The situation on Lithuania's southeastern border, which has been crossed by thousands of migrants coming from Belarus in recent weeks, may have reached a turning point with the recent decision by Lithuania to start returning individuals to their countries of origin.
Politicians and experts appearing on ETV news show 'Aktuaalne kaamera' (AK) said Tuesday evening that the strategy is a deliberate form of hybrid warfare, intended to destabilize Lithuania, teaching both it and the EU as a whole a lesson, as well as an effort to distract attention from an upcoming mass military exercise in western Russia and in Belarus.
Tomas Jermalavičius, a Lithuanian expert at the Tallinn-based International Center for Defense Studies (ICDS), told AK that migratory pressure on Lithuania could be a deceptive maneuver on the part of Belarus, aimed at diverting Europe's attention from other regions.
Among worst-case scenarios, Jermalavičius said that: "[Belarusian leaeder Alexander] Lukashenko has already suggested that Arab militants be sent to protect migrants from the so-called perpetrators of violence by the Lithuanian government".
Expert: Psychological 'game'
"One does not have to look far to find such defenders: Chechen leader [Ramzan] Kadyrov's fighters are loyal to the Kremlin and ready to fight for the Russian regime," he added.
"We have to understand that this is basically a psychological game and a means of putting pressure on Lithuanian society. Of course, the military threat adds tension just beyond the border, especially at a time when the country's security systems and government are very busy changing," he went on.
Defense minister Kalle Laanet agreed, calling the recent phenomenon a way of disrupting and compromising the Lithuanian state.
Laanet said that: "The first option is, of course, to build a physical wall or fence between Belarus and Lithuania."
Defense minister: Threefold solution possible
"Second, it is certainly possible to influence Belarus to stop such a hybrid attack via foreign diplomacy."
"Third, of course, also to think ahead and stop creating opportunities for refugees to arrive from their country of origin at all," Laanet told AK.
Interior minister Kristian Jaani (Center) also appeared on AK, and said that the situation in Lithuania was ample demonstration of the need to build up Estonia's border infrastructure.
Jaani said: "Our external border is very well guarded. As of today we are patrolling it with a lot of people and technical equipment and /.../ there is a very active border construction going on in the south-east corner up to today."
Interior minister: Issue demonstrates timeliness of Estonia border infrastructure ongoing work
While Estonia's eastern border with Russia – Estonia does not share a border with Belarus – is dominated by waterways, from the mouth of the Narva river in the north, bisecting Peipsi Järv (Lake Peipus), the fifth largest lake in Europe, and on into Lämmijärv and Pihkva Järv – all three lakes form a contiguous system – the southeastern-most corner of the country is abuts on to a land border more similar to Lithuania's eastern border, while the borders of Estonia and the Russian Federation converge with Latvia's border to the south.
The border here is in a relatively sparsely-populated area, further from almost any major settlement, on either side, however, than is the case on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, which lies just 30km from Vilnius and a little over 100km from Minsk. The Russian city of Pskov (Estonian: Pihkva) is the only town of any size near the southeastern border, at over 200,000 people it is larger than Tartu.
The eastern border construction has been a long-awaited project, and would also set up infrastructure not along the lines of the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty, which drew the border somewhat to the east of the present-day line, when the town of Petseri was in Estonian territory (present-day Pechory, in Russia).
Kristian Jaani told AK that the southeastern border infrastructure work was fortuitous in any case, given what is happening in Lithuania; Estonia has also loaned both personnel and materiel to Lithuania's border guard.
Riigikogu foreign affairs committee chair: Belarus trying to teach neighbor to west a lesson
As reported by ERR News, former defense minister Jüri Luik, now Estonia's ambassador to NATO and also appearing on AK Tuesday, called what the Lukashenko regime is doing a classic example of hybrid war, one which might be escalated further.
Chair of the Riigikogu's foreign affairs committee, Marko Mihkelson (Reform) told another ETV current affairs show, "Ringvaade Suvel" that Belarus was trying to teach Lithuania a lesson.
"This picture is no stranger to us when we recall [the] 2015 [migrant crisis] in Western Europe. But it is clear that these are not, so to speak, 'naturally' congregating immigrants on the Belarusian border trying to find access to the EU. This is certainly a concrete action and it can be said that it is a very specific hybrid attack against Lithuania," Mihkelson, who is to personally travel to Lithuania's border with Belarus next Monday, told the show.
"Understandably, the issue of migration is a very sensitive issue in domestic politics. In an open society, as we have seen for years, it creates very serious contradictions, security problems, understandable issues and it is difficult to deal with," he went on.
Over 4,000 migrants arrived in Lithuania in recent weeks
AK also reported that many of those migrants, whose countries of origin include Middle-Eastern nations such as Iraq, and African countries including as far afield as Cameroon, cooped up in a displaced persons camp at the village of Rūdninkai constitute scenes which are becoming day to day, in addition to the issues of dissatisfaction both on the part of the migrants, and of local residents.
While Estonia's defense ministry sees no direct threat to Estonia at present, the country is effectively also defending itself in aiding Lithuania.
AK also reported that some of the more than 4,000 refugees who have crossed the border in recent weeks have been ferried to the border by what looks like Belarusian border guard vehicles.
Exercise Zapad 2021 starting soon
Three-hundred refugees arrived in Lithuania last week, while Marko Mihkelson told "Ringvaade Suvel" that the bulk of them are young men in their 20s, originally from Iraq.
As to the context, the beginning of the large scale Russian-Belarusian military Exercise Zapad and the deterioration of relations between Minsk and the west over the past year, following the reelection of Alexander Lukashenko to a sixth term, are all key, Mihkelson said.
The ball is also fully in Lithuania's court, he went on, adding that the decision within the past 24 hours to start sending migrants back to their countries of origin on the part of the Lithuanian authorities could be a turning point in the episode.
Editor: Andrew Whyte