Risk of escalation at Belarus and Ukraine borders

Rising tensions in Eastern Europe around the Belarus migrant crisis, NATO naval exercises in the Black Sea and Russian troop deployments on the Ukrainian border

18 November 2021

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on 16 November that the alliance is “deeply concerned about the way the Lukashenko regime is using vulnerable migrants as a hybrid tactic against other countries and he is putting the lives of the migrants at risk". "We stand in solidarity with Poland and other affected allies", Stoltenberg told reporters as he arrived for a meeting with EU defence ministers.

The Secretary General’s comments came as Polish authorities used water cannons and tear gas against migrants trying to cross the country’s border with Belarus. The EU agreed to impose new sanctions against Belarus, which it accuses of using the vulnerable refugees and migrants to manufacture a crisis on its borders. According to media reports, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia are considering asking NATO to hold emergency talks under Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty on the migration crisis. The article allows any NATO member state to request consultations if it feels its territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened.

Tensions at the border escalated in the past week, with Polish authorities posting videos of large groups of migrants at the border with Belarus, attempting to cross into the EU. The EU says that Belarus has been waging a "hybrid war" by facilitating migrants' access for months to the bloc's external border in retaliation for sanctions on the regime. The countries at the border have responded by reinforcing their borders—Poland has done so with 15,000 soldiers in addition to border guards and police. Journalists and human rights workers have been unable to verify these events on the Polish border due to a state of emergency imposed by the Polish Government.

European countries have warned that the increasingly tense situation on the frontier may lead to a conflict with Belarus, whose president, Alexander Lukashenko, has been accused of encouraging thousands of people from the Middle East to travel to Europe’s borders.

In a statement on 12 November, the North Atlantic Council (which represents the NATO member states) said that it was looking out for any escalation in the situation on its members' borders with Belarus, after Belarusian and Russian paratroopers staged joint military exercises near the Polish and Lithuanian borders. "We will remain vigilant against the risk of further escalation and provocation by Belarus at its borders with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, and will continue to monitor the implications for the security of the alliance," the statement said, adding "NATO allies call on Belarus to cease these actions, to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to abide by international law".

Meanwhile, tensions were also rising over a reported Russian military build-up near the Ukraine border. On 15 November, during a meeting with the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, at NATO headquarters in Brussels, NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg warned Russia against “any further provocation or aggressive actions” following warnings by US officials that Russia could be preparing to a launch a winter offensive in Ukraine. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said last week that Russia had amassed nearly 100,000 of its soldiers near Ukraine’s border, as Washington warned that Moscow may be “attempting to rehash” its 2014 invasion. Similar concerns were raised in the Spring during Russian military exercises.

Russia has denied that it has any plans to launch offensive operations against Ukraine, and instead has accused NATO of a military build-up in Europe and the Black Sea.

NATO Watch Comment: It is important for NATO and the EU to stand up to the “orchestrated instrumentalisation of human beings”, as it is described in a joint Western statement. However, such criticism should not only be directed at Minsk. Poland’s Government, which previously thwarted attempts to establish a civilised EU-wide asylