A crisis involving groups of people traveling from the Middle East who are now trapped along the western borders of Belarus has been going on for months now and only continues to heat up. Here's what this confusing situation is all about and its current state of play.
Just today, Poland's Ministry of Defense accused Belarusian security forces of fomenting a new round of violence by these individuals, who threw rocks and other objects at Polish personnel, causing non-life-threatening injuries to at least one Polish soldier. The governments of Poland, as well as Latvia and Lithuania, all of which are NATO members, have called on the alliance to do more, while the European Union has imposed new sanctions on Belarus in response to what it has described as a "hybrid attack."
There is strong evidence that authorities in Belarus, possibly with direct or indirect support from their allies in Russia, have deliberately weaponized groups of people coming from the Middle East. The Belarusian government has been accused of trying to force these individuals over their western borders in retaliation for sanctions the European Union imposed earlier this year against the regime of long-time dictator Alexander Lukashenko. The sanctions in question had been leveled at Lukashenko and his government in May over the effective hijacking of an entire Ryanair flight, which was forced to land in the country's capital Minsk so that Belarusian officials could arrest a dissident journalist onboard.
Just yesterday, the European Union announced new sanctions against Belarus, including ending lease agreements covering 17 of the 29 aircraft operated by the state-flag carrier, Belavia. Belavia has been directly implicated in facilitating the movement of individuals from the Middle East, especially Iraq and Syria, to Belarus via intermediate points.
Many of the people, who are commonly termed "migrants," claim to have actively been lured to the Eastern European country on various false pretenses, including promises of support in legally reaching western Europe, as well as tourism packages. After arriving, however, they were then forced to move to camps with squalid conditions in various border areas by Belarusian security forces.
The Kuznica-Bruzgi border crossing point, where the Polish soldier was injured, has become a particular flashpoint in the last day or so, as you can see in the imagery in the Tweets below. Polish authorities have accused the Belarusian security services of deliberately orchestrating the clashes today. Polish personnel have used water cannons, tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and other riot control tools in response.
These same groups of individuals have often found themselves trapped in border areas, being pushed back by Polish, Latvian, and Lithuanian police and troops as they attempt to cross, but then not being allowed back into Belarus. Authorities in Poland have been criticized for their handling of the situation, as well, which has raised questions about the country's adherence to international humanitarian obligations. It's hard to see how a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe would not have been a factor in why Belarusian authorities decided that this course of action would be an effective asymmetric attack on its neighbors in the first place.
At least 11 "migrants," including at least one child, have reportedly died so far.
“We are discussing with Latvia and especially Lithuania about whether to trigger Article 4,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Sunday. “It seems that it is needed more and more. It is not enough to publicly express our concern. Now concrete steps and the commitment of the whole alliance are needed."
Article 4 refers to a mechanism within the treaty that established NATO that allows for any member to call for an alliance-wide consultation on issues that "the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened." Unlike a NATO member invoking Article 5, Article 4 is not a direct call for any sort of collective military action. However, in the past, Article 4 consultations have led to the deployment of NATO forces to member states for defense purposes, such as sending Patriot surface-to-air missile systems to Turkey on multiple occasions in response to concerns about regional ballistic-missile threats.
There has already been some movement on the part of other NATO members to help bolster security along the Alliance's borders with Belarus. Last week, it was reported that Royal Engineers from the British Army had deployed to Poland specifically to help strengthen border fortifications. In July, Estonia, which is situated just north of Latvia but does not share a border with Belarus, pledged to send reels of barbed wire to Lithuania to help reinforce that country's physical barriers.
There have been accusations that Belarusian security services have been destroying barriers along the border or aiding groups trying to cross in doing so themselves. Over the weekend, the Polish Border Guard released a video, seen below, that it said showed Belarusian soldiers attempting to destroy a fence while blinding Polish forces with strobe lights and lasers.
