Today, Belarusian authorities cleared the largest migrant camps along its border with Poland. The intentions of the Minsk government are unclear at present, but the move is seen as a positive step by some international observers, perhaps even marking the start of a de-escalation in the migrant crisis that has blossomed into a East-West confrontation. In another possible sign of de-escalation, hundreds of Iraqis who spent weeks camped at the border are in the process of flying home. The rest of the migrants at the border will be moved to a processing center. Whether the move is permanent or not remains to be seen. For the short term though, the migrants will have shelter from the freezing temperatures and less-than-hospitable conditions on the border. As the migrant camps were being cleared, Polish security forces repelled a coordinated effort by a group of Middle Eastern migrants to cross the border. This attempt was smaller than the one made two days ago at the Kuznica border crossing point. Nine Polish police officers were injured in the melee that developed then.
Earlier this week diplomatic activity aimed at ending the crisis was ramped up. German Chancellor Angela Merkel held two telephone conversations with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. French President Emmanuel Macron also discussed the crisis with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. It’s unclear if these talks are responsible for Thursday’s dismantling of the camps, but today Putin called on Lukashenko to begin a dialogue with the European leaders. Germany and the European Union have also rejected a Belarusian request to take in thousands of migrants and asylum seekers now in Belarus.
The United States is sounding the alarm over the latest buildup of Russian troops and equipment near the Ukrainian border. Washington has warned several NATO allies that the activity now underway could be preparations for Russian military action against Ukraine. While tensions flaring between Russia and the West over energy supplies and migrants, the growing concern is that Moscow might sense an opportunity developing to act against Ukraine as US and NATO attention is focused on the crisis at the Polish-Belarus border. Or, to adopt a more cynical position, Moscow is manufacturing that crisis for its own selfish purposes.
The West has been monitoring activity along the border for some time, but with the emergence of the migrant crisis, the level of Russian troop and equipment movement has risen. Earlier this month, CIA Director Bill Burns visited Moscow and spoke by phone to Vladimir Putin on the matter. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also spoke with the Russian leader about Belarus and Ukraine earlier today.
With the migrant crisis, energy issues and now the Russian buildup cropping up within such a short period of time, this blog will be returning to the Update format. I will post news and analysis about the developing situations in Eastern Europe and Ukraine daily through the end of the weekend. Next week, barring any major incidents, the blog will return to its regular format.
The European Union’s executive body is proposing additional travel restrictions to combat the spread of coronavirus mutations and variants, and to maintain the movement of goods and workers across EU borders. The EU’s 27 member-states have been urged specifically to increase testing and quarantine steps for travelers as concerns about production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines have risen in recent days. The appearance of new variants that are more transmissible poses a risk to European hospitals, already struggling to contend with increasing numbers of new cases.
The new coronavirus variants have compelled many European nations to tighten their already extensive lockdown measures. France is considering the implementation of a third national lockdown if the 12-hour curfew now in place fails to stem the spread of new infections. Belgium has banned nonessential travel for its residents until March at the very least. Sweden has also barred travel from Norway in a move aimed at stopping the spread of new coronavirus variants.
Curtailing or banning nonessential travel is a difficult pill to swallow for the EU. It goes directly against the principle of free travel beyond national borders, a pillar of the Union. The virtues of free travel and unhindered movement have not stopped some national leaders on the continent from considering stricter measures. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said today that “no tourist travel should be taking place” as the German government weighed tougher measures.
Meanwhile, as travel restrictions are debated 400,000 EU citizens have already died from the virus since last February when COVID-19 made its first appearance in Europe.
There has been a considerable amount of speculation and debate concerning the recently announced plan to reduce the number of US troops stationed in Germany by half. On one side is the almost customary argument that such a move will weaken NATO, strengthen Russia’s military position, and generally have a negative effect on American national security. We have seen and heard this argument presented a multitude of times since the 90s. It has never really held water, at least not to the level that its proponents would be satisfied with. A second argument being made loudly these days, especially by President Trump’s detractors, is that the planned withdrawal is a politically motivated move. Well, it was partly, and the Trump administration has made no bones about it. The fact is that one of the main reasons for this troop reduction is Germany’s failure to meet NATO’s defense spending goals. In 2014 NATO set a standard for its member-states to halt defense budget cuts and begin moving back towards spending 2% of their GNP by 2024. President Trump has said himself that until Germany pays more for its own defense, US troop levels will be reduced. He has left open the possibility of reversing the reduction plan if Germany starts to devote more money towards its military. To add insult to injury at least half of the troops set to be removed from Germany will find new homes in other European nations from Belgium, and Italy to Poland.
The mention of Poland brings up a third argument, and one that I personally stand behind. The US move is the latest component in what has been a consistent trend towards Eastern Europe for the US military. Deterring Russia has become a top priority for the US, and NATO in recent years. As a result, more US units are being based in Eastern Europe, right now mainly on a rotational basis however there are also permanent bases being constructed, and opened in places such as Romania, and Poland. So it makes sense to move troops, units, and facilities from Germany to Eastern Europe where the combat units will be better able to conduct their mission of deterring Russia, and support elements will be nearer to those combat units.
I have wanted to discuss this topic since the Pentagon made the first announcements about a possible troop reduction in Germany back in June. Unfortunately, Asia has been receiving the lion’s share of geopolitical focus lately. But with July coming to a close, and the subject receiving some attention from the media in recent days, I felt this was an opportune time to get some of my thoughts on the matter written up and placed out there for consumption. 😊
When all is said and done, the COVID-19 pandemic might very well wind up being regarded as the straw that broke the European Union’s back. The pandemic caught Europe flatfooted, so to speak and the EU response has been less than inspiring, or beneficial for that matter. Instead of demonstrating its strengths, events of the past month have instead put the EU’s deficiencies on full display, and highlighted the body’s failure to meet the needs of its member-states in the midst of a global emergency. There’s no leadership coming out of Brussels, and certainly no sense of responsibility among the wealthier EU members, or a humanitarian desire to hand out billions of euros to prevent nations such as Spain and Italy from collapsing under the strain of COVID-19. Loans and bailouts, on the other hand, are perfectly fine, as we’ve seen in the last week.
To be fair, the European Union is making an effort, yet it has resulted in far less than what some of its hardest-hit member states want or need. Individual EU governments are increasingly reluctant to come together and provide material goods, and funds. France is calling for unity, while looking to Germany, as is much of the EU, for a solution to Spain and Italy’s woes. Berlin has been reluctant to provide one, with many Germans viewing it as Europe expecting their country to pay the COVID-19 bill. Spain and Italy have requested aid to help boost their damaged economies after weeks of lockdown, including ‘coronabonds’ to fund the recoveries. Germany, and the Netherlands refused. German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted Spain and Italy apply to the European Stability Mechanism instead. Given that Southern European nations believe ESM is what helped caused so much economic hardship in Greece, its not likely that either Spain or Italy will apply.
The origins of the bad blood between Southern Europe and its neighbors to the north are found in the 2008/2009 fiscal crisis. The wounds inflicted there have never really been fully repaired. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has ripped them open again, and the bad blood between the southern and northern states is flowing once more.
Only this time, the feud carries the potential to burn the entire bloc to its foundation.