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.
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 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.
The Russian military begins its largest military exercise of the year today with the start of Zapad-21. This exercise, the latest in a cycle of quadrennial Russian exercises will test the readiness and combat power of the Western Military District. The WMD is home to many of Russia’s better-equipped and trained land and air units. This year’s Zapad comes at a time of heightened tensions between Russia and it Western neighbors. As a general rule, Zapad exercises draw increased scrutiny and attention from Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States and NATO. It will take place in a number of ranges and training areas in Russia and Belarus and include forces from these two nations. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense has announced that Zapad-21 will include 13,000 troops from Belarus and Russia. However, as is generally the case, this number is a low figure. There appear to be far more Russian troops presently in Belarus than the official count. As a rule, troop numbers are manipulated to keep Zapad-21 within the guidelines called for in the Vienna Document. Any military exercise including more that 13,000 troops requires observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to attend.
The general concern among Russia’s western neighbors, as well as NATO, is that an exercise the size of Zapad could be used as cover for military action. To be fair, this is not a recent worry. Its origins go all the way back to the Cold War when NATO officers suspected major exercise would act as a prelude to a Soviet/Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe. Given the major Russian military buildup and exercises near the Ukrainian frontier earlier this year, Western concern is understandable. However, given the current picture of the world situation, Zapad is not expected to serve as a prelude to Russian military intervention in Ukraine, or Eastern Europe in the near future.
The European Union wasted no time in reacting to the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk after an alleged bomb threat. Dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, a passenger on the flight, was removed by Belarusian authorities and taken into custody. Since the incident there have been waves of fiery condemnation and calls of further sanctions coming from Brussels and the capital cities of many EU nation-states. European leaders are calling for a ban on Belarusian airlines flying over EU territory and are urging EU-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace. This would have a consequential effect on the economy of Belarus, however it is not likely to act as an instrument to bring about the desired political change in that country. For the moment, the EU has agreed to lay targeted economic sanctions on Belarus. This type of sanction will be applied selectively against specific Belarusian business entities and individuals.
On the diplomatic front, aside from rhetoric there has been minimal activity. The exception is Latvia, which expelled its diplomats from Belarus on Monday following a similar act by Minsk earlier in the day. The Ryanair incident prompted Latvian officials to replace the Belarusian state flag with the traditional red and white flag, now a symbol of the opposition movement, at an ice hockey tournament.
It is improbable that the expected EU economic sanctions will help bring about the end of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime or change the domestic situation there. The EU’s action will simply push Lukashenko and his country closer to Russia, perhaps inextricably placing it back in the Russian sphere of influence. Lukashenko has been leaning heavily on Russian President Vladimir Putin since the Belarusian presidential election in August, 2020. It is mainly an alliance of necessity at this point. Putin and Russia need a stable and compliant neighbor now, especially with Ukraine remaining as defiant and pro-West as ever.