Thousands of people looking to enter the European Union have massed at the Belarusian frontier with Poland. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Oleg Ignatov explains how the events relate to tensions between Belarus and its ally, Russia, on one side, and Western governments on the other.
What's going on at the border between Belarus and Poland?
Since the late summer, women, men and children, most of them Kurds from northern Iraq, have gathered at the Polish-Belarusian border. They are hoping to cross into the European Union (EU) in Poland and, in most cases, move on to Germany, where many have relatives or acquaintances. In the last month, most of the migrants made camp near the Bruzgi Kuznica crossing in the Grodno region of Belarus. Poland has refused to let them cross into its territory and declared a state of emergency in its border areas. Brussels has backed Warsaw. ("Migrant" here refers to the entire transient population at the border, without making judgments about how it breaks down among refugees, economic migrants and others. While some reporting suggests a significant portion of economic migrants among this population, other reports indicate that it includes refugees.)
By late fall, the situation on the border was tense and increasingly dire in humanitarian terms. In recent weeks, migrants clashed with Polish border guards, the former throwing rocks and trying to break through fences, and the latter responding with water cannons and tear gas. With most of the migrants living in tents, and children and several pregnant women among them, the approaching winter cold will soon make the crisis even more acute, if it continues. The Red Cross already reports at least ten deaths on the Polish-Belarusian border. Belarusian authorities have now placed some of the most vulnerable people in a special logistics centre, where they receive warm clothes and food, although there have been reports of a COVID-19 outbreak at the centre. Iraqi authorities are also helping several hundred migrants who have accepted an offer to return home.
An earlier stage of the crisis unfolded on Lithuania's border with Belarus in the spring. Migrants primarily from Iraqi Kurdistan massed in Grodno, with illegal crossings increasing from dozens to hundreds in June and from hundreds to thousands in July. Despite Lithuanian authorities' efforts to deny entry, more than 4,000 crossed the border in 2021 (compared to 81 in 2020), leading Vilnius to declare a state of emergency and reinforce the border. Migrants also gathered on Belarus' border with Latvia, which followed neighbouring Lithuania's lead in declaring a state of emergency and strengthening border security.
Who is behind the crisis?
There is little doubt that the Belarusian authorities are fomenting the crisis.
It has been widely reported that Minsk is facilitating travel for people from the Middle East to Belarus, and then to the border with Poland. Belarusian authorities have formally simplified tourist visa procedures for citizens of several countries, informally eased them in other cases and declined to expel those overstaying their visas. The number of direct flights from Iraq, Syria and the United Arab Emirates to Belarus has more than doubled, including Syrian and Iraqi charter flights. Belarusian guards have done nothing to impede those seeking to cross into Poland; indeed, reports suggest that guards have promoted such efforts, escorting large groups to the border and perhaps even pushing them to cross. In October, Belarusian authorities suspended an agreement with the EU that obliged Minsk to take back third-party nationals who had crossed into EU member states but were denied entry. The Polish defence ministry statesthat the Belarusian soldiers are orchestrating all the events at the border.
Belarus makes no secret that it will not block anyone trying to enter the EU, but places blame for the situation elsewhere. It claims that the crisis is the result of the West's failed policy in the Middle East, and accuses the EU and member states of violating humanitarian principles, including their own commitments under a variety of UN and EU instruments, to allow people to seek asylum.
Why is Belarus doing this and is it working?
Minsk appears to believe that the crisis will give it leverage to extract concessions from the EU and its member states. It has drawn an analogy between the present situation and the Greek-Turkish border crisis in 2015. In that crisis, more than a million refugees from the war in Syria entered the EU, and Brussels cut a deal with Ankara to halt further entries. It committed to provide €6 billion in exchange for Ankara's agreement to prevent the migrants from leaving its territory. While the parallel to Turkey is hardly compelling -- Belarus, unlike Turkey, is not adjacent to conflict-affected countries -- Minsk is angling for a deal of its own.
Belarusian leader Aliaksandr Lukashenka wants the EU to recognise him as president and to ease economic sanctions that have squeezed the Belarusian economy. These issues both became points of friction after Lukashenka ordered an unprecedented and often violent crackdown on opposition members and protesters in the wake of Belarus' 9 August 2020 presidential election. Lukashenka, who has been ruling the country since 1994, claimed to have won that contest with more than 80 per cent of the vote.
