The Beginning of a Long and Stormy Winter
The migrant crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border has been manufactured by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. The crisis has had far-reaching humanitarian and geopolitical ramifications.
The history of the Cold War is full of bloody and dramatic incidents, and conflicts where ordinary people fell victim of communist regimes. Think of the blockade of West Berlin in 1948 at the critical moment of confrontation between the West and the USSR. Another example is the Prague Spring of 1968, which led to the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, portrayed as brotherly assistance in restoring “stability” in the country. George Orwell famously described the cynical attitude of totalitarian regimes turning values into their opposites: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
The situation is not so different with Lukashenko. The recent developments at the Polish-Belarusian border are taken from the Soviet satrap’s book of tricks. First, you need people in misery who can be easily fooled into believing that a European country (Belarus) can help them in migrating to the West. You will find thousands upon thousands of such restless souls in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and beyond. By setting up flight connections between Minsk and emigration hotspots (with a little help from non-democratic regimes in the Middle East), the Belarusian national airlines will earn a buck by fleecing poor people of their savings, who pay their visas and tickets to “sight-see” in Minsk. Then, these people are bused into the border region, escorted by the Belarusian army, and shown how to cross the border illegally into Poland. Autocrats do not care about the misery brought upon people who are perceived as mere cannon fodder. This is a cynical policy that Joseph Stalin or Nikita Khrushchev would be proud of. Given the pariah status of Belarus, the satrap in Minsk feels he has nothing to lose. He has already won by making himself an interlocutor of Angela Merkel who – in the heat of the crisis – had to swallow her pride, hold her nose, and ask for a phone consultation.
The humanitarian aspect of the crisis has largely been forgotten. Even if the numbers (a couple of thousand) do not resemble the levels of 2015 migration crisis, the situation facing the migrants has been extremely difficult. Dozens of people died of hunger, cold, and disease in the swamps of the border Podlasie region. The two countries’ border guards have been very attentive not to show “weakness” or “softness.” The Belarusian guards’ behaviour is typical of a brutal dictatorship which pays no attention to human rights.
The Polish side, even against incomparably higher standards, has tried to show determination to protect the border at the expense of the formal rights individuals possess as asylum seekers. Pushback from migrants has been very common. In order to have free reign to act brutally, the Polish government did not allow any NGOs or media into the border area. What matters is the brownie points the ruling government can win by stoking fear of migrants within the domestic population, praising the strongman tactics of border guards, and exaggerating the threat migrants pose.
The bigger question is about Lukashenko’s protector and ally – Vladimir Putin of Russia. It is not possible that Lukashenko would be acting without the approval, or at least without notifying, the Kremlin. Russia has plenty of reasons to support Belarusian aggressive moves towards NATO and the European Union member states. For Putin, the provocation at the EU border can be a useful distraction that enables him to concentrate on undermining Ukrainian independence and statehood, leading possibly to another military invasion. There is talk of troops being amassed that would cause the city of Mariupol to be vulnerable to Russian attack, potentially cutting off Ukraine from the sea of Azov. Russia has been taking advantage of the growing preoccupation of the US with China, and the subsequent intensifying confrontation between the two global superpowers. Russia thus has the potential to step into a certain void in Eastern Europe, created by decreasingly present America, which the European Union is not able to fill.
Putin loves to rule and divide the West, and has been reaching at the weakest link to achieve this. Poland, under the government of the Law and Justice party headed by Jarosław Kaczyński, is the outlier in the European Union. Poland is closely allied with Hungary and its leader, Viktor Orban, engaged in a number of disputes with the European Commission, and facing penalties from the European Court of Justice. Similarly, Poland’s relations with the Biden administration in the US are just a shadow of the ties that Poland had with the Trump administration. The Polish government feels ideologically distant from the great majority of EU states, criticising the EU for “defending” LGBT minorities’ rights, promoting the “multi-kulti” model of society, the supposed renouncing of Christian values, and for building a “superstate.”
Throughout this crisis, Poland’s recent estrangement with its allies, especially France and Germany, has deepened. The Polish government initially claimed that the “nation state can handle the challenge at its borders alone,” and that the country needs no assistance at the border from its allies, either from NATO or the European institutions – especially the Frontex agency which happens to be based in Warsaw. The government later changed its rhetoric by trying to turn to NATO and EU allies (but in a reserved and not very consistent manner), for requests for assistance amid calls that Poland is “defending Christian Europe” which is “under siege” due to the hordes of immigrants.
Additionally, the government issued statements that Poland will not accept any decision between Russia, Germany, and France about solving the crisis. The Polish government itself offered no roadmap or plan to fix the crisis, other than building a wall on the border. It does not engage in dialogue with Belarus or Russia, and it has limited itself to increasing the amount of border protection guards in the area. It is therefore unsurprising that Germany and France stepped into this void and held consultations with Russia.
This diplomatic offensive of Germany and France seems to have had an effect. Lukashenko and Putin know that the West has many sanctions at their disposal which could lead to the breakdown of the Belarusian economy and the debilitation of the Russian one. All Belarusian exports to the West could be blocked. The land border crossings could be closed to cargo transport, which would also affect Chinese interests. The airlines chartering flights could be heavily sanctioned.
For now, the situation at the border has quieted down. A few planes have been sent from Iraq to recover the stranded migrants. The dictator has so far pushed away from his reckless policies. However, this conflict has the potential to come back at the most inopportune moment for the West, as the Belarusian satrap is clearly enjoying his “madman” approach to foreign policy.
In the wider scheme of things, the migration crisis shows the emergence of a new geopolitical world where the Sino-American “cold war” creates a power vacuum in many parts of the world, into which revisionist, aggressive powers like Russia can step. For example, the intensifying conflict between China and the US over Taiwan could coincide with outright aggression from Russia against Ukraine, which could be further helped by provocations generated by the satellites of Moscow. Or the opposite could occur – a conflict in Eastern Europe could initiate a dangerous sequence of events in East Asia, close to Australian shores. In any event, the eastern and southern regions of the EU happen to be full of potential inflammation points – from Georgia to Moldova, from Armenia to Belarus, not to mention the Balkans.
In the past, the EU has relied upon American assistance when dealing with instability or war at its doorstep – think of the Kosovo war in 1999. This should no longer be taken for granted. Europeans need capabilities, such as military units which could be deployed where NATO forces cannot be used, resources – further beefing up of Frontex could help in future migration crises – and, most of all, the political will to forego narrow national interests and move from unanimity to the qualified majority vote when taking decisions by the EU Council. This is a challenge for the EU – either it becomes a fully-fledged geopolitical player, or it remains a place of rhetoric for national foreign policies.
One thing is certain – the West is in for many surprises in the months and years to come.
Jakub Wiśniewski, PhD, is Secretary of the Board and Special Advisor to President at GLOBSEC. Jakub is former Polish Ambassador to the OECD (2014-2016) and Director of the Department of Foreign Policy Strategy at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2010-2014).
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.