Until now, Poland and the Baltic States have not faced such forward openly hostile actions from their neighbours. Moreover, independent Poland and the Baltic States have not faced a real threat of war, even if the current war is not being fought through kinetic clashes but through hybrid mechanisms. The events of the last few weeks on the Polish border have clearly shown that Alexander Lukashenko regime is not only determined to escalate the situation on the border of the European Union and to increase pressure on the West in the hope of possible concessions to its regime, but also has a vested interest in escalation, in order to unbalance the European countries and to provoke mistakes from the West that could become critical.
The logic of Alexander Lukashenko’s pressure is based, first of all, on his increasingly unpredictable and arrogant behaviour and actions to punish his neighbours because of their stance towards Alexander Lukashenko regime. Secondly, he seeks to exert more pressure until it becomes an unbearable burden on the state authorities of the neighbouring state, with the result that Alexander Lukashenko hopes for softer rhetoric, the lifting of sanctions, or a Western acquiescence to Minsk’s brutal repression of Belarusian civil society. However, the reaction of Vilnius, Warsaw and Brussels to the escalation of the crisis is hardly meeting Minsk’s expectations and is likely to cause the illegitimate Belarusian leader even more headaches, and the authoritarian situation is clearly becoming more complicated.
In late autumn, with the increasing flows from the Middle East, scattered groups of migrants started to form in Minsk, which are clearly different from the individual migrants that could be seen on the streets of the capital earlier, for example in June. This influx of people wishing to get to the West is not surprising, given that in the first half of November, Belarus began to receive record flows of people from the Middle East, as many as 40 planes per week.
The beginning of November marked a turning point in the crisis: during summer and early autumn, the Baltic States and Poland had been recording only sporadic attempts by small groups of asylum seekers to cross the EU border illegally, but Minsk finally changed its tactics.
On 8 November, a group of a couple of thousand people moved towards the Polish border. This was reported on social media and various Telegram groups, so the route and destination of the migrants was known to Polish officials in advance – the Kuźnica border crossing point (about 60 kilometres from the Lithuanian border). This group of several thousand people was accompanied by officers of the Minsk security apparatus, armed with weapons and attack dogs, and the trustees of the regime moved the strike force of the internal force structures, armed with riot gear, right next to the border crossing. There were reports of internal forces deployed from Minsk. This effective involvement of different units was a very clear indication that this was a pre-planned operation, with logistical preparations and coordination in advance.
The main target of migrants, according to the observers, was the official border crossing points, where it is legal under international law to apply for asylum. However, in order to maximise escalation and to concentrate those wishing to enter the West in one concentrated area, armed officers of the regime began to forcefully push the migrants away from the official border crossing points and into the woods, where a few thousand migrants set up a camp right on the Polish border.
It is very important to note that the ‘unexpected’ accompaniment to all this was the Belarusian and Russian propaganda ‘media’ (such as Sputnik, RIA Novosti, etc.), which began to spread false news about, for example, the collapse of the Polish border, human rights violations and brutal treatment by the Polish services. The propaganda seeks to spread disinformation even more widely and to create chaos, panic and confusion.
Disinformation and propaganda are a key component of the crisis. The Belarusian and Russian media are actively trying to create a narrative that it is Poland that does not share the values of the West and is therefore unjustly rejecting asylum seekers. This narrative is aimed at a Western audience. The propaganda seeks to minimise the role of the Belarusian regime in this process as well, to ‘wash out’ the causal links of this crisis, that Minsk has no interest in creating tension at the border. Alexander Lukashenko regime is also actively using foreign media outlets to broadcast messages from Belarusian territory, thereby creating a distorted image of the crisis for Western audiences. Lithuania and Poland are partly making a mistake of not allowing journalists to travel to the border under the Law on emergency, which is how the narratives created by Moscow and Minsk dominate in the airwaves.
The initial response of the Polish government has been to mobilise the territorial defence units of the eastern regions to combat readiness. Ministerof Defence Mariusz Błaszczak has announced that in order to secure the border, around 15,000 troops will join the existing police and border guards. A large number of light military equipment, supply and command posts are deployed along the border to coordinate the border protection. Polish structures are using ‘show of force’ tactics to deter migrant crowds, with helicopters patrolling the border at low altitude and reports of tear gas being used. At the same time, attempts are being made on the Belarusian side to knock down trees on sharp wire barriers. The first ‘holes’ in the barbed tape barriers are thus appearing and Belarusian officials are actively contributing to the destruction of the barbed tape barriers. Information has emerged that tear gas and stones are being given to migrants for this purpose.
In the face of this crisis, Poland has received clear support from the EU, NATO, Great Britain and others. It is important that EU leaders agree on the cause of migration – they all agree that Minsk is directly responsible for the hybrid attack with involvement of migration. This is a particularly important point, which has allowed the EU to move much more quickly to adopt a fifth package of sanctions (the sanctions will cover individual bureaucrats of the Belarusian regime, Belavia airlines, the Minsk airport, etc.). The UK also announced that it would deploy several dozen engineers to Poland to monitor the situation and support the Polish services – a particularly important signal from a NATO ally.
This united EU response is also delivering real and immediate results. It has been announced that the civil air safety services of Turkey and the United Arab Emirates will no longer sell flight tickets to Minsk for Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni nationals, who make up majority of all refugees arriving in Belarus. Iraq has announced that it intends to extradite its nationals from the territory of Belarus.
The most worrying element is the role of Russia in this crisis. According to the official position of Moscow, the Kremlin is not in any way contributing to the situation on the Belarus-EU border, which is hardly likely. Russia is undoubtedly monitoring very closely the resilience of the NATO countries to hybrid threats and is manipulating the possibility of escalation in order to intimidate the NATO and EU countries and to force the West to recognise Alexander Lukashenko as the legitimate president. The Kremlin is signalling this quite clearly, both with its nuclear forces (e.g. the flight of TU-140 strategic bombers over Belarus close to the Lithuanian and Polish borders) and with its conventional forces (unannounced air and airborne exercises close to the Lithuanian border).
Moreover, Alexander Lukashenko’s behaviour is in question. He is trying to increase pressure, because it is his only tool – if Minsk now decides to de-escalate the situation, it would be a defeat for him and a sign of weakness. The continuity of Alexander Lukashenko’s logic suggests that if Minsk decides to continue escalating the crisis, we can expect deepening of the crisis and more tense moments in which the line between peace and war is significantly blurred.