Date: 28 September 2023 Author: Róbert Gönczi

Disinformation as a Tool of Hybrid Warfare at the Polish-Belarusian Border

The Belarusian or Eastern migration and border crisis is one of the biggest hybrid conflicts Central Europe has faced in the 21st century. Although the conflict has faded in the lights of the war in Ukraine since 2022, it remains a live crisis, with its unique challenges, and poses a constant security threat to the states involved and to the European Union as a whole.

SOURCE: AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk

 

The Roots and Nature of the Belarusian Migration and Border Crisis

The Belarusian migration and border crisis is a hybrid warfare level conflict, which does not reach the level of an active armed conflict, but its trends consistently pose a threat to the security environment in Central Europe. The crisis is an artificially created crisis with the explicit aim of exerting political pressure and destabilisation [1]. The central instrument of the crisis is the instrumentalization of migration [2]. The instrumentalization of migration is a hybrid warfare tool that seeks to achieve some kind of political change by artificially creating migration flows or simply destabilising the state(s) under attack [3}. The instrumentalization of migration is an exceedingly popular political pressure tool, not only in Belarus. It has been used by many countries from Morocco to Turkey to Russia over the last 20 years [4]. Belarusian migration instrumentalization has drawn heavily on similar methods used by the Russians. Russia artificially created migration flows towards Norway and Finland in 2015-2016 in response to the sanction regime over the start of the war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea [5] The Union State cooperation [6] between Belarus and Russia can be observed here, as the demonstration of methods of instrumentalizing migration and allowing another state to use them implies a high degree of trust and cooperation. This is partly why Belarus and Russia cannot be separated regarding this crisis as responsible parties.

The central element of the Belarusian attempt to instrumentalize migration is the smuggling of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, escorting them to the border and forcing them into neighbouring EU countries [7]. Belarus has relied heavily on a facilitated visa regime and discounted airfares to allow migrants to easily enter the Eastern European state. Thanks to strong and decisive action by the EU, this type of direct link between the sending countries and Belarus has been eliminated8, while new routes have emerged and continue to cause headaches for EU Member States in the East [9]. The eastern migration route has changed significantly in the last year, and instead of direct responsibility for Belarus, there is increasing reflection on the differentiated responsibility of Russia, which has taken over the role of the country of arrival from its neighbour. The changed migration route pattern works as follows: migrants arrive in Moscow and can continue their journey to Minsk. From Minsk, the Belarusian authorities escort the migrants down the Latvian, Lithuanian, or Polish borders, from where they eventually attempt to force their way through. This has become more difficult as physical border barriers have been erected, but the sight of migrant families freezing in the forests during the cold Eastern European Plain’s winter [10] has equipped the Lukashenko regime with a powerful weapon, that it could also use against the EU: the power of disinformation.

Disinformation as a Tool of Hybrid Warfare

In the digital age, disinformation has become a powerful and insidious tool that can wreak havoc in societies, influence elections, and even change the course of international conflicts. Disinformation is the deliberate dissemination of false or misleading information to deceive, manipulate public opinion, and promote a particular political will.11 It can take various forms, from fake news and conspiracy theories to deepfake videos and memes. In the hybrid warfare toolbox, disinformation is a powerful weapon that can be used to foment discord, weaken opponents, and achieve strategic goals without the use of conventional military force [12].

Hybrid warfare is a blend of conventional military and non-military means and strategies, including disinformation, cyber-attacks, economic pressure, and political subversion [13]. This approach allows state and non-state actors to fight conflicts in ways that blur the boundaries between war and peace. Disinformation plays a vital role in hybrid warfare by undermining public confidence, creating instability and confusion, and is thus a cost-effective but minimal risk means of achieving strategic objectives.

The Use of Disinformation in the Crisis

The responsibility for the Belarusian hybrid disinformation warfare can be attributed not only to Minsk but also to Moscow, thanks to the Union State (due to the Union State agreement, no military action by Belarus is possible without the consent of Russia). That is why, when talking about the aims of disinformation, it is necessary to establish separately what are the aims of Belarus and what are the aims of Russia by disinformation.

Belarus has the following objectives:

  1. The undermining of the position of Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia partly simply because of pressure against the European Union, and partly because of the admission of political refugees from Belarus, including opposition politicians [14]
  2. 2. To divert public attention from the political situation inside Belarus, including the high number of political prisoners, constitutional amendments, and the increasing integration with Russia, including military assets, considering the escalation of the war in Ukraine in 2022 [15]
  3. Weakening the morale of the services responsible for maintaining EU border protection.

