It would indeed be good for Russia’s relations with the United States (and Europe) to be more stable and predictable, as the Biden administration has characterized its short-term objective with the Kremlin. But that’s not where things are. This has become clear with the Belarusian manipulation of migrants at the Polish border and with the Russian military build-up on the border with Ukraine.

In Belarus, dictator (and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s client) Aleksander Lukashenka is intensifying his aggression-through-human-trafficking. His government continues to usher in would-be migrants from the Middle East, as it did on a smaller scale in the summer, and its forces now are pushing them to storm the frontier with Poland and in a few cases Lithuania, both of which of course are members of the European Union. In recent days, Belarusian forces themselves tried to destroy a Polish border fence and harassed Polish forces with lasers. Amid all this, Lukashenka threatened on Nov. 12 to cut off flows of Russian gas through Belarus to Europe if the EU carries out its public warnings that it will increase sanctions against Belarus.

This is not a migrant crisis. It is an act of aggression by Lukashenka, using migrants and creating their humanitarian plight for leverage.

Lukashenka’s motives are not hard to discern: he stole Belarus’s presidential elections in August 2020, prompting an eruption of sustained protests from Belarusian society. A pro-democracy movement rose up around the apparent real winner of those elections, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. She, much of the movement’s leadership, and many other pro-democracy-minded Belarusians fled Lukashenka’s violent repression to Lithuania and Poland, where they have received shelter and support. Belarusian activists and many Poles, both in the Polish government and political opposition, have compared the Belarus democracy movement with Poland’s Solidarity movement, which at one point had seemingly been crushed by Martial Law in 1981, but sustained itself, came back, and helped overthrow communism in Poland and, by extension, in much of Central and Eastern Europe in 1989.

Lukashenka knows this history and, aware of Warsaw’s fights with the EU (over judicial independence) and Germany (over the Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2), might have judged that the moment was right to move against Poland and simultaneously use a migrant crisis to force the EU to back off its support for democracy in Belarus and stop threatening further sanctions.

It’s not clear whether Russia’s authoritarian President Vladimir Putin instigated Lukashenka’s human trafficking gambit. But Putin is Lukashenka’s backer and, whatever Putin’s differences with (and reported dislike of) Lukashenka, the spectre of a democracy movement succeeding in ousting an authoritarian next door must seem anathema and an alarming precedent for Russia itself. Putin has long hated such movements (so-called “color revolutions”), and has blamed the United States for fomenting them. In Stalinist style, Putin appears convinced that no resistance to autocracy could just spring up from within society; it must, rather, be a plot instigated by outside agents. (When I served as assistant secretary of state for Europe during the George W. Bush administration’s second term, Russian media accused me of being the “gray cardinal of color revolutions.”)

While Putin has distanced himself from Lukashenka’s threat to cut off Europe from Russian gas that transits Belarus, Putin has shown high-profile backing for Lukashenka, sending Russian forces into Belarus and sending warplanes to overfly Belarus in a show of support. Lukashenka’s aggression along the Polish (i.e., EU) eastern border could escalate to armed clashes between Poland, which also is a member of NATO, and Putin ally Belarus, an unhappy prospect that Lukashenka seems to relish.

Putin Threatens War With Ukraine

Meanwhile, the Biden administration worries that Russia’s build-up of military forces near Ukraine could presage new, conventional Russian military attacks on that country. Since the initial fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine after Russia’s invasion in 2014, Russian-controlled (and Russian) forces have mostly engaged with the Ukrainian army through low-level sniping and shelling along the front lines. There have been no large-scale military clashes since the late summer of 2014, though the United Nations had counted more than 13,000 people killed as of February 2020, including civilians and armed groups, and Ukraine put the figure at more than 14,000 as of September this year. A new Russian military assault could mean a large-scale land war because the Ukraine military would fight.

With these concerns in mind, CIA Director William Burns travelled to Moscow early in November, accompanied by Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried and National Security Council Senior Director for Russia Eric Green, to privately caution the Kremlin against any such move. That effort apparently did not succeed. Secretary of State Antony Blinken went public last week warning of a potential new Russian military assault on Ukraine. The United States has been sharing intelligence with its allies and the Ukrainians while looking for ways to deter another Kremlin-instigated war with a former Soviet country.

This military build-up comes after Putin asserted in an “article” published in July on the Kremlin’s website that Ukrainians are not a separate people and, more alarming though less noticed, made renewed territorial claims against Ukraine. Putin argued that when Ukraine “joined” (though it actually was seized by) the then-Soviet Union in 1922, it gained territory that previously was part of Russia and that it should have returned that territory to Russia upon leaving the USSR. That territory is a huge swath of eastern and southern Ukraine, about 40 percent of Ukraine’s land and its entire Black Sea coast. That territorial claim is similar to one Putin made against Ukraine in 2014 that he dropped when Ukrainian (and Western) resistance to his assault was greater than he had apparently anticipated.

