- BORDER CRISIS: ON THE EVE OF DELAYED AND INEFFECTIVE RESPONSE
- HOW THE CRISIS BEGAN?
- IMMEDIATE REACTIONS
- BelaPAN NEWS AGENCY ACKNOWLEDGED "AN EXTREMIST FORMATION"
- TOP MANAGER OF BELAZ AND MTZ WERE DETAINED
- US CAPITOL RIOT SUSPECT SEEKS POLITICAL ASYLUM IN BELARUS
BORDER CRISIS: ON THE EVE OF DELAYED AND INEFFECTIVE RESPONSE
Although Josep Borrell (the head of the European External Action Service) announced that the EU will expand sanctions against Minsk regime on Monday (November 15), the overall expectation is that the response of the EU would be not just ineffective (in what concerns containing malign influence of Lukashenka regime), but it would seriously jeopardize the security of the Baltics and Poland and public perception of the EU and NATO. «Symbolic» response would cause the reaction in Minsk and Moscow that would be opposite from what the EU expects: both Lukashenka and Putin will treat it as an endorsement to further increase the number of migrants on the border – to enjoy new cracks within political elites and the population of the EU through extremely divisive migration issue.
On Sunday evening, a diplomatic source anonymously shared with FT that new sanctions will include «two dozen Belarusian officials, a Syrian airline and a hotel in Minsk». Should these measures be an actual EU response to the border crisis (that involved attacks on Polish officials and border infrastructure coordinated by Lukashenka regime – and was publicly acknowledged as «hybrid war«, «hybrid warfare», or «hybrid tactics» by the EU, its members states and NATO), this would be one of the most controversial political decisions of the EU in its recent Eastern European policy and response to Belarus crisis.
Another «symbolic» response to a «hybrid war» against three EU and NATO member states would be a clear statement to Russia (as well as Eastern European EU members) that the EU is unable to protect its interests in the Eastern flank, and would give up on its Eastern European allies in case of direct conflict with Russia. Both Russian and Minsk-based propaganda will aggressively use this opportunity to proclaim Lukashenka’s victory over the West, and further support the narrative of strong Russia and ineffective corrupt EU – not just among local audiences, but also among the population of Central and Eastern Europe.
HOW THE CRISIS BEGAN?
Last Monday, a few thousand migrants appeared near the Poland-Belarus border crossing in Kuznica aiming to force their way into the EU. Polish government spokesman Piotr Muller estimated their number at around 3,000-4,000 near the border, and more than 10,000 others across Belarus ready to try and cross into Poland. According to the Belarusian Border Committee (which coordinates migrants and endorses their presence near Polish border in violation of national laws), it was 2,000 people.
Iraqi Kurds stranded in Belarus make the majority of those who participated in «march towards Poland». During the weekend, thousands of foreigners from the Middle East moved from Minsk to the border with Poland to try to cross the Polish border in one large group on November 8. Most of them reportedly had tourist visas issued by Belarus. Belarusian border guards, however, didn’t let them get to regular border checkpoint. Instead, they escorted foreigners to the woods a few hundred meters south of the border crossing. With the assistance of the Belarusian soldiers the migrants have attempted to force the Polish border fence. They used logs, shovels, wire cutters, and have successfully breached a section of the fence.
Polish troops have managed to repeal the attack on Polish border installations. At the same time, the Belarusian soldiers cordoned off the group to prevent it from retreating into the Belarusian territory were firing blanks at those trying to get out of the camp. As evening approached, it became clear that the group would not be able to get either to Poland or back to Belarus, so migrants set up a temporary camp.
On November 9, the Lithuanian parliament decided to declare a state of emergency at its border region with Belarus – for the first time since the country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. On the same day, Belarusian army transferred a group of some 500 migrants from the camp near Kuznica at the Polish border to the border with Lithuania, and encouraged them to cross the state border in violation of both Belarus and Lithuania’s laws.
Polish president Andrzej Duda said that the Belarusian regime is attacking the Polish border, the EU, in an unparalleled manner. Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki provided further details: “We currently have a camp of migrants who are blocked from the Belarusian side. There are about 1,000 people there, mostly young men. These are aggressive actions that we must repel, fulfilling our obligations as a member of the European Union.” He added that the attack which Lukashenka is conducting has its mastermind in Moscow, “the mastermind is President Putin.”
Poland deployed over 12,000 soldiers to the border and a volunteer Territorial Defense force was put on alert. Ukraine also announced drills and the deployment of 8,500 additional troops and police officers to the country’s northern border with Belarus and was considering to announce a state of emergency along the border with Belarus.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he had spoken to Duda about the situation. “Belarus using migrants as a hybrid tactic is unacceptable,” Stoltenberg tweeted. “NATO stands in solidarity with all our allies in the region.” But the alliance decided not to take any practical steps to reinforce the region. NATO battle groups there are fully operational, but they are not involved in the crisis and their alert state remains unchanged, a NATO official said. Later in the week, however, the British military said it would send a small team “to explore how we can provide engineering support to address the ongoing situation at the Belarus border” while Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia were considering to trigger Article 4 of NATO treaty and begin consultations with NATO partners (however, as of Sunday evening, no actual steps were taken in this direction).
