Zespół Wschodni
23 November 2021

Andrzej Szabaciuk

The crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border in the context of rising tensions in Eastern Europe (part 1)

The crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border in the context of rising tensions in Eastern Europe (part 1)

The situation on the Polish-Belarusian border continues to be tense due to Lukashenko’s regime, which, by driving refugees and migrants from its territory, aims to escalate tensions with Poland and the wider European Union, in an attempt to force a decision to raise sanctions imposed on the regime for its repression towards Belarusian civic society. As happened after the presidential elections in 2020, Lukashenko has the support of the Russian Federation, which is attempting to exploit the desperation of the Belarusian authorities in order to realise its own geostrategic interests in the region. In this way, it is trying to increase its influence on Ukraine and Moldova and speed up the certification of Nord Stream 2.

Geostrategic context. For years now, we have seen unprecedented pressure in the Eastern Europe region from the Russian Federation, whose goal of rebuilding Russian political influence in Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova has been particularly visible since the start of Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Russian activity in this respect was intensified by Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, which the Kremlin interpreted as Western interference in an exclusive sphere of Russian influence.

The actions of the Russian Federation in this region should be seen in terms of the long-term perspective. Its strategic goal is to subordinate not only Belarus – as attested by the signing on 4 November of an integration decree which initiates a new phase of economic integration between the two countries as a Union State (“Komentarze IEŚ”, nr 468) – but above all, Ukraine and if possible, Moldova.

It is worth stressing that none of the Russian integration projects countering those of the EU and without Ukraine have any justification, which is why Russia reacted so firmly to the removal of Viktor Yanukovych from office. By annexing Crimea and destabilising Donbas, it was trying to prevent Ukraine from carrying out pro-Western reforms.

Wishing to strengthen its influence in the region, Russia makes use of political, cultural, military, and economic instruments. It limits access to cheap hydrocarbon materials, to the Russian market, and uses the media to propagate the Kremlin’s vision of international relations. The rulers of the Russian Federation promote Russian culture, in a broad sense, and exploit propaganda, disinformation, military power, and various forms of hybrid attacks.

Recent articles by Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev as well as statements by Sergey Lavrov testify to the determination of the Kremlin authorities in their actions aimed at rebuilding Russian influence in Eastern Europe. Vladimir Putin’s oft-repeated words about the unity of the Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian nations, and the artificial nature of the borders in the post-Soviet area may seriously worry states in that region. Leading Russian politicians have stated on several occasions that Moldova and Ukraine are de facto run by the European Union and the United States. This is particularly concerning since similar statements were made in 2008 by Russia’s then-president Dmitry Medvedev, aimed at Mikheil Saakashvili and his political entourage immediately before the Russian aggression against Georgia.

It is possible that the heightened activity by the Russian Federation, which is currently being observed, is connected with the difficult epidemiological situation caused by the latest, fourth, wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the energy crisis, and the political processes taking place in the European Union, including coalition negotiations in the German Federal Republic and the upcoming presidential elections in France, in which pro-Russian candidates have a strong position.

The Russian Federation’s view of the crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border. It is difficult to state unambiguously what function is being fulfilled by the Russian Federation in the crisis currently playing out on the Polish-Belarusian border. One thing is certain – as the British scholar Mark Galeotti rightly said, Aleksandr Lukashenko would not have decided on such radical actions without Kremlin backing. From the very beginning of the artificial crisis created by Lukashenko, Russia has supported Belarus both politically and with propaganda, pointing harsh accusations at Poland and its allies, blaming the West collectively for destabilising the Middle East and provoking the migrant crisis (“Komentarze IEŚ”, nr 447). According to the German analyst Andreas Umland, Russia’s actions are reminiscent of the Soviet military deception doctrine known as maskirovka. In this specific case, it refers to actions that provoke an opponent into taking particular steps desired by the Russian authorities. Belarus is also being exploited in this geostrategic contest, which is connected with the efforts to have Nord Stream 2 certified, and the increasing pressure on Ukraine. Russia places the crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border in a wider context.