The EU, U.S., UK and Canada refused to recognise Lukashenka's victory, due to evidence of manipulation. They, along with Switzerland and Norway, imposed sanctions -- in the EU's case, four packages thereof -- targeting both a wide range of officials individually and sectors of the Belarus economy, including Belarusian exports to the EU and UK. In justifying the sanctions, they pointed to a range of human rights violations, including Minsk's violent repression of civil society, the democratic opposition and journalists. Hardest-hitting are the sanctions on Belarus' main exports -- petroleum products and potash fertilisers. On top of these measures, after Belarus diverted a Ryanair plane en route to Lithuania in June 2021 to arrest a dissident who was on board, the EU banned access for Belarusian airlines to EU airports and closed EU airspace to them. Western officials have called the incident an act of "state piracy".
Before they lift the sanctions they have imposed, Western states demand that Lukashenka stop repression, release political prisoners and start a dialogue with the opposition about fresh elections, steps the Belarusian leader considers equivalent to giving up power.
Sanctions are hurting Belarus already and they are poised to bite harder. New U.S. sanctions against Belarus' largest fertiliser producer, Beloruskali, are due to take effect in December. Taken together, new and old sanctions could lead to a complete halt in exports from Belarus to and through the EU. Minsk estimates the damage from the present sanctions at 2.9 per cent of GDP. Some experts believe that, if new penalties are imposed, Belarus' losses could exceed 7.5 per cent of GDP per year. The EU plans to adopt a fifth package of sanctions soon, and the border crisis has led European officials to threaten additional measures on top of those.
In his speeches, Lukashenka has said the migrant crisis will end when the West comes to its senses, stops strangling the Belarusian economy and negotiates. He has in any case gotten European leaders to talk to him. On 14 November, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei spoke by telephone with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell. The next day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Lukashenka. Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets reported that, during the call with Merkel, Lukashenka demanded to be recognised as president and the lifting of all sanctions. Minsk, however, denied this account. Two days later, on 17 November, the EU announced it would allocate €700,000 for emergency aid to refugees on the Belarusian border.
What is Russia's role in the crisis?
While some European officials are convinced that Moscow is driving the crisis from behind the scenes, there is no reliable evidence that Russia is directly involved in either orchestrating events or moving migrants.
Still, European leaders have been quick to point to Moscow's involvement. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has said Lukashenka is following Russian President Vladimir Putin's orders. Poland also believes that Russia has helped aspiring EU immigrants enter Belarus, including by flying them in on the Russian state carrier Aeroflot. Lithuania's president has claimed that people from the Middle East are entering Belarus via Moscow. Russia has denied all these accusations and responded angrily to news that the EU is considering sanctions against Aeroflot.
Even if it is not helping with the transport of migrants, Russia has consistently supported Lukashenka throughout this episode and promoted his talking points. Russian officials have also taken pains to argue that Western responses to the crisis are hypocritical. Moscow says European capitals talk of human rights, but refuse to take in individuals it characterises as refugees and even use water cannons to block their entry.
Putin has also urged direct dialogue between Lukashenka and European countries, and offered to facilitate it. Indeed, Putin and Merkel spoke at length before the latter spoke to Lukashenka. Moscow has also suggested that the EU respond to Belarus as it did to Turkey in 2016, when it provided billions in aid to support millions of refugees in Turkey rather than allow them to move on to EU states. "Why can't Belarusians, who have certain needs, be helped in the same way so that refugees, whom Poland and Lithuania in no way want to let onto their territory, can somehow live in normal conditions?", asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Russia has its own reasons for wishing to see a change in Western policy toward Belarus that would entail recognising Lukashenka and lifting sanctions. One is economic: to help it through its current straits, Russia has been supporting Belarus and its economy, and eased sanctions would enable the Kremlin to reduce its spending. Russia's political tensions with the West also play a large role in its calculations. The Kremlin sees Western pressure on Lukashenka as aimed at changing the leadership in Minsk, and believes this pressure to be part of a broader effort to destabilise and increase Western influence in Russia's periphery and -- by extension -- Russia itself.
Could things escalate further?
