“Hybrid” threat: what is at stake, besides sanctions and refugees?

MOSCOW, 19 Nov 2021, RUSSTRAT Institute.

Thousands of freezing refugees, a scandal all over the world and two new packages of sanctions against Minsk, which the EU accuses of “instrumentalising” the migration crisis – all this seems to be just a prelude. Warsaw, Riga and Vilnius are setting up a much more radical confrontation in eastern Europe, which includes the involvement of NATO in the conflict.

The migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border may become an engine for the promotion of those plans, which until recently neither the EU nor NATO decided to pursue. We are not talking about sanctions against Minsk, the adoption of which is actually a foregone conclusion, although the details and format are still being discussed. And not even about whether Warsaw will beat out the right to its own migration policy, which, in particular, does not allow EU border inspections.

Without waiting for it to be determined which persons, which airports (as well as travel agencies, airlines and even hotels) will become the object of European anger, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, who have become the guardians of the eastern borders of the EU, insist on much more strategic innovations that go far beyond the current crisis. If they are adopted, the current border collapse will not just drag on. It risks becoming permanent.

To begin with, let’s take a closer look at the sequence of events. Back at the beginning of last week, when disturbing images from the Polish-Belarusian border were just beginning to circulate online and on television, and the EU had not yet despaired of obtaining access to it for employees of the European border agency Frontex, in Warsaw at the government level they started talking about a “hybrid attack”.

This military terminology was picked up in Riga and Vilnius – largely out of fear that migrants would go north from the Polish border guards. And by the end of the first week of the crisis, NATO had its weighty word: the alliance condemned the “hybrid” actions of Belarus, which instrumentalises (read: directs) “spontaneous flows of migrants”.

This vocabulary was immediately adopted by the high leadership of the EU, including the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and the President of the European Council Charles Michel. The “hybrid” threat thus entered the operational eurospace. Although, experts say, the term itself has not yet been fully agreed even in NATO.

It is noteworthy that on the condition of anonymity, this was noted in the Western press and high-ranking military: they say, the concept was invented 20 years ago to describe a new type of terrorist activity, which combines military and non-military methods in order to split unity in the opposing camp, but now it is interpreted so widely that there can be no counteraction to “hybrid activity” until it is established what it consists of and what it is aimed at.

To put it bluntly, the essence is this: the qualification of certain threats as “hybrid” is a purely political decision, because the new-fangled strategic concept is as ambiguous as the situations to which it relates. (For more details, see the report of the RUSSTRAT Institute). Moreover, from the point of view of many professionals, waving this “hybrid war cudgel” is clearly undesirable. But what if it fell into the hands of civilians?

“We are discussing with Latvia and Lithuania whether to introduce the fourth article of the North Atlantic Treaty concluded in 1949 in Washington (Article 4 provides for the convening of the NATO Council for consultations if one of the alliance countries believes that there is a threat to its security),” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in an interview with PAP on November 14. “It seems that this is becoming more and more necessary – we need concrete steps and the involvement of the entire alliance.”

The most important thing in this passage is outside the brackets. The convening of consultations (Article 4) is a step towards the application of Article 5, which provides for the entire alliance to speak in defence of one of the member countries. It is important to add: a number of Eastern European countries, including Poland, have long sought to include “hybrid attacks” in the list of those threats that can cause a collective response. Moreover, at the last (June) summit of the heads of state and government of the 30 member countries of the alliance in Brussels, the Rubicon was (in words) crossed.

“NATO is ready, upon Council decision, to assist an Ally at any stage of a hybrid campaign being conducted against it… In cases of hybrid warfare, the Council could decide to invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, as in the case of an armed attack,” the final communique says.

How and by what criteria is the threat assessed, given the vagueness of the term, and how far can all this “hybrid rhetoric” lead if there are no criteria? It seems very likely that this is exactly what Warsaw is determined to find out. The crisis with migrants rushing to Europe through Belarus is a good reason. However, if it did not exist, then, very likely, some other one would have arisen.

When Poland has a spark with its partners in the European Union, it often quarrels with its neighbours in the East to remind them that it stands up for Europe. And Latvia is not lagging behind: starting military manoeuvres on the border with Belarus in the midst of the refugee crisis, which were not announced, is also such a kind of “contribution” to the defence of Europe.

The stakes in these geopolitical manoeuvres are so dizzying that even the tragic refugee situation fades into the background. What kind of EU is there with its refugee strategies, eternal approvals and claims to sovereign Polish judicial reform, for which they threaten to deprive Eurogrants!

Pulling up the entire North Atlantic Alliance to another conflict with its neighbours on the borders of the European Union on the basis of “combat” articles is a guarantee of permanent strategic tension, which can now arise for no reason, based on an arbitrary interpretation of the political conjuncture. Try now Brussels to cut Eurosubsidies!

All this is very similar to “hybrid” reconnaissance by combat – and what if it turns out in the end that the rules of the game in the EU are now determined not only in Brussels, Berlin or Paris? What makes Warsaw, which feels more comfortable in NATO than in EU, less important than them? However, these issues clearly go beyond the current refugee crisis, the humanitarian dimension of which raises more and more questions for all its direct participants.

Institute for International Political and Economic Strategies – RUSSTRAT

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