In turn, Belarus and Russia have conducted “surprise combat readiness checks”. A joint battalion tactical group of paratroopers landed at the Hozha range (10 miles away from the EU border) in north-western Belarus as a response to the “buildup of military activity” from the Polish side. Exercise included capturing and holding a bridgehead, searching for and destroying sabotage and reconnaissance groups of the enemy. Two Russian paratroopers, a soldier and an officer, died during the drills due to strong wind that affected their parachutes. Also, long-range bombers of the Russian Air Force have entered the Belarusian airspace at least on two days to carry out patrols and «practice interaction with ground control points».
On November 10, the EU ambassadors agreed to broaden the existing sanctions against the Lukashenka regime. European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said they would be announced as early as next week and could also include airlines involved in human trafficking. Media also report that the new sanctions would target 20 to 30 individuals and entities including the Belarusian FM Uladzimir Makei and Belavia. Russia’s «Aeroflot» and «Turkish Airlines» were earlier mentioned on the list, but seem to be removed from it as of Sunday evening. Also, the European Council has already partially suspended its visa-facilitation agreement with Belarus in relation to Lukashenka’s officials. In return, he warned that Minsk would respond to any additional sanctions against it, threatening, among others, to cut off gas supplies via the Yamal-Europe pipeline. The pipeline was, however, cut off a few times times this year and works at nearly 30% capacity in November at Russia’s decision not directly related to the migration crisis.
German outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel called Russia’s president Vladimir Putin on November 10, to ask him to influence Lukashenka. Merkel said “the instrumentalization of migrants by the Belarusian regime is inhumane and unacceptable.” The Kremlin suggested the EU should engage in “direct contacts” with Minsk on the matter (this tactic of Lukashenka’s legitimization is not different from the way Russia forces Ukraine and OSCE into recognition of its proxies in eastern Ukraine as «independent states»). On November 11, Merkel called Putin for the second time. “The chancellor stressed that the situation was caused by the Belarusian regime, which was using defenseless people in a hybrid attack on the European Union,” her spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement. So far, it is clear that Western «symbolic» and «rational» (from European standpoint) steps have no immediate effect on the union of two autocrats.
On Friday, November 12, U.S. President Joe Biden expressed concern about the situation. The next day, Russian president Putin insisted that Russia was not involved in the border crisis despite Western accusations and recent air patrols and military exercises along Belarus’s border with the EU. “I want everyone to know. We have nothing to do with it,” he told Russia’s state broadcaster «Vesti». However, coordination of forces and borderline troops in the so called «union state» leave no doubt that Lukashenka’s operation is being coordinated with the Kremlin.
Even though the sanctions are only expected to be adopted on Monday this week, the EU’s verbal reactions and diplomatic communication prompted certain air carriers to introduce limitations on passengers from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen to avoid EU sanctions. Turkish aviation authorities forbid nationals from Iraq, Syria and Yemen (apart from diplomatic passport holders) to board flights from Istanbul to Minsk (Turkish Airlines and Belavia are the two airlines affected). Iraq halted all flights to Minsk altogether, and similar decision was taken by Syrian Cham Wings, even though it has already been operating under U.S. sanctions and will, reportedly, be sanctioned by the EU on Monday. The Iraqi embassy in Moscow on Thursday said it was ready to help evacuate any Iraqi nationals who wanted to return home from Belarus, however, the migrants showed little interest so far. The first evacuation flight from Minsk to Baghdad is scheduled for November 18.
BelaPAN NEWS AGENCY ACKNOWLEDGED "AN EXTREMIST FORMATION"
The oldest private news agency BelaPAN has been recognized as «an extremist formation» by the Belarusian Interior Ministry (controlled by Lukashenka). This is the second media outlet mentioned in the list of extremist groups in Belarus. Earlier, Lukashenka’s «ministry» declared Belarusian-language channel Belsat the first «extremist formation». Belsat is a part of Polish state-run television TVP. Acknowledging BelaPAN an «extremist formation» criminalizes all of its publications and is yet another move to destroy public records of the last two decades of daily news – and, especially, journalistic materials on the events that took place in the last 15 months.
At the end of August 2021, BelaPAN accountant Katsiaryna Boyeva was released from a temporary detention center under an obligation to appear. The director and editor-in-chief of the agency, Iryna Leushyna, and the former director of the agency, Dzmitry Navazhylau, are still in custody. They face imprisonment for a term of three to seven years.
TOP MANAGER OF BELAZ AND MTZ WERE DETAINED
Seven top-managers of Belarus’ largest state-owned enterprises – MTZ (Minsk Tractor Plants) and BelAZ – were detained and charged with bribery. Lukashenka’s «Interior Ministry’s press service» said operatives had uncovered “a large-scale criminal scheme involving heavy industry top executives”. The names and the exact positions of the executives in question are not disclosed. According to Nasha Niva, two deputy directors and a chief technologist are among those detained at MTZ.
US CAPITOL RIOT SUSPECT SEEKS POLITICAL ASYLUM IN BELARUS
A U.S. citizen Evan Neumann (wanted by the FBI for his participation in January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol) has fled to Belarus and is trying to claim political asylum here. Neumann is wanted on six criminal charges, including assaulting police officers, disorderly conduct and violently entering the Capitol building.
Last Thursday, Lukashenka-controlled TV station aired an extended interview with Neumann in which he claimed that he was seeking political asylum in Belarus because he believed he would be tortured in the U.S. “He is the same type of simple American whose shops were burned by Black Lives Matter activists. Neumann sought justice and asked uncomfortable questions but lost almost everything and is being persecuted by the U.S. government,” a TV presenter said.