They could, but there is also a chance they settle down.
While Lukashenka seeks talks and recognition, he has also framed his struggle to stay in power as a struggle with the West. He portrays all opposition to his rule as flowing from an international, Western-backed conspiracy. He frames Western sanctions as an outgrowth of conflict with the European Union, and stokes fears of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) aggression to justify repression and consolidate his hold over the security apparatus on which his government has increasingly relied since August 2020.
Against this backdrop, Lukashenka has up to now been willing to escalate tensions with the West in pursuit of his goals. On 11 November, he threatened to cut off Russian natural gas exports to Europe, which pass by pipeline through Belarus. This was in response to new EU sanctions and Poland's statements that it might close the border with Belarus completely. President Putin rapidly intervened, noting that blocking gas transit to Europe by Belarus "would be a violation of our transit contract", indicating that Russian support, consistent as it has been, has its limits. Belarus did, however, reduce Poland's oil supplies for unscheduled maintenance on 17 November and cut off electricity to Ukraine the following day. Warsaw, for its part, demanded that Minsk stabilise the situation on the border by 21 November, threatening that if it did not, Poland would close the railway checkpoint in Kuznica. On 21 November, Poland also threatened to close the border entirely.
A tendency on all sides to militarise their responses to the crisis is also troubling. Poland's 20,000-strong deployment to its frontier with Belarus includes soldiers as well as border guards. On 10 and 11 November, Russia's defence ministry sent two long-range Tu-22M3 bombers and two Tu-160 bombers, respectively, to patrol over Belarus. The next day, Moscow deployed a paratrooper unit to conduct exercises in Belarus' Grodno region, which borders Poland and Lithuania, ostensibly as part of a snap inspection of the unit's combat readiness. In the same timeframe, British military engineers arrived on the Polish-Belarusian border to help strengthen the barriers. The British media reported that London is prepared to send 400-600 additional soldiers to Poland. Ukraine has also sent about 8,500 soldiers and policemen to its border with Belarus, and Estonia is dispatching about 100.
That said, it is difficult to see these deployments leading to armed clashes in and of themselves. It is true that further worsening of the already very tense situation in Ukraine between Moscow, on one hand, and Kyiv and its Western partners, on the other, could spill into the Belarus standoff. In the near term, though, any escalation is more likely to be economic and diplomatic. Moreover, with dialogue between Minsk and European capitals under way, and some prospective migrants en route back to Iraq, there is hope that things will settle down. At the same time, Lukashenka's insistence that sanctions are eased or lifted, without releasing prisoners, entering talks with his opponents or meeting Western conditions, will almost certainly preclude a genuine settlement to friction between him and EU leaders. Even if some migrants return to Iraq and other countries in the near term, the crisis could resume if Minsk again seeks to dial up pressure.
What's the solution?
There are no easy answers. Not only are Minsk's demands unacceptable to Western powers, but Lukashenka, along with Moscow, is likely to read any concessions by the latter as evidence that his strategy is working. Although there appear to be people fleeing war, violence or repression among those at the border, EU countries, notwithstanding their international obligations, are united in supporting Polish efforts to stop people entering. In their eyes, allowing entry would be succumbing to a crisis manufactured by the Belarus leader. Still, if solutions are hard to come by, it is still worth Western governments talking to Minsk.
While Minsk and Moscow may see dialogue as a path to extracting concessions from the West, this does not necessarily have to be the case. Indeed, the EU has already started a dialogue with Lukashenka without signalling any intent to lift sanctions or formally recognise the Belarusian president unless he meets the EU's conditions. At the same time, it has sent aid for people at risk near the border. This mix of political engagement and humanitarian support seems to be having some positive effect on the border situation. In the near term, European states' goals should be, at the very least, to ensure that people are able to return home safely and do not face undue hardship. Lukashenka faces his own constraints -- he is limited in the extent of Russian support he enjoys and his own country's capacity to sustain large numbers of people from the Middle East and other war-torn countries.
If the EU and other states hope to change Lukashenka's behaviour, in addition to dialogue, they will need to clearly link any new sanctions and threats of sanctions to very specific actions Belarus can take to ensure they are lifted or averted. In the meantime, however, they should be prepared for more provocations and challenges.