprising given the onset of warmer weather. What is particularly noteworthy in this case is the route through which migrants are increasingly arriving – via Russia and Belarus.

According to German media, Belarus, apparently in cooperation with Russia, is intensifying efforts to smuggle migrants into the EU. This is evident from recent German police statistics. Irregular migration via this route initially decreased in January and February 2024 to fewer than 30 detected cases.

In the same months last year, that number was more than twenty times higher.

"Hybrid Warfare"

However, the calm on this route was short-lived. Since spring, migration has sharply increased: there were already 412 cases in March, 670 in April, and 416 by mid-May.

Overall, the number of recorded cases at the German-Polish border is still numerically dominated by migration via the Balkan route, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, or Poland. Here too, after relatively low numbers in the first two months, there was an increase in March.

But there is a significant difference: European politicians and security authorities largely consider migration via Belarus and Russia to be controlled. German security circles are monitoring this development with concern: "We are dealing with hybrid warfare here."

Short-term Visas for Russia

Security services also have indications of controlled migration.

Some migrants provide relevant information about their travel route. According to media investigations, about half of those surveyed on this route stated that they obtained visas for Russia at diplomatic missions in their home countries.

Russia is reportedly deliberately issuing such documents to attract migrants. They often fly to Moscow or Saint Petersburg, from where they are transported to Belarus, and then often further into the EU. German police confirmed to journalists that entry into the Russian Federation mostly occurred by air, followed by land routes.

They often possess short-term Russian visas, like those issued to tourists, businesspeople, or students. Unlike a few years ago, most migrants currently arriving via Russia and Belarus are not from Iraq but from Syria and Afghanistan, with many also from Somalia, Yemen, and Eritrea.

Deliberate Endangerment of Lives

Since migration via Russia and Belarus first spiked in 2021, EU countries have noted that it is being used "as a weapon." Experts from the Hybrid Warfare working group at the German Federal Ministry of the Interior, which focuses on hybrid warfare, previously analyzed what this actually means in a confidential document.

French police clear a migrant camp near Calais Port© Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

According to the report, migration "is not a threat in itself." However, certain states have abused this phenomenon "for their political purposes – for example, to achieve foreign policy goals or to strengthen the government's position on the domestic political scene." The report further emphasizes: "State actors consciously accept the risk to human lives." The target countries are to be forced into "taking border protection measures, thereby overburdening existing border infrastructure."

"State Smuggling"

Migration via Belarus began a year before Russia's aggressive war against Ukraine, shortly after the EU imposed sanctions on the Minsk regime.

Since then, Western politicians and authorities have repeatedly stressed that this migration via Russia is not a direct consequence of any war, but is viewed as state smuggling. Poland was the first country in the region in 2021 to massively increase the number of border guards at the border with Belarus.

A high fence and electronic monitoring system were installed. Lithuania, Latvia, and Finland later took similar measures. According to the Finnish Ministry of the Interior, Russia started bringing migrants without Schengen visas to the border with Finland in the fall of 2023.

Only a few weeks after the number of such people increased to over 500 within seven days, Finland closed its border crossings. Finnish police also had information at the time that several thousand people were approaching the border and that Russian officials planned the arrival of migrants at the Finnish border.

Focus on the Entire EU External Border

The issue of "migration as a hybrid weapon" has become increasingly important in recent years. The EU border protection agency Frontex also mentioned in a confidential risk analysis for 2023/2024 that the likelihood of using irregular migration as a means of pressure has increased.

Frontex also focuses on Russia: the Kremlin has the ability to influence flight routes, while at the same time, Russian authorities can organize routes within Russian territory. In fact, Frontex experts see a danger that migrants could become a means of pressure on multiple parts of the EU's external border: according to internal records, this includes not only Russia and Belarus but also Serbia, Turkey, Libya, and Morocco.

Unlike Russia, these countries have repeatedly used migration as a means of pressure, but not as a tool in hybrid warfare.