Riho Terras: A refugee can be a powerful weapon

Toomas Kask
Riho Terras.
Riho Terras. Photo: Gert Tali

Former commander of the Estonian Defense Forces, MEP Riho Terras (Isamaa) urges the PM and foreign minister to raise the alarm over what he describes as a hybrid campaign against Lithuania.

Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko (no longer recognized as president by the West) is becoming bolder by the day. He recently warned Lithuania he would bring radical armed Muslims from the Middle East, in effect, threatening the country with little green men. That would mean war?

Of course. It should be seen in broader strategic context. It has been felt, since the end of the Cold War, that the so-called democratization of the third world or transfer of values has not worked. Populations keep growing and pressure on borders is very real. We have seen several so-called immigration crises over the years that have tested the countries of the old world. It is no different in USA – there is the same pressure on the Mexican border. The world is not prepared to tackle the problem.

The UN Refugee Convention is from the 1950s and is meant for an entirely different world order. We should start by launching a debate in the UN Security Council in terms of whether the current convention is sufficient for solving problems. It probably isn’t. The convention includes several aspects in need of additional regulation. First of all, Belarus is not a country where refugees from Iraq are threatened. Third countries should not be obligated to accept refugees as Lukashenko could easily offer them safe haven.

Secondly, matters of turning refugees away from the border. Whether we should consider it a military conflict if the Belarusians start limiting or preventing refugees being turned back from the Lithuanian border.

How is Lithuania coping in the crisis?

While Lithuania is coping, the situation is escalating by the day and Lukashenko’s recent statement regarding armed terrorists shows that hordes of illegal immigrants are used as a military means so to speak. Just a decade ago, a lot of European countries found it very hard to believe cyberattacks could be used as weapons of war. Back then, we explained that NATO must engage in cyberdefense.

I believe that NATO should very seriously consider that a refugee on foot or on a bicycle, when used in a takeover so to speak, is just as dangerous when deployed on the border as conventional weapons.

It is time to start coming up with tactics for addressing these problems. How small countries can cope, how other countries can help and support. Right now, support for Lithuania follows the beaten track – we will send them 20 cops and some barbed wire. It helps, but it cannot solve the problem.

Luckily, the Latvians have realized as much and declared a special regime on the border. I hope Estonian agencies are prepared for the need to react to events on the border. It all depends on the cast of mind today. We need to understand that it [using refugees as a weapon] will not disappear but will only become more common in the coming years. This means we need to address the causes instead of battling the consequences.

You believe Lithuania should propose invoking NATO Article 4. Do I understand correctly that this would only mean convening NATO foreign ministers to discuss the situation?


It does not mean military intervention?

Not initially. If a member state has a security problem, it can convene the alliance for consultations. Lukashenko’s recent statement makes it clear that Lithuania has a security problem. The article can only be invoked by Lithuania. Estonia cannot go to Brussels and ask for consultations. However, it would be a sensible mechanism to use to draw other countries’ attention to the crisis. Especially in a situation where Europe is slumbering. We need to wake them up and explain the extent of this crisis. It is crucial.

Why has Lithuania refrained from doing so?

I cannot say. Perhaps they believe they can handle it. But recent news suggests they cannot. The fact the military has been deployed is a sign of the acute nature of the crisis. The military is not meant to guard the border but ensure national security. Deploying the armed forces in this crisis leaves them short in other areas – preparedness evaporates. It is very clearly a security crisis and something all NATO countries need to consider, including Estonia.

It has also resulted in a political crisis in Lithuania.

That is precisely what is expected: for a domestic crisis and tensions to develop! Tensions can be escalated – we can bring out people who do not want refugees moving through their territory. We can make use of Russia-friendly forces. Such as the Polish party in Lithuania. It can be used to escalate the situation to a point where one can say that one needs to intervene to protect people.

You have also said Estonia has not supported Lithuania enough. What else could we do?

I think that dispatching 20 people and some barbed wire really is not enough. European foreign ministers should be brought together to discuss the situation. That is what we should be working on. The EU could adopt a clear position and ramp up sanctions. For example, the Raiffeisen Bank in Austria is still one of Lukashenko’s principal banks. It is time to look the Austrian foreign minister in the eye and ask whether that is what he means by European unity.

What is your message to the Estonian foreign minister and why not also the prime minister?

The Estonian foreign minister and PM should raise the alarm. It would be best accomplished working with Baltic colleagues and also including Poland as the country also has a border with Belarus. European foreign ministers should be assembled to discuss the problem, with serious thought given to how to discuss the topic in NATO. The Estonian foreign minister could seek amendment of the UN Refugee Convention in the UN Security Council.