The “weaponisation” of migration by Belarus on its border with Lithuania and an imminent military exercise involving Russian and Belarusian troops risks an “incident” with Nato troops in the Baltic states or Poland, said Latvia’s foreign minister.
Edgars Rinkevics told the Financial Times there was an increased chance of “misunderstandings, some actions that are not approved by superiors” when Russia’s Zapad military exercise takes place next month.
“You have a border crisis, you have a major military exercise going on at the borders of Nato countries, you also have increased presence on our side, the Lithuanian side, Estonian side, Polish side of border guards, and military formations. Of course, this is increasing the possibility of incidents,” Rinkevics said.
There is growing unease in both the Baltic states and Brussels over the actions of the authoritarian regime of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko after a flawed election last year and the forced landing of an intra-EU flight in May to seize a journalist-activist.
Baltic officials say his latest tactic is to offer migrants from Iraq, Syria or several African countries a package that includes passage to the Lithuanian border. More than 4,000 migrants have crossed into Lithuania this year alone, more than 50 times the number that entered last year.
Rinkevics said this was “a very clear case of hybrid warfare” by deliberately using migration to target the EU and Lithuania.
“The migrants are actually being used as the weapon. The longer we live in this 21st century, the scarier it becomes. Things that we couldn’t imagine that could be used, they are being used,” he said.
Latvia’s foreign minister said he was encouraged by Iraq’s decision to suspend flights to Minsk, which, combined with Lithuanian border guards’ new tactic to “push back” migrants towards Belarus, has led to a significant decrease in the numbers crossing the frontier in recent days.
Tensions in the Baltic states rise every four years when Russia’s annual military exercises move to its western district bordering Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. But Rinkevics said that this year’s Zapad exercise was particularly sensitive due to the “ongoing hybrid warfare element”.
He added: “Definitely this has rather high potential for incidents. Of course, if somebody is planning some deliberate provocations then one can see that. But I honestly don’t think there’s an interest to escalate that to a full-scale military provocation.”
Russia, which has a close union with Belarus, is one of the few supporters of Minsk. Rinkevics said he believed it was not in Moscow’s interests to be too closely associated with Lukashenko’s recent actions, which were “a little bit too scandalous”.
But he argued that Russia was likely to be involved in some way in Belarus’ recent actions. “Definitely it is difficult to imagine that such kind of actions could be done without some kind of backing, co-ordination and co-operation,” Rinkevics said.
The former head of Estonia’s armed forces, MEP Riho Terras, last week called on Nato to invoke its article 4 over the migration crisis; this calls for consultations among members of the military alliance. Invoking it would not be as serious as article 5, which declares an attack on one member is an attack on all, but is seen as symbolising Nato’s deep concern on an issue, and has been used several times by Turkey.
Rinkevics hinted that Latvia would back an article 4 call in the right circumstances. “If there is a real need to call for consultations with Nato allies, if we see a need for article 4 we will use that,” he said.