Motivated by events at the Polish-Belarusian border, I put together some thoughts about the origins of the crisis, potential future directions and security implications for the European Union.
I'm grateful to The Interpreter for publishing said thoughts. The Interpreter is a great way for Australian readers to stay abreast of current affairs in the Asia-Pacific – and, occasionally, beyond – so I recommend you sign up for their weekly digest.
I also wanted to use this space to further elaborate on some thoughts introduced in the piece, because [inhales] the situation is deteriorating – and fast. Right now, by the time an observer in the southern hemisphere wakes up in the morning, the facts on the ground and the positioning of the major actors are substantially different from the night before.
Significant escalation in the last 48 hours
Following a meeting with Joe Biden at the White House, Ursula von der Leyen issued a very strongly-worded tweet (modern diplomacy!) calling the border affair a "hybrid attack" (virtually identical to language used by Polish leaders) and promising further EU sanctions against Belarus.
This is what we know so far about the impending sanctions:
- They are likely to target approximately 30 "individuals and entities", including the Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei and the national airline, Belavia.
- EU member states are contemplating deepening economic sanctions previously imposed on Belarus in July by targeting the local reinsurance sector and its main state-owned BelarusRe firm.
- The EU is also considering discussing targeting airlines including Russia’s Aeroflot and Turkish Airlines as part of the broader set of sanctions which are likely to be announced in early December jointly with the US and potentially the UK.
According to Poland's permanent representative to the United Nations, the UN Security Council will discuss the crisis at its meeting on Thursday.
Poland estimates that, at present, there may be as many as 4,000 migrants caught in the forests along the border with Belarus – with even more en route from Minsk.
According to the independent investigative journalism outlet OKO.press, a 14-year-old Kurdish boy has died at the Kuźnica-Bruzgi crossing. This information was provided to them by two Iraqis who are themselves in the border zone. The boy's body has been removed by Belarusian security forces.
Unfortunately, this will not be the final death at the border. It is getting colder, and one bitterly cold night, which is surely not too far away, will likely endanger the lives of thousands.
Russia steps up support for Belarus
In what must have been a terse conversation between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, the outgoing German Chancellor said that "the Belarusian regime’s exploitation of migrants against the European Union is inhumane and completely unacceptable". Putin's response was apparently to (drily, I'm sure) suggest that Merkel and her European colleagues take the matter up with Alexander Lukashenko.
Meanwhile, Maria Zakharova, a senior Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, is has not been shy to further escalate the rhetoric from the Russian side. Here are some choice excerpts from her Telegram feed in the last 24 hours:
- Accusing Polish security forces of spraying "some kind of chemical poison" in the face of Iraqi migrants. As far as I am aware, these reports are unconfirmed.
- A long response to a Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, which includes a warning to not "pretend that this started yesterday", criticism of Western states at creating the instability in Middle Eastern states which today fuels the flow of asylum seekers, and listing what Russia sees as American and European provocation of Russia.
Meanwhile on Wednesday, two Russian Tu-22M3 bombers carried out patrol flights over Belarus as part of what Russia’s Defence Ministry said was a test of Belarus and Russia’s joint air defense system.
Whether it means to or not, Russia is being drawn further into this situation.
If Belarus wanted to drive a wedge in the EU, it's backfired – at least for now
I mentioned in my Interpreter piece that Belarus may be intending to exploit tensions between the long-running tensions between Poland and the European Union.
However, as Stanley Bill (founder of the excellent Notes from Poland) points out, all the evidence so far suggests that, rather than further undermining relations, events at the border are in fact bringing the two closer together.
Poland's Government has been able to use the crisis to enhance its border security credentials, while the European Commission and EU member states (including Germany) have expressed solidarity and gratitude for Poland's, Lithuania's and Latvia's policing of EU borders and response to Belarusian hostility.
This could be a temporary truce, to be resumed when/if the border crisis subsides, but for now, the divide and conquer strategy is failing.