Vulcan Insight

Defence Ministers fear military escalation on Polish border

12 November 2021

On Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen met President Biden at the White House, where one of the big ticket items was the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation on the Polish-Belarusian border.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has promised to keep pressure on Belarus “as long as the regime is refusing to respect its international obligations, or commitments, as long as it’s undermining peace and security in Europe through its actions and as long as it continues to repress and abuse people.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin is involved now too after German Chancellor Angela Merkel phoned him asking him to use his influence to intervene with Belarus, stressing how it was “unacceptable and inhumane” to instrumentalise migrants in this way. He suggested she speak to Belarusian officials directly.

While leaders talk about what to do, an estimated 4,000 people from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere are stranded in makeshift camps without shelter in freezing temperatures. Seven people have already died, while footage has emerged in recent days of men armed with wire cutters and tree trunks trying to breach Poland’s barbed wire fence.

The EU and NATO have accused Belarus of attracting migrants from the Middle East with the intention of flooding the Polish border in retaliation for EU sanctions placed on Belarus over its treatment of political dissidents. There are currently more than 820 political prisoners in Belarus.

Poland directly accused Moscow of helping orchestrate the Belarusian plot on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said that in fact, it was “bastard” European leaders who were using migrants to threaten Minsk. He has threatened to respond to any new EU sanctions by shutting down the transit of natural gas and goods through Belarus.

Russia has sent two nuclear-ready bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace in response to NATO’s so-called “defence build-up on the border” and many worry that the migrant crisis unfolding could easily morph into a military one. In the eyes of Estonian Defence Minister, Kalle Laanet, “the potential for escalation is extremely high”.

For now, NATO has not become involved, considering the military dimension that it would add which could provoke Belarus and Russia further.

Earlier this week, European Council President, Charles Michel met Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and said the EU stood by Poland and would impose extra sanctions on Minsk and on Belarus’ national airline Belavia. Calls are growing for the EU to sanction Turkish Airlines and Russia’s Aeroflot as well, who are also flying migrants from the Middle East to Minsk.

Mr Morawiecki for his part has warned that “sealing the Polish border is in our national interest. But today the stability and security of the entire EU is at stake”.

Strangely, Poland has consistently refused the assistance of the EU’s border service Frontex, and has not allowed doctors, media or other NGO groups to access the area since September owing to the “state of emergency”. Instead, they want “support at the political level” from the EU and NATO according to Polish President Andrzej Duda.

Given the migrant crisis of 2015, Belarus is striking the EU in a vulnerable area, which in the past has fanned support for far-right parties across the bloc. As a result, the EU will tread carefully.