Belarus as Latest Front in Acute East-West Standoff

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 172

The Polish-Belarusian border (Source: AP News)

A new point of acute East-West tension has emerged on the Polish-Belarusian border. Minsk and the West have been at loggerheads since August 2020, when Belarus’s strongman, Alyaksandr Lukashenka (ruling since 1994) declared himself reelected for a sixth consecutive presidential term in office. Massive protests erupted in Belarus, which the regime eventually ruthlessly suppressed. Opposition activists were imprisoned or fled abroad. Most Western governments have refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader and imposed punitive sanctions. Lukashenka replied by threatening to allow an unchecked flow of illegal migrants and narcotics into Europe (Interfax, May 26). Lukashenka has accused the West of plotting to overthrow him and waging a “hybrid war” against his regime. A massive flow of narcotics from Belarus into Europe has not yet materialized, but the migrant crisis has. In the summer of 2021, first a trickle of mostly Middle Eastern migrants began to arrive at the borders of Lithuania, Poland and Latvia. By November, that trickle has swelled into flood, with thousands of migrants, amassed in makeshift camps on the Polish-Belarusian border, attempting to break through a barbed-wire security fence and cross into European Union territory. Their ultimate goal is to enter Germany and seek refugee status. Over ten thousand Polish border guards, police and military personnel are holding the line on the other side. Clashes have been reported and teargas used as the situation has continued to escalate day after day (Kommersant, November 11).

The state-owned airline Belavia, which earlier this year was prohibited by Western countries from flying to Europe (see EDM, May 24, 27, June 2), is currently busy carrying migrants to Minsk from the Middle East. Potential refugees have reportedly been offered bogus “tourist tours” by shady travel companies for some $3,000 a person. The package includes a one- or two-week tourist visa (individual or group) to Belarus, plane tickets, and a couple of days’ prepaid stay in a Minsk hotel. After that, the migrants make their way to the EU border and try to cross. Armed Belarusian border guards are allegedly supervising the process. Belarusian and Russian officials condemn the ostensible cruelty of the Polish authorities who do not open their border while thousands of migrants are stranded in freezing conditions (Kommersant, November 11).

Poland has accused Lukashenka of “hybrid aggression,” closed at least one official border crossing point, and is threatening to seal off its entire border with Belarus. Lukashenka has countered the threat: “You are welcome to close. There will be only more ‘runners’ attempting to cross. We may, in turn, stop the transit of goods from Poland and Germany through Belarus [to Russia, Kazakhstan and other destinations]. We may stop the supply of natural gas [by Gazprom to Europe through Belarus and Poland via the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline]. We are defending our independence and will not hesitate. Let those empty-headed idiots first think before they impose any additional sanctions. We will reply as we promised” (Interfax, November 11).

The Belarusian president may be implying readiness to begin permitting the flow of narcotics across the border, as insinuated months earlier. Of course, the closure of the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline could also hurt the interests of state-owned Gazprom. President Vladimir Putin has publicly ordered Gazprom to increase natural gas shipments to Europe to restock dwindling reserves in underground gas storage facilities as winter is closing in. But Gazprom has recently refused to book the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline for any additional shipments in 2022, apparently hoping to engage instead the newly built Nord Stream Two pipeline from Russia to Germany, under the Baltic Sea (Kommersant, November 2). If Lukashenka, indeed, begins to tamper with the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline supply, that may be a good argument for Moscow and Gazprom to put more pressure on Germany and the EU to quickly certify Nord Stream Two and allow it to go into action at full capacity.

The EU has been discussing imposing additional sanctions on Minsk, potentially as soon as November 15. The new sanctions could reportedly hit not only Belavia, but other non-Belarusian airlines allegedly involved in trafficking migrants from the Middle East: government-owned Turkish Airlines, FlyDubai, Syrian Nordwind Airlines, Russian Aeroflot and Utair. Aeroflot and Turkish Airlines have strongly denied any wrongdoing. Large international national flag carriers like Aeroflot or Turkish Airlines could be financially crippled by Western sanctions. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told journalists it would be “a crazy idea” to sanction Aeroflot and expressed hope it was “fake news.” Some media outlets in Russia have asserted that Aeroflot could retaliate against possible sanctions by denying Western airlines overflight rights across Siberia on routes to the Far East (Interfax, November 11).

Lukashenka apparently hopes to blackmail the West into backing down, rescinding sanctions on Belarus and restoring business as usual, which would allow him to again play the West against Russia and Russia against the West, like he did prior to August 2020, and thus securely hold on to his personal fiefdom. Government-connected sources in Minsk are reportedly telling the West to simply contact Lukashenka (“begin talking”) and make a deal, and the refugee crisis could disappear overnight. Lukashenka evidently believes the West is morally weak and disorganized enough that his strong resolve will eventually prevail. He seems ready to upend the stakes further, possibly provoking armed border skirmishes that could escalate (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 8).

The Polish-Belarusian border and the so-called Suwałki Corridor between Russian Kaliningrad and Belarus has been identified as a potential flashpoint between the North Atlantic Alliance and Russia; but until now, there was no serious concentration of opposing military forces there. That could change. The Kremlin does not like or trust Lukashenka but is backing him in his standoff with the West, being drawn in politically, diplomatically and militarily. On November 10, two nuclear-capable Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers patrolled Belarusian skies. On November 11, two Tu-160 strategic bombers overflew Belarus and the border zone, performing a training bombing run on a Belarus training ground. This was announced as an exercise to prepare for possible joint action. But it was also meant to be an unambiguous signal to the West: Russia is backing up Lukashenka (, November 11).