It is a mistake to dismiss Putin’s territorial claims as rhetoric. He made a territorial claim to Crimea in April 2008 (in a speech at a NATO-Ukraine Summit, no less – I was there) that the United States regretfully did not take seriously at the time but that Putin acted on when he saw an opportunity.

A war for territory in Europe is the sort of thing supposedly ended with Hitler’s defeat in 1945. The Biden Administration is right to be alarmed and European governments should be as well.

The basis of Putin’s animus for an independent Ukraine is not hard to discern. A subordinate Ukraine ruled by a Kremlin-pliant figure like former President Viktor Yanukovych is acceptable to the Kremlin. In fact, from the Kremlin’s current perspective, that is the only acceptable Ukraine. A Ukraine that Ukrainians themselves have repeatedly showed they prefer — one that is democratic, respectful of the rule of law, and as a likely result, prospering — would undermine the basis of Putinism by showing Russians that a close neighbor that is at least partly Russian speaking and of similar religious background can successfully adopt so-called Western values and practices that the Kremlin argues are alien to Russian tradition. A Europeanizing Ukraine would be good for Russia. But it would be bad for Putinism and, thus, in the Kremlin’s view, needs to be stopped.

Putin might be playing a war of nerves against Ukraine and the West, counting instead on energy pressure (withholding gas and coal) over the winter and tools of political subversion to undermine the Ukrainian government. Or he could launch a war, using or manufacturing a pretext, as he did against Georgia in 2008.

What Can the US, Europe, and the UK Do? 

Putin is supporting Lukashenka’s provocations against Europe and instigating his own threat against Ukraine. The transatlantic community needs to push back on the vectors of aggression from Lukashenka against Poland and the EU and from Putin against Ukraine, using tools of political solidarity, sanctions, and –carefully — military support.

Political solidarity

The United States, Europe, and likeminded partners  should frame the issue jointly and in clear terms:

  • On Belarus, responsibility for the border tensions lies with Lukashenka, and the transatlantic community will neither be bullied into abandoning Belarus democracy or walk away from Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus’s other EU and NATO neighbors;
  • On Ukraine, Putin needs to back off his military and energy threats and negotiate an end to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

So far, solidarity has been good and swift with respect to Lukashenka’s moves. Notwithstanding its political differences with the Polish government, the EU promptly expressed solidarity with Poland, putting blame on Lukashenka without “both-sides-ism” equivocation. EU Commission President Charles Michel flew to Warsaw to underscore the point. That’s good and fast work by the EU (Poland ought to take this moment to defuse its stand-off with the EU over rule-of-law issues). The United States has likewise shown prompt solidarity, with Blinken expressing U.S. support for Poland in a Nov. 13 phone call with Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau. In a formal statement, NATO also expressed solidarity with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.

The EU and the United States have not yet publicly called out Putin for his support of Lukashenka. This may be alright for now, as Putin has sought to maintain some public distance from Lukashenka’s most extreme moves, as in the case of Putin’s disavowal of Lukashenka’s threat to cut off Russian gas through Belarus to Europe (Putin acknowledged that would violate Russian contractual obligations). But the United States and the EU should slap back Putin’s diplomatic ploys, such as his suggestion that Germany and Belarus discuss the border issue without Poland, or framing the issue as humanitarian, for which Poland and the EU would have responsibility, or suggesting (as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did in a trolling mode), that the EU pay Belarus to house the migrants that it brought into the country for use against Poland.

Privately, the Western message to Putin must be consistent and clear: Lukashenka has created this problem. He must fix it, and Russia needs to either help or get out of the way; NATO and the EU will act to defend Poland’s, Lithuania’s, and Latvia’s border with Belarus against Lukashenka’s escalation – NATO through its Article 5 security guarantee if necessary — and not give in to provocations. Germany, as soon as it has a new government (and ideally even now), should also signal that Putin needs to step back from new confrontation with Ukraine and play a constructive role in restraining Lukashenka, and that if the Kremlin does not, German-Russia relations will take a sharp turn downward.

U.S. solidarity with Ukraine has been strong, but so far not matched by Europe. The U.K. and Canada appear to share the U.S. assessment of the danger of Russian military action but, so far, few other European governments appear to do so. This needs to change if Putin is to be deterred. Mixed signals from the United States and Europe in 2008 may have convinced Putin that he could strike Georgia. The West needs to send strong signals now. The United States, France, Germany, and Ukraine also need to intensify diplomacy to reach a settlement in the Donbas. Putin does not seem interested, but the option, and pressure, should be there.


