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To cross or not to cross: the hybrid attack on EU's and NATO's Eastern border

To cross or not to cross: the hybrid attack on EU's and NATO's Eastern border
©EPA-EFE/STATE BORDER COMMITTEE OF BELARUS /HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/  |   A handout photo made available by State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus shows the Belarusian-Polish border crossing as asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants clash with Polish Police forces at the Bruzgi-Kuznica border checkpoint in the Grodno region, Belarus, 16 November 2021.

The migration crisis on Polish-Belarus border started during the summer, but it intensified drastically in the last few days. Thousands of people got stranded at the border between two countries in terrible conditions. They got trapped and misinformed: Belarusian authorities distributed forms which suggest the possibility of settlement in Poland and Germany, so they raised the migrant's hopes for a safe passage to western European countries. But the truth is the migrants -- most of whom are from the Middle East and Asia but also from Africa – got stuck in the woods on the Belarusian side of the border. The ones that are still there are hungry, cold, exhausted, and angry.

Crossing the line

After spending a few days at the makeshift camp in the woods, about a kilometer from the Bruzgi-Kuźnica border crossing, on Monday morning, November 15, a group of over 3,000 migrants was escorted by Belarusian security forces to the border crossing closed by Poland. Belarusians promised the migrants that they would be admitted to the European Union, and that there would be buses waiting for them on the Polish side of the border to take them to Germany. These people have been deceived for weeks. When they got there, barbed wire entanglements and police and military blocking the Kuźnica checkpoint were waiting for them. Poles were not letting them in and Belarusians were blocking their way back. Women and children were lined up in the front row, the Belarusian media shot videos and photos, and then the migrants were left in the closed border crossing. At night, the temperature dropped below zero, many people slept in sleeping bags on concrete, one person was taken by ambulance to the hospital. The next day, trapped migrants attacked the Polish troops, throwing stones and rocking grenades at the policemen and soldiers. Nobody can explain where they got the grenades that are used by police and military special forces. The incident lasted several dozen minutes, the Poles used tear gas and water cannons, and at least two servicemen on the Polish side were injured. Fortunately, no lethal weapons were used – Polish authorities said migrants were provoked by the Belarusian side. After about two hours, the migrants withdrew from the border crossing in Kuźnica and returned to the makeshift camp in the forest. About 200 people spent the night in a warehouse opened by the Belarusian services and located at the border crossing.

After Tuesday (November 16) border riots, Belarusian authorities opened a criminal case against Polish border guards under the article 128 of the Criminal code “Crimes Against the Security of Mankind”. Technically in Belarus they now face a death penalty.

On Wednesday (November 17), hundreds of migrants were kneeling next to the barbed wire fence and shouting to the policemen standing on the Polish side: "Help us, Poland!". About 1,000 people remained in the camp in the forest, the rest of the people left it.

On Thursday Poland has set a deadline for Belarusian authorities: if the situation near Kuznica will not calm down before November 21, Poland will stop cross-border railway traffic through Kuznica (as of now only road traffic checkpoint has been closed). It is not only a big blow for Belarus but also for Russia and China - border crossings are a vital channel for Russia-Europe and China-Europe freight trains (more than half of the cargo volume carried by Belarussian Railway was in transit between Europe and China last year).

On Friday morning, the border area around Kuznica on Belarusian side was empty, the Polish border guard informed that the Belarusian authorities had taken all migrants from there. This does not change the fact that on November 18 there were over 250 attempts to cross the border in which Belarusian soldiers actively helped the migrants. No one knows how many migrants are still in the forests in the border area, but their number was previously estimated at several thousand.

There were many incidents and provocations in the last few weeks. Till now dummy grenades were thrown at the feet of Polish border guards, the Ministry of Defense published a film in which shots are heard (most likely blanks) being fired from the Belarusian side. Few days ago, Belarusian soldiers tried to destroy a Polish border fence near Czeremcha – more than 100km south of Kuźnica border crossing point. Some of them were blinding Polish soldiers with stroboscopes and laser flash lights while the others were ripping out fence posts and tearing down the wire using a vehicle. There was also news about Kurds trying to protect the fence from being cut – they didn't want confrontation with Polish guards. Migrants told reporters on the spot that Belarusian soldiers took dozen Kurds, beat them, then gave them metal cutters and with pistols to their heads told them to cut the fence and cross the border. 

Crossing the border

Polish border with Belarus is at the same time the EU border with Belarus and it's more than 400 km long, so no one really knows how many people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen are in the woods on the Belarusian side.

From data provided by the Polish border guards there are about 200 attempts to illegally cross the border every night. In November alone, such attempts were made more than 6,000 times.

Migrants find themselves trapped, as they lose control of their fate once they set foot in Minsk; they are taken over by the Belarusian regime, which treats them as hostages. Under the guise of an easy and quick crossing to the Polish side of the border, men, women, and children are pushed into the forests in the border zone and no one is allowed to turn back. This procedure has been going on for months. These people often do not have food, water, warm clothes, medicine, let alone tents. Most of them camp on the Belarusian side of the fence, and those who manage to get on the Polish side are immediately pushed-back without being able to apply for asylum.

On November 15, the funeral of a Syrian who died on the border took place – he was the first known victim of this geopolitical and humanitarian crisis. Ahmed was only 19 years old and died on October 20th. Since then, news about more fatalities come every day - people die from cold, hunger and exhaustion. Belarusian and Polish authorities did nothing to help these suffering people. Fortunately, that may change. UE have allocated EUR 700,000 for humanitarian aid to the migrants at the Poland-Belarus border. The funds will be distributed to humanitarian organizations, including Red Cross.

