There’s something authoritarian leaders in countries bordering the European Union seem to have grasped: encouraging refugees and migrants to cross its borders has a particularly destabilising effect on the bloc.
Like Turkey and Morocco before it, Belarus has been accused of escalating ongoing tensions with the EU by “weaponising” thousands of asylum seekers from countries including Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, who have been trying to break through the Belarusian border into Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.
According to Polish estimates, between 3,000 and 4,000 migrants are currently stranded between Belarusian and Polish forces on the countries’ border amid freezing temperatures, with seven people having died since the crisis erupted.
Minsk, which is already under EU sanctions following Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed re-election as president last year, has denied using refugees to undermine the bloc’s security, and has in turn accused Warsaw of an “unprecedented” military build-up on the border.
In the face of more sanctions, the Belarusian government threatened on Thursday to cut off gas supplies that run through the country to Europe via a Russian-owned pipeline. However, Russian president Vladimir Putin – Lukashenko’s closest ally for years – warned him against such a move, which would risk harming their ties by constituting a breach of the EU’s contract with Russia.
Although Putin himself has admitted that Lukashenko could, technically, order Russian gas supplies to be cut to Europe as a president of a transit country, upsetting the Kremlin at a sensitive time for Russia’s energy exports could blow up in Lukashenko’s face.
Yet there seems to be more to the situation in Belarus than meets the eye. As former US national security adviser John Bolton points out in The Telegraph, the current migrant crisis may be a distraction from Russia’s more serious provocations at the border with Ukraine, playing into a larger strategy that hasn’t escaped western intelligence.
While US officials have privately warned their EU counterparts about a possible military operation as tens of thousands of Russian troops amass near the border, 600 British troops are reportedly ready to be deployed in Ukraine after defence chiefs and the head of MI6 warned the prime minister, Boris Johnson, about Russia’s plans.
Testing the waters on a Russian invasion of Ukraine while attempting to destabilise Europe and its allies is almost second nature to Putin. But if the worst comes to the worst, we can expect a new phase of confrontation between Russia and the west – via Belarus or elsewhere – to lead to mounting instability and human suffering at borders.