Following her meeting with President Biden at the White House last Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated on Twitter that the rising tensions on the Belarus-Poland border were not a “migration crisis” but a “hybrid attack,” a form of irregular warfare that blends military and non-military methods. She proceeded to announce that the European Union and the United States will cooperate on sanctioning third-country airlines involved in human trafficking. The unstated target of von der Leyen’s warning was the Turkish government, whose flag carrier had been delivering migrants to Belarus. When called out, Ankara reversed course, showing how coordinated transatlantic pressure can thwart a hybrid attack.
Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to support earlier this month against foreign “interference,” has been weaponizing migration into three EU member states—Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland—since June. Lukashenko has done so by luring migrants from Africa and the Middle East to Belarus, offering them unfettered passage to the EU border, often by government bus, and at times even forcing them at gunpoint to cross into the EU.
Lukashenko devised this hybrid attack in retaliation for a range of EU economic and financial sanctions imposed in June over what Brussels referred to as Lukashenko’s “serious human rights violations.” The EU imposed these sanctions after a Belarusian jet in May forced down a commercial plane in order to arrest Roman Protasevich, a dissident journalist on board.
Although Putin insists that Russia has “absolutely nothing to do with” the ongoing crisis on the Poland-Belarus border, the Kremlin demonstrated its support for Lukashenko by flying nuclear-capable strategic bombers over Belarus last week. Such coordinated Russian-Belarusian action is precisely what Maj. Gen. William Hickman, director of strategic plans and policy for NATO Allied Transformation Command in Norfolk, Virginia, warned against in 2019: “Our adversaries or competitors are seeing an ability to work below the level of Article 5. Or, as NATO would say, to work below the level of conflict.”
What made the Belarusian crisis more challenging compared to earlier hybrid attacks was the allegations by journalists that Turkey, a NATO member state, was also complicit. Last Tuesday, one day after von der Leyen announced that the EU is exploring “how to sanction third country airlines that are active in human trafficking,” EU Observer reported that Turkish Airlines was one of the carriers complicit with Belarus and a Politico Europe report pointed the finger at Turkey as being “one of the main points of origin for flights landing in Minsk.” The same day, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki tweeted: “We can see fully synchronised actions – Turkey’s actions with Belarus and Russia. We are worried, we do not like this.”
This is not the first time that Turkey’s authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has played a spoiler role within NATO by rushing to the aid of fellow strongman Lukashenko. The Washington Post reported that Turkey used its veto power within NATO to water down an official condemnation of Lukashenko in May following the Protasevich incident. According to Reuters, Ankara blocked unspecified punitive steps that Baltic allies and Poland had advocated.
This follows two earlier episodes where the Erdogan government similarly blocked a harsher NATO response to Russia. First, Ankara watered down the wording of an April 15 NATO statement expressing solidarity with America over Russia’s cyberattacks on U.S. government agencies. Likewise, Turkey watered down an April 22 statement voicing concern over Russian military intelligence’s blowing up of ammunition storage depots in the Czech Republic in 2014. Turkey also blocked a NATO defense plan for Poland and the Baltic states for over six months until June 2020, prompting The New York Times to label the country as “NATO’s ‘Elephant in the Room.’”
The threats of coordinated U.S.-EU sanctions against Turkish Airlines — although neither Washington nor Brussels has explicitly indicated that the airline is in their crosshairs — appear to have delivered immediate results. The day after von der Leyen’s White House announcement, Turkey’s foreign ministry issued a press release stating that Ankara “understands the challenges Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have been exposed to” and is “ready to give all necessary support in order to overcome this issue.”
The following day, Turkey’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation announced that Ankara would not allow citizens of Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, who comprised the bulk of migrants Lukashenko has been weaponizing, to board Belarus flights. Less than 24 hours after a Turkish Airlines statement denying any wrongdoing, Ankara bowed to pressure from NATO allies to take immediate action.
Last week’s developments show that concerted and swift transatlantic pushback was key to thwarting Minsk’s hybrid attacks as well as reversing the course of a complicit NATO member state with a troubling record of playing a spoiler role. This is a lesson the transatlantic alliance needs to keep in mind as Belarus, Russia and the like plan for their next hybrid attack.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.