Over the summer, Estonia had announced that it was prepared to send unspecified unmanned aircraft to help monitor the situation, but it's unclear if those assets were ever deployed. Just in the past week or so, online flight tracking software has shown a U.S. Air Force E-8C Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft and one of the service's RC-135W Rivet Joints, as well as a U.S. Army RC-12X Guardrail turboprop and a specially-configured Bombardier Challenger 600 jet operating under contract to that service, all flying opposite the Belarusian border. All of these are intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft that could be used to collect various types of information, including intercepted communications chatter, as well as track certain movements, including by vehicles that might be carrying groups headed to border areas.
Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania are all European Union members, and the economic bloc has taken its own hard stance on the situation, as evidenced by the new round of sanctions on the regime in Minsk. "This is a hybrid attack. Not a migration crisis," Ursula von der Leyen, President of the E.U. Commission, Tweeted last week. "Hybrid" in this case appears to be a reference to hybrid warfare, a broad concept that covers a blending of military and non-military tactics employed directly or indirectly in conflicts and other crises. These asymmetric tactics can include — but are certainly not limited to — cyberwarfare, propaganda and disinformation campaigns, and economic threats, initiated either directly by a state or through proxies. These are things that Russia, in particular, has come to excel at, as you can read more about here.
In addition to sanctions, there are certainly diplomatic efforts ongoing to try to resolve the crisis. Yesterday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who remains head of state in that country after national elections in September did not produce a clear winning coalition, reportedly spoke directly with Lukashenko about the situation.
Unsurprisingly, Russia has both denied any direct involvement in the crisis and has sought to position itself as a peacemaker of sorts. Last week, Russian officials went so far as to raise the idea of the European Union providing financial assistance to Belarus to relocate individuals from the border. Last Friday, the Embassy of Iraq in Moscow announced plans to repatriate any Iraqi nationals from Belarus who wish to leave, though specific details about how that would be done and whether the Russian government would be involved in any way remain unclear.
At the same time, the Kremlin has recently staged a number of military exercises that are clearly meant to demonstrate its commitment to its allies in Minsk. This has included long-range sorties involving Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers and a large airborne drill, during which two paratroopers died in an accident.
Though there are concerns about the potential for some sort of interstate clash on the border, the risk of major direct military action against Belarus seems low. Thus, these exercises would seem to be intended in no small part for the benefit of Lukashenko personally. The Belarusian dictator has increasingly presented himself as under siege from foreign threats following huge protests after the country's most recent national election last year, which was widely decried as neither free nor fair. The regime in Belarus has drawn additional criticism for its brutal crackdown on protestors.
There is, of course, a fear that the crisis could continue to escalate, as it has in recent weeks, to the point where a miscalculation or other error in judgment on either side might lead to an actual conflict. Prior to today's injury, Polish authorities had announced on Saturday that one of the country's soldiers deployed to the border had died in an accidental shooting involving a Polish service weapon, though specific details about the incident remain limited. There have been accusations dating back to at least October from both sides of the border about Belarusian and other countries' security forces shooting at each other or at least threatening to do so.
The United States has alleged the crisis along the border with Belarus is, at least in part, a deliberate attempt to distract from a worrisome situation developing in areas of Russia situated opposite from Ukraine. "The actions by the Lukashenka regime threaten security, sow division, and aim to distract from Russia’s activities on the border with Ukraine," top U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement on Nov. 14, regarding a call between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau the day before.
Russia has been conducting large-scale exercises on land, at sea, and in the air in the Black Sea region recently, which some fear could be a prelude to a new surge in fighting in eastern Ukraine's Donbass region. Russian-supported forces there have been fighting the government in Kyiv since 2014, the same year that the Kremlin seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.
"We do continue to see unusual military activity and concentration of forces in Russia, but near Ukrainian borders, and that remains concerning to us," Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said yesterday, reiterating comments he had made last week. "There's been no transparency from the Russian side about this concentration of forces in the western part of their country and we continue to urge them to be so transparent."
At least for the moment, neither that transparency nor a de-escalation in the crises in and around Belarus or Ukraine appears to be forthcoming.
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