During the expanded meeting of the Foreign Ministry Board of the Russian Federation held on 18 November, Vladimir Putin blamed the West for being an unreliable partner and exploiting the crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border to provoke tensions in the region and exert pressure on Belarus. He also accused Poland directly of using violence against civilians. In addition, he stressed that the situation inside Belarus had stabilised, but that the so-called migration crisis may be an attempt to foment chaos in the country. Interestingly, he called on the authorities to conduct a dialogue with the opposition but simultaneously emphasised that he intended to continue the process of integrating with Belarus.

Two telephone calls between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin on 10 and 11 November 2021, and a call by the French President Emmanuel Macron to the Russian President on 15 November are a testimony on the one hand to the gravity of the situation, while on the other they may indirectly confirm the Kremlin’s involvement in the crisis created by Lukashenko. The Russian Federation has, of course, officially distanced itself from the events on the Polish-Belarusian border and suggests that the French President and German chancellor should contact Lukashenko directly. Meanwhile, it loudly promulgates the crisis itself in its propaganda and has at times harshly criticised Poland and the West for the development of the situation at the border and the difficult situation of the refugees and migrants.

Telephone conversations between the leaders of Russia and Germany led on 15 November to the first telephone call between Angela Merkel and Aleksandr Lukashenko. That call was criticised by representatives of the Belarusian opposition, Polish diplomacy, and some German politicians and media. The Lukashenko regime demanded the opening of a “humanitarian corridor” to Germany and the acceptance of around 2,000 migrants from Belarus and declared the deportation of 5,000 people. Germany officially distanced itself from these talks, although Lukashenko declared in a conversation with Putin on 19 November that he intended to uphold his side of the agreement and commence the deportation of migrants and refugees from Belarus. It is known that another Merkel-Lukashenko call took place on 17 November, during which there was discussion of humanitarian assistance and the involvement of the UN and the International Organisation for Migration in the deportation process. This may mean that we are currently observing a gradual waning of the crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border.

Recent days have shown that Lukashenko was incapable of solving the problem that he himself had generated on the border. Poland’s decisive stance and the mobilisation of significant forces at the border prevented Belarusian services from effectively transferring people across the border, although it should be stressed that according to information from the German government, over 10,000 people have already reached the Federal Republic of Germany via Lithuania and Poland after leaving Belarus. The Belarusian authorities state that there are still around 7,000 people on their territory. Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, meanwhile, speaks of 16,000 such people in Belarus.

The gradual diminishing of the crisis may be due in part to the difficult weather conditions, and the rising financial and political costs of transporting people from the Middle East. Humanitarian assistance for several thousand people, such as organising free accommodation and clothing for them, is a serious challenge for the Belarusian authorities. Those costs may be reduced by the European Commission’s decision of 17 November to allocate 700m euro for humanitarian aid for the migrants in Belarus. The change of position may also have been influenced by work on a fifth package of sanctions initiated by a decision of the European Council of 15 November 2021. According to unofficial information, these would cover around 30 people and entities involved in transporting people from the Middle East to Belarus. We should note that on 9 November the European Council partially suspended the agreement between Belarus and the European Union to ease visas, which no longer includes functionaries of the Belarusian regime.

The easing of the Belarusian position may also be a consequence of the ultimatum set by Poland, which threatened to close the railway line border crossing in Kuźnica in the event that the situation on the road crossing failed to stabilise by 21 November. The Belarusian authorities complied with the Polish demands and removed the migrants from areas around the crossing point, then began to clear up the site of the temporary camp. They also declared their readiness to open the Kuźnica road border crossing, which had been closed by a decision of the Polish side on 9 November. Talks between Lukashenko and Angela Merkel meant the de facto departure of the unrecognised leader of Belarus from his international isolation. The border crisis laid bare Lukashenko’s weakness and made it easier for the Russian Federation to create an image of him as being unstable and unpredictable. This enables Russia to justify to the West its increased military presence in Belarus, and its gradual actions aimed at actually absorbing that state. The destabilisation of the Polish-Belarusian border may also be a further argument for the swift certification of Nord Stream 2, which will allegedly safeguard supplies of natural gas to the European Union.