 The United States and Europe should:

  • Implement their sanctions against Belarus that are now in advanced stages of preparation.
  • Prepare, on a contingency basis, new financial sanctions against Russia to implement should Putin attack Ukraine. At the same time, Germany and the United States should prepare sanctions based on their Joint Statement on energy from July in response to ongoing Russian energy pressure against Ukraine.

It is promising that EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen publicly confirmed after meeting with President Joe Biden on Nov. 10 that the EU is preparing new sanctions against Belarus on a fast track, in coordination with the United States; on Nov. 15, EU foreign ministers gave them political blessing. Those sanctions reportedly include potential moves against airlines that are flying would-be migrants to Belarus. Well-timed threats of sanctions can work: after these reports and a phone call between the Turkish and Polish foreign ministers, Turkish Airlines promptly announced that it would restrict would-be migrants from flying to Belarus. Even Belarus’s state airline, Belavia Airlines, made a similar statement. There should be consequences for Lukashenka’s actions, and there remains significant room for sanctions escalation against Belarus.

Putin’s threats of military action against Ukraine demand preparation of strong sanctions in response. In designing their Russia sanctions regime, the United States and the EU left significant room for sanctions escalation, especially in the financial area. The United States, the U.K., the EU, and other governments should review the options and crystalize a package strong enough to hurt but not too strong to use. They should make clear to the Kremlin that such options are available and will be used, should Putin launch a military attack on Ukraine.

The EU has cautioned Lukashenka against stopping gas flows across Belarus territory. It should make similar points to Putin, stressing that the EU will hold him responsible should Lukashenka curtail deliveries of Russian gas. The EU should not allow concerns over gas supplies to weaken its own policy of lowering its dependency on Russian gas and vulnerability to Putin’s pressure. No longer should Europe allow Russian companies to determine whether to fill (or not fill) gas storage facilities in Europe.

Those who warned that Putin indeed uses gas as a political weapon and on that basis argued against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany have been proven right. The new German government could decide to kill the project altogether. At a minimum, Russia’s exploitation of gas and current energy pressure on Ukraine (including curtailing gas and coal supplies) argues for activating the U.S.-German Joint Statement, which calls, among other things, for energy solidarity with Ukraine, forcing Nord Stream 2 to adhere to European energy regulations, and sanctions against Russian exports to Europe should it use energy as a weapon against Ukraine. Quite apart from the threat of military action, that threshold has been met.

Military support 

The United States can work with NATO on potential military support:

  • NATO should work closely with alliance member Poland and offer, as the U.K. has already done, to send small numbers of military personnel to the border.
  • The United States should strengthen its military support for Ukraine — not with troops but certainly with weapons and other forms of support to enable the Ukrainian military to defend itself.

Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia are considering invoking Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty that calls for consultations should a NATO member be threatened. That threshold could be reached soon (if, for example, Belarusian forces started sniping at Poles). The U.K. has sent a small group of soldiers to Poland to be deployed at the border. Such moves represent appropriate solidarity given the provocations, and may serve as a deterrent. The United States and NATO have kept forces in Poland since Putin’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014. If Lukashenka’s military provocations escalate, some of these could be moved closer to the border with Belarus. Lukashenka and Putin should understand that NATO takes its security obligations to its member states seriously.

Increased military support for Ukraine is also appropriate, mainly in the form of weapons and intelligence support, rather than troops on the ground. The short-term objective is to give the Ukraine military the means to defend itself and, through such capacity, deter a Russian invasion. Putin has objected to a NATO naval presence in the Black Sea, but such a presence is appropriate, given past Russian aggressive moves in the Sea of Azov. In a well-timed article, former NATO Deputy Secretary General Sandy Vershbow outlined longer-term options for increased U.S. and NATO military support for Ukraine.

From Hopes for Stability to Tense Reality

At his June summit with Putin in Geneva, Biden noted that the next six months will show whether U.S.-Russia relations could be put on a stable and predictable footing, as the United States hoped. Now, Europe’s east is beset with tension, and Putin is either the source (as in Ukraine) or part of the problem (by supporting Lukashenka).

In the case of the Australian-U.K.-U.S. (AUKUS) agreement that contained a submarine deal that outraged France, the Biden team showed an admirable ability to own up to a mistake and try to fix it, as it did via face-to-face meetings of French President Emmanuel Macron with first Biden and then Vice President Kamala Harris. Seeking a stable and predictable relationship with the Kremlin was a reasonable objective. But it’s time to acknowledge that it’s not working and start with Plan B.

IMAGE: A picture taken on November 8, 2021 shows migrants at the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region. Poland on November 8 said hundreds of migrants in Belarus were descending on its border aiming to force their way into the EU member country in what NATO slammed as a deliberate tactic by the Belarusian regime of Aleksander Lukashenka (Photo by LEONID SHCHEGLOV/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images)