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.
With the migrant situation on its eastern border showing no signs of easing, the Polish government is looking for NATO to play a more prominent role in the crisis. Today, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki let it be known that Poland, Latvia and Lithuania are considering placing a request for consultations under Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Article 4 allows member-nations to request a consultation when their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened. Invoking this particular article does not signal that an escalation is imminent, though it does indicate how critical the three nations consider the situation on their borders to be. NATO involvement in the crisis has so far been minimal. The security threat to Poland and the Baltic States, stemming from thousands of migrants pressed up against their frontiers, is not yet evident. The European Union has been the primary supra-national body involved in the dispute.
The EU is set to expand the sanctions against Belarus on Monday to include airlines and private businesses involved in bringing migrants to the Poland-Belarus border. Sanctions against the Minsk National Airport are also under consideration, according to a number of sources in Brussels. Tomorrow, EU foreign ministers are scheduled to meet and finalize the new sanctions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin found himself walking back comments by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that included a threat to cut off gas supplies to European nations. Putin surmised that his Belarusian counterpart made the comments in a fit of anger. The European Union accuses Belarus of provoking the migrant crisis on its western border to undermine EU security. The Union is considering new sanctions against Belarus and its government. In a television interview given earlier today on Rossiya television, Putin said that discussions with Lukashenko had not mentioned the threat to cut off Europe’s gas supply. “Of course, in theory, Lukashenko as president of a transit country could order our supplies to be cut to Europe. But this would mean a breach of our gas transit contract and I hope this will not happen,” Putin said. The absence of a firm assurance that gas supplies will not be affected obviously indicates some latitude for Lukashenko to go farther with his threat as the crisis continues. The Belarusian leader’s threat has sparked worry around Europe as natural gas shortages and rising prices affect available supplies and the market.
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 migrant crisis on the Belarusian-Polish frontier continues to worsen with every passing hour. There have been hundreds of attempts by migrants to breach the border and all of them have been stopped by Polish troops. Some 15,000 Polish soldiers now deployed along the border. Their mission is simply to prevent any migrants from crossing illegally from Belarus into Poland. On the international front, the European Union and United States are accusing Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko of manufacturing this migrant crisis in response to sanctions laid upon Belarus by the EU. The Minsk government denies this is the case. Meanwhile, on Europe’s eastern frontier the crisis threatens to develop into the latest flashpoint between East and West.
Almost all the migrants now on the border are from the Middle East. Belarus has been allowing them to fly in for weeks and is now attempting to funnel them through to Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, all member-states of both the EU and NATO. The EU and Poland has set aside its differences for the moment and is focused on bringing an end to the crisis. The EU is expected to bring a new round of sanctions into play against Belarus sometime in the coming days. Poland, for its part, has publicly laid blame for the crisis on Russia, relegating the Belarusian role in this ongoing drama to that of a vassal state.
The potential for escalation is certainly present. Adding to the tension is the fact that Russia is again massing troops and military equipment on its border with Ukraine.