The UN refugee agency is ‘very worried’ by the scenes at the border, where people are dying of hypothermia and hunger. A war of words has broken out between the EU, NATO and the US with Russia and Belarus.

In freezing temperatures, three thousand migrants, mostly from the Middle East and Asia, are pushing at the barbed wire border fence separating Poland from Belarus desperate to break into the EU, having been promised an easy entry by President Lukashenko. Seventeen thousand Polish troops have been sent to guard the border. Neighbouring Lithuania has declared a state of emergency in its border region with Belarus, the first time this Baltic nation has ever done so. The UN refugee agency is ‘very worried’ by the scenes at the border, where people are dying of hypothermia and hunger. A war of words has broken out between the EU, NATO and the US with Russia and Belarus, accusing the latter’s disputed leader, Alexander Lukashenko, of orchestrating the situation to his own advantage.

What’s going on?
Warning signs were there as early as March this year, when the government in Minsk indicated that it would ‘simplify visa proceedings’, making it easier for ‘tourists from Iraq’ and other unstable countries to enter Belarus. This meant that instead of taking a hazardous journey by boat across the Mediterranean, or on land through Turkey, all migrants now needed to do was to fly to Belarus, drive for a few hours to the border, and then cross on foot into one of three neighbouring EU countries: Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Simple.
Migrants quickly learned that this new way to achieve their dream of life in Europe was actually cheaper and more reliable than the old way of depending upon people smugglers. That traditional, hazardous method cost between $9,000 and $12,000 per person and migrants were at the mercy of robbers, the mafia and even wild animals. Now, those fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq or Yemen only had to fly to Minsk on a 7-day tourist visa, a journey which still cost about $5,000 per person for the airfare, hotel reservations and tourist visa, take a private car for about $400 to the border and then walk across; or so they were told. Lithuania’s north-western border with Belarus was largely unfenced until last month, and by August, more than 4000 migrants, mostly single men, had successfully crossed over. In fact, the months of July and August saw fifty times more asylum seekers entering Lithuania than in the whole of 2020. Today, migrants meet armed troops behind hastily erected razor wire walls. For those who make it, life is still uncertain with at least 10,000 migrants in detention centres in the Baltics, Poland and Germany. Many will find that, after deportation, their harrowing ordeal will have been a costly waste of time and money.

So why is all this happening now?
For an answer you need to go back to August last year and Lukashenko’s widely discredited presidential election. In his struggle to counter the subsequent explosion of political resistance and anger after the fraud, Lukashenko adopted many of the oppressive tactics of the Soviet police state, with a brutal and unrelenting crackdown on the media, shutting down numerous NGOs and human rights groups, arresting many of his opponents, and forcing others into exile. Tens of thousands of Belarusians have been imprisoned amid widespread reports of torture and routine human rights abuses. As a result, in June this year the US, UK, EU and Canada imposed a wide range of sanctions, including cutting Minsk from European capital markets and forbidding any EU company from underwriting deals with the Belarusian government. Sanctions were further increased in August after Belarus’ illegal hijacking of the Ryanair plane carrying a wanted dissident.
Back in 2008 and 2015 Lukashenko freed political prisoners in exchange for getting sanctions lifted. But that’s unlikely to satisfy the West this time, so Lukashenko has resorted to a different approach. He is using displaced people as leverage on the geopolitical chessboard.
Part of his game could be to extract money from the EU. For years, the EU has developed the strategy of having countries on its periphery intercepting and stopping the arrivals of refugees into its member states. For example, back in 2007 Italy gave Libya 5 billion euros and diplomatic concessions to halt African refugees and migrants from crossing the Mediterranean in small boats to the Italian island of Linosa, a stepping point into the Schengen area. Last year the EU paid Turkey the final instalment of a 6 billion euro deal to ‘host’ refugees in Turkey, rather than allowing them to cross the narrow waters to Greece. The Belarusian economy is currently heavily strained due the earlier sanctions and a ‘Turkey-like’ deal would be helpful to Minsk. Additionally, Lukashenko wants all sanctions removed in return for stopping the migrant pressure.
But harsh words are still flying. ‘It’s a hybrid attack, a brutal attack, a violent attack and a shameful attack’, said the European Council President, Charles Michel, while standing firm with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Wednesday, condemning what both leaders claim was an orchestrated attempt to use human beings as weapons. In response the Belarusian defence ministry rejected these statements as unfounded and unsubstantiated, and accused Warsaw of violating agreements by moving thousands of troops to the border. Lukashenko insists the migrants are arriving legally in Belarus and that it is merely acting ‘as a hospitable country’. Echoing this, Russia has praised its ally’s ‘responsible’ handling of the border row and said it is watching the situation closely.
And this is the danger. ‘Lukashenko is the executer of the latest assault, but this assault has a sponsor who is to be found in Moscow, and this sponsor is President Putin’, said Mr Morawiecki during an emergency debate in the Polish parliament on Tuesday. In response, Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry called Poland’s allegations that Russia was behind the crisis falsehoods ‘beyond all possible bounds and norms’. On Wednesday the Kremlin sent two Tu-22M3 aircraft, capable of carrying nuclear missiles, including hypersonic weapons of the kind designed to evade air defences, to fly over Belarus in a show of strength with the Lukashenko regime. Putting the blame for the crisis firmly on Europe, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he hoped responsible Europeans would ‘not allow themselves to be drawn into a spiral that is fairly dangerous’. Many would argue that his word ‘fairly’ is a serious understatement.
On Thursday, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Russia had nothing to do with the crisis. ‘Russia, like other countries, is trying to get involved in resolving the situation’. As he spoke, for the second day in a row the two Tu-22M3 aircrafts were dispatched by Moscow on a further ‘training mission’ over Belarus, an action unlikely to reduce tensions. Neither will Friday’s snap paratrooper drills by Russia and Belarus, just 20miles from the border where migrants are gathered, ‘to test the readiness of their troops’.
Threatening to cut-off gas supplies to the EU if further sanctions are imposed, a cold and calculating Lukashenko has manufactured an unsolvable problem for the EU: let migrants in, therefore pandering to a dictator and giving in to blackmail; or leave them to suffer and die, casting the bloc as heartlessly abandoning those fleeing war-torn countries. This humanitarian drama is now in peril of morphing into a dangerous military one, with tragic consequences for both sides, including the migrants and refugees caught in the middle.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.