Russia’s central objectives are:

  1. Pressure on NATO and EU countries.
  2. Making the security situation uncertain, which can easily be exploited to influence public opinion.
  3. To divert attention from other Russian military or hybrid activities, e.g., in Ukraine or the South Caucasus [16]

It can also be listed as a common objective:

1. Increasing the polarisation of public opinion and triggering debates on refugee admission in all three countries. This is because immigration has been one of the most divisive issues in the European Union since the European migration crisis of 2015-2016 and it has aroused considerable emotion among voters [17]

2. Undermining the image and public confidence in the authorities protecting the borders, in particular the army. This is achieved by constantly emphasising their slanderous allegations of cruel treatment of migrants (e.g., murders, beatings, intimidation, theft of money, etc.) [18]

3. Influencing public opinion in other EU countries by portraying Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia as inhuman and anti-humanitarian, violating European standards, and undermining human rights, thus contributing to the international isolation of these states. The means of doing this was again to describe the alleged brutality of the border services, by detailing the stories of the ‘victim migrants’ [19]

4. To portray the actions of the Polish, Lithuanian, and Latvian governments as a threat to the entire European Union, as well as to NATO, through their decisions and actions [20]

The disinformation warfare can be interpreted as a response to explicit Polish, Lithuanian, and Latvian state reactions. One of the first steps taken by Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia in response to the hybrid attack was to take decisive official measures such as closing the border [21]. Belarusian propaganda sought to capture this in the inhumanity of the measures, for example, the media consistently used as a recurrent smear the abuse of migrants, the beatings, the deaths, and the disproportionate inhuman treatment of those trying to cross the border [22]. Moreover, their narrative has also placed great emphasis on portraying the decisions of NATO member states (e.g., military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq) as the main reason for the exodus and the channelling of migrants toward Belarus [23]. Similar reactions have been enacted in the context of the disinformation mechanism on the construction of physical border barriers: accusations of destruction of animal habitats have been highlighted [24]

Disinformation has spread across many networks. The two most essential elements, however, were the website of the State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus, which, being official, provided a perfect source for fake news and modified content25, and social media, which made it impossible to verify the authenticity of the content by constantly circulating fake photos or videos on the Internet.26 One of the most effective means of doing this is the artificial authentication of information through the replication of content from multiple sources. Disinformation has also been active in the leading fake news-oriented media outlets, such as the Belarusian government media (e.g., BelTa, Belarussia-1, ONT, CTV), the Russian government media (e.g., Rossiya-1, Perviy kanal, RIA Novosty, TASS, Lenta, Ritm Evrazii, Regnum), as well as in various language versions of Russian disinformation platforms (e.g., RT, Sputnik, BaltNews, RuBaltic – with special emphasis on Arabic-language sources).27

The disinformation came in waves against the states under attack. The first wave was more intense in November when migration pressures were at their most intense during the crisis. This was also the time of the siege of Kuźnica, the footage of which was broadcast all over the world.28 The second wave

followed a meeting between German chancellor Angela Merkel and President Lukashenko29, when the disinformation narrative, driven by Minsk, used the news to promote the creation of a “humanitarian corridor” through Poland to Germany, thus maintaining the momentum of the migration flows.30 The third wave was triggered by the escape of Polish dissident soldier Emil Czeczko to Belarus.31 Following Czeczko’s defection, he became an active player in the disinformation propaganda campaign. Based on his allegations, Russia even proposed an international investigation at the Polish border.32

It should also be pointed out that the Russian Federation had its disinformation agenda, independently of Belarus. Their idea was to present themselves as a “constructive partner” as a less radical propaganda, able to mediate between Belarus and the European Union.33 Although their plan failed, at one point Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov even offered to mediate between Minsk and Brussels on the model of the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement.34 This Russian disinformation agenda was suppressed in Belarusian propaganda.

Conclusion

The Belarusian (or Eastern) migration and border crisis has sought and continues to seek success through hybrid warfare. One of its most critical elements is disinformation, an effective and cheap tool with a high success rate. The only useful antidote to disinformation is to draw attention to lies or distortions and to make the facts as widely known as possible. This is what the EU Member States involved in the conflict, i.e., Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, have tried to do. Although the crisis is far from over, its nature has changed, its intensity has diminished and the focus in Moscow and Minsk is on Ukraine. However, the challenges of disinformation should not be ignored: their social impact is strong and their capacity to damage stability is enormous.

Author:

Róbert Gönczi
He graduated in 2021 from the Faculty of Military Sciences and Officer Training in the National University of Public Service and the School of Social and Historical Studies at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium with a BSc in international defense and security policy. He is also a foreign policy journalist at Neokohn, and has previous working experience with Mandiner and the Warsaw Institute as well. He was the Vice President of the College of Advanced Studies in Security Policy for more than a year.

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The project is co-financed by the Governments of Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia through Visegrad Grants from International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe.

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