Crisis on the Polish-Belarusian Border—What Strategy for Warsaw?
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 172
On November 8, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda held consultations in Warsaw with the government, military and border guard service regarding the artificial migration crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border (Prezydent.pl, November 8). The situation there has intensified, with 3,000–4,000 migrants gathered in the direct vicinity of Poland’s eastern frontier, declared Piotr Müller, the government spokesperson (PAP, November 8). On the same day, the Polish Ministry of Defense put the Territorial Defense Force on standby, with six-hour call-ups for brigades located in districts bordering Belarus and Russia (Twitter.com/terytorialsi, November 8). Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak informed, on November 9, during an extraordinary session of the Sejm (lower chamber of parliament) that 13,000 troops were on active duty along the border (Sejm.gov.pl, November 9). The Border Guard has suspended trans-border traffic in Kuźniki, one of seven road crossings on the border with Belarus (Strazgraniczna.pl, November 8). The actions were preceded by “push-back” operations, a declaration of a state of emergency in some of the bordering regions, a build-up of the provisional fence, and a decision to build more fencing and detection infrastructure along the state boundary in the coming months (estimated total cost around $400 million).
The migration flows on the Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian borders—the latter under the least pressure probably due to Riga’s softer policy toward Minsk—are being organized by the Belarusian regime, with the alleged support of the Russian Federation (Radio Zet, November 10; PAP, November 8). The intensity of this crisis is unprecedented for these three European Union members, and they have all characterized it as a “hybrid” warfare operation directed against them. If the accusation of Russia’s logistical support for the operation turns out to be true, it would mark the first time Minsk and Moscow have carried out a joint large-scale destabilization operation against neighboring members of the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Such an operation would certainly fit Russia’s modus operandi in this area. Earlier “hybrid”-style provocations by Moscow in the Baltic Sea region have included security services officer Eston Kohver’s kidnapping on Estonian territory in 2015 (see Commentaries, October 7, 2015), cyberattacks against Estonia in 2007, or the numerous Russian violations of the Baltic States’ airspace over the years, not to mention Russia’s attempt to weaponize and instrumentalize migrants on Finland’s border in 2015/2016 (Osw.waw.pl, April 6, 2016). Moreover, Moscow unquestionably wants to increase its influence by fueling destabilization, intensifying social stratification in the target countries, decreasing trust toward state institutions, undermining Euro-Atlantic security commitments in the region, and contributing to the erosion of Euro-Atlantic integration structures. The weaponization of migrants fits this strategy and has the added benefit of deniability and leaves open the possibility of Russia positioning itself as a “mediator” in the conflict.
Whether or not Russia’s involvement in the current migrant crisis can be proven, the Kremlin’s broader strategy toward the region certainly seems to have found common ground with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s tactical goals—even despite the fact that Belarus has long sought to balance between Russia and the West to avoid full subjection to Moscow. By organizing migration pressure on the external border of the EU, Lukashenka is trying to penalize Europe—Poland and Lithuania in particular—for what he perceives as another attempt by the West to organize a “colored revolution” and overthrow him after the 2020 presidential election. And the operation is likely also aimed at deterring the West from further support for the Belarusian opposition. Notably, Lukashenka threatened to enable large-scale migrant flows into the European Union already in 2012 (Reuters, November 27, 2012).
Unlike in Lithuania, the Polish political debate on the migration crisis has been highly politicized, with the government trying to frame the issue solely in a security context and the opposition employing highly emotional narratives to embarrass and weaken the ruling coalition (Sejm.gov.pl, September 30). If the migrant crisis operation was, indeed, meant to further socially divide Polish society, it has certainly had that psychological effect—potentially the most important outcome from the Russian perspective. At the same time, the crisis at least partially succeeded in testing the “immune system” of the Polish state. That said, as the pressure on the Polish border intensified in recent days, the political debate inside Poland has tempered considerably (Sejm.gov.pl, November 9).
Surprisingly—and in contrast to Vilnius’s strategy—the Polish government has been quite restrained when it comes to trying to internationalize the crisis. The opposition in Warsaw has been highly critical of that approach and has demanded that the government seek greater EU engagement as well as call for NATO consultation under Article 4. European Union representatives took an active position anyway, with European Council President Charles Michel visiting Poland on November 10 and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen threatening sanctions against the Belarusian regime as well as airlines involved in human trafficking (Ec.europa.eu, November 8).
Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki announced attempts to widen EU sanctions as well as to exclude airlines transporting migrants from accessing EU airspace only on November 9, during the aforementioned extraordinary parliamentary session. On that occasion, Morawiecki expressed his deep dissatisfaction with Turkey’s alleged contribution to smuggling migrants from the Middle East to Belarus. This factor may put an end to the Polish-Turkish rapprochement, which both countries were trying to establish earlier this year (see EDM, June 7).
The reason behind Poland’s cool enthusiasm when it comes to focusing wider international attention to the issue is unclear. Official narratives routinely deprecate the EU’s hard-power capabilities by, for example, suggesting the low effectiveness of the European border guard agency Frontex (Sejm.gov.pl, November 9). Simultaneously, the government seeks to emphasize Poland’s self-sufficiency. This attitude may have multiple (often mutually reinforcing) drivers: inter alia domestic political considerations, the poor state of EU-Polish relations, distrust of Brussels when it comes to migration policy, or simply inaccurate expectations regarding the likelihood of conflict escalation.
Unquestionably, Poland lacks a comprehensive strategy toward the current crisis, even as tensions continue to escalate. So far, it is Minsk (and/or Moscow) that is in control of the escalation ladder since Warsaw has been rather defensive and reactive in its activities. Additionally, Western allies have not acted in concert to address the situation, while announced activities have been slow to commence. If the EU and NATO frontline states are to effectively counter the pressure coming from the East, they will need to become more active across the whole spectrum of potential responses. Deterrence by denial may need to be replaced by deterrence by punishment. Any deficiencies in that area could presumably be overcome by allied or proxy support, but the problem is that this approach does not currently fit the Polish political psyche.