Crossing the limits

Lukashenko is very anxious for the western European countries and European Union to recognize his presidency in full by negotiating with him. So, a phone call from the German Chancellor Angela Merkel was announced by the Belarusian national media as a great success of the regime. Merkel was criticized for that decision, but she is leaving her office and politics very soon so perhaps she cares more about the fate of migrants than her reputation. The President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, in a conversation with the President of Germany, emphasized that Warsaw would not recognize any arrangements regarding the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border, which would be "made over our heads". In the meantime, we learned that Alexander Lukashenko, who has denied any involvement by Belarus in causing the migration crisis, told Angela Merkel that in return for being recognized as a legally elected president and for sanctions to be lifted, he is able to end the migration crisis on the EU's eastern border. Information from Brussels so far indicates that the EU will not bow to the pressure of the Belarusian regime and does not intend to suspend the fifth package of sanctions agreed on Monday (November 15). What will Lukashenko do? It is likely that he is counting on an escalation of tensions at the border, perhaps he hopes there will be some acts of violence. Former Belarusian Minister of Culture Paweł Łatuszka who lives in exile now, said that small groups of Iraqi Kurds have been trained in Belarus to use weapons “at the right moment”.

Considering the dependence of the Lukashenko regime on the Kremlin, it is impossible to imagine that Belarus has launched this „hybrid attack”, as the EU and NATO called it, on its neighbour without Putin’s backing. Or that Lukashenko would risk a dangerous escalation if he wouldn’t know that he can count on Russia stepping in for him. Of course, Russia has already denied its involvement, but in the same time we can see that the presence of Russian troops in Belarus is increasing, and this is a clear signal that the Kremlin is playing its own game here.

What is Putin trying to achieve? His primary goal is to launch the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Berlin is delaying its certification for bureaucratic and political reasons. Another goal may be to gradually weaken Lukashenko's position in the country – Putin has even publicly suggested that Lukashenko should start a dialogue with the opposition (which had previously said that it won't accept any dialogues before all political prisoners are released and violence stops in the country). Polish Foreign Minister said that “none of my colleagues from other EU countries has any doubts that Russia is behind the actions of Belarus”.

Moscow is interested in a controlled escalation of the geopolitical crisis (they themselves fuel it by deploying troops on the border with Ukraine, suggesting another invasion of this country) in order to use it as a form of political and kinetic pressure on Western states. Lukashenko’s continuation of the current actions serves Kremlin’s interests, as this fuels the political dispute in Poland over how to respond to the threat, aggravates the situation on the EU border, generates discussion inside the EU on how to deal with the humanitarian problem, and tests the resilience of the Polish security system, Poland’s armed forces and NATO as a whole. At the same time, however, the current situation is deepening Lukashenko’s isolation in the international community, makes him permanently dependent on Russia, and creates yet another basis for the West to initiate a potential dialogue with the Kremlin.

In the meantime, Moscow is repeating the notion that the West is responsible for causing the migration because it supported the US’s actions in the Middle East. It has also been indirectly suggested that Belarus may open a migration channel from Afghanistan. Another element of this operation is the emphasis on close military co-operation between Russia and Belarus, as part of which nuclear weapons may appear in the latter’s territory. The activity of the Russian media is another tool of this psychological warfare; the dissemination of alarmist and manipulative reporting is intended to cause panic in the EU countries and undermine the rationale of taking any decisive steps to block the border. In this way, Moscow is trying to suggest that the West should accept the migrants and continue a dialogue with Minsk in order to deal with the crisis effectively.


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  • Thousands of migrants got trapped on the Poland – Belarus border between the two countries’ security forces. The EU and NATO denounced a hybrid attack, Belarus denies and relies on Russian support, and Putin makes his own game.
  • There were many incidents and provocations in the last few weeks. Till now dummy grenades were thrown at the feet of Polish border guards, the Ministry of Defense published a film in which shots are heard (most likely blanks) being fired from the Belarusian side. Few days ago, Belarusian soldiers tried to destroy a Polish border fence near Czeremcha – more than 100km south of Kuźnica border crossing point. Some of them were blinding Polish soldiers with stroboscopes and laser flash lights while the others were ripping out fence posts and tearing down the wire using a vehicle.
  • Migrants find themselves trapped, as they lose control of their fate once they set foot in Minsk; they are taken over by the Belarusian regime, which treats them as hostages. Under the guise of an easy and quick crossing to the Polish side of the border, men, women, and children are pushed into the forests in the border zone and no one is allowed to turn back. This procedure has been going on for months. These people often do not have food, water, warm clothes, medicine, let alone tents. Most of them camp on the Belarusian side of the fence, and those who manage to get on the Polish side are immediately pushed-back without being able to apply for asylum.
  • Considering the dependence of the Lukashenko regime on the Kremlin, it is impossible to imagine that Belarus has launched this „hybrid attack”, as the EU and NATO called it, on its neighbour without Putin’s backing. Or that Lukashenko would risk a dangerous escalation if he wouldn’t know that he can count on Russia stepping in for him. Of course, Russia has already denied its involvement, but in the same time we can see that the presence of Russian troops in Belarus is increasing, and this is a clear signal that the Kremlin is playing its own game here.
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