Since the beginning of the Poland-Belarus border crisis, thousands of people have been stranded for months at the centre of an intensifying geopolitical dispute. Many are migrants from the Middle East and Asia and are hoping to travel into Europe through Poland, so are gathering at the Belarusian side of the Kuznica border, attempting to make the crossing in horrendous conditions.
Although Polish authorities have stopped border crossings, the ramifications of the crisis continue to linger across Europe and beyond, with uncertainty over what comes next. Additionally, human rights charities have also reported that the conditions which the migrants are facing are dire as they battle freezing weather and a lack of food and medical attention. Hundreds of people have become trapped in an icy no man’s land between Poland and Belarus, facing push back from both sides. There have also been continually emerging reports of beatings, the misuse of tear gas by security forces, and gruelling conditions.
In July 2021, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko made threats to flood Europe with human traffickers, drug smugglers and armed migrants. His threat was followed by political actions that motivated state-controlled tourist enterprises and some Middle Eastern airlines to start promoting tours to Belarus, increasing the number of connections from the Middle East and giving those who bought them Belarusian visas, seemingly with no prospect of returning.
The crisis has been described by Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia as hybrid warfare waged by Belarus against the EU, and has led the three governments to declare a state of emergency and announce their decision to build walls on their borders with Belarus. In response, the EU sent additional supporting officers and patrol cars to Lithuania and the national governments of 12 EU member states declared their support for a physical barrier along the border.
Whilst this started as a border issue, it has evolved into a larger political and security crisis. NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently spoke out against Belarus’ creation of a migrant crisis as a hybrid warfare tactic. However, President Lukashenko’s government repeatedly denied the claims against his government and instead apportioned blame to the West for crossing the border to treat migrants. Furthermore, Russia, Belarus’s largest political and economic partner, has defended Belarus’s handling of the issue and also denied any involvement in the crisis. The support was also evident when both governments performed joint military exercises over Belarusian airspace last week, amidst the context of recently released intelligence reports suggesting that Russia is planning renewed military aggression against Ukraine.
In response to the escalation, the United States and the European Union announced new sanctions against Belarus. The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that the new package of sanctions will launch a framework to implement other sanctions on “people, airlines, travel agencies, and everybody involved in this illegal push of migrants in our borders.” The White House’s National Security Council also mentioned that the US was preparing “follow-up sanctions” designed to hold Belarusian leaders accountable for “ongoing attacks on democracy, human rights and international norms,” but there were no specifics on what they will be.
In light of the developments from the ongoing crisis, it is fair to note that there are several portions of blame to go around. The Belarusian government blames the West for invading its border without its consent and the EU for placing sanctions on the country whilst still expecting Belarus to protect the EU from large-scale migrant crossings. The EU blames the Belarusian government for inciting hybrid warfare against its members and Russia for supporting Belarus by participating in joint military exercises. Finally the US, like the EU, blames both Belarus and Russia, noting that this could be a means to an end for Russia to revive hostilities against Ukraine.
Amid the distribution of blame, what is strikingly clear is human lives are once again being used as pawns in a wider geopolitical battle when the humanitarian need must be the primary consideration of the regional and international community.