For five months, the regime of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko has been central to a game of cat and mouse on the fringes of the EU, with migrants funnelled to his country’s border with Poland and trying to slip across in small groups unnoticed by Warsaw’s border guards.
This week the stand-off flared into something far more volatile, as a group of hundreds of migrants used uprooted trees, spades and shears to try to force a way across the border en masse. It has intensified a crisis that the EU says is being engineered by Lukashenko and which has put eastern Europe on edge.
Polish officials fear Belarus could try to provoke a further armed escalation. Lithuania has declared a state of emergency. Kalle Laanet, Estonia’s defence minister, called the situation the “most difficult security crisis for our region, Nato and the European Union” since the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago.
EU and Polish officials believe the surge in migrants arriving via Minsk on the bloc’s eastern border is retaliation by Lukashenko for the EU’s support for the Belarusian opposition, which has been the subject of a vicious crackdown since huge protests against his regime last year. Belarus denies fuelling the migration.
Officials in Poland also suspect the pressure on their border also has at least the tacit backing of Russia, which helped to shore up Lukashenko during last year’s protests and is at odds with the west over everything from gas prices to the political situation in Ukraine and Moldova.
“The narrow interests of the Belarusian regime don’t explain this,” said one senior Polish official. “It is going on with Russian consent.”
Lured by simplified visa rules and extra flights to Minsk, tens of thousands of migrants from countries including Iraq, Syria and Yemen have attempted to enter the EU via its eastern border in recent months. Polish officials said last week that more than half of the 28,500 attempts to enter the country illegally since the crisis began took place in October.
“Lukashenko’s tactical goal is to heat up the debate about migrants in Poland and other EU member states and take revenge on Poland for the support we offered to Belarus’s civil society and independent media,” Marcin Przydacz, Poland’s deputy foreign minister, told the Financial Times.
“His strategic goal — and that of his patron in Moscow — is to destabilise the eastern border of the EU and Nato, to test the unity of Nato and the EU.”
Putin and Lukashenko discussed the situation on the Polish border on Tuesday. But while the Kremlin has warned Belarus to ensure the migrants stay away from Russia, it has refrained from publicly criticising Minsk as it moves to secure its hold over its smaller neighbour.
Instead, on Tuesday, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov floated the idea that the EU should provide financial assistance to Belarus to encourage it to stop the surge in migrants, comparing the situation to a deal that Brussels struck with Turkey during the 2016 migrant crisis.
The Kremlin’s support during last year’s protests has forced Lukashenko, who for more than two decades has played off east and west, closer to Moscow.
Last week Putin and Lukashenko signed a series of agreements, including plans to integrate Belarus’ financial and gas markets with Russia — though they were significantly watered down from original plans for Russia to essentially subsume large parts of the Belarusian state.
Artyom Shraibman, a Kyiv-based Belarusian political analyst, said that by escalating the border crisis Lukashenko was trying both to force the EU to lift sanctions it imposed in the wake of the crackdown on the Belarusian opposition, and distract from his domestic unpopularity.
“When you’ve got problems with your rating at home, you need to generate this threat on steroids and find new ways to force conflicts with your neighbours so that your own security apparatus remains well-toned,” said Shraibman.
Maxim Samorukov, a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Lukashenko was using the migrant crisis to try to exert more influence over the EU and restore his balancing act between the west and Russia.
“Lukashenko . . . thinks the only way to start a dialogue is by force,” Samorukov said.
So far the EU has given no sign that it will give ground. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, has called for member states to approve further sanctions on Minsk, and said the bloc would target airlines helping ferry migrants to Belarus.
Przydacz, the Polish deputy foreign minister, said the recent escalation of the crisis at the border could also suggest concern on the part of Lukashenko that too many migrants were stuck in Belarus — further eroding his own support. Polish officials estimate more than 10,000 migrants are in Belarus.
“There are already quite a significant number of migrants who . . . didn’t manage to cross the border,” he said. “It started to be problematic internally for Lukashenko.”
However, western diplomats remain sceptical that Lukashenko will back down unless he comes under pressure from the Kremlin.
“Lukashenko knows that [the border crisis] . . . will lead to further sanctions but he doesn’t care,” said one western diplomat, who said there were suspicions Belarus was looking for new sources of migrants to bring to Europe.
“I guess if he is not being told — either by actions or sharp words from the Kremlin — to stop this, then he will probably continue for a while and see how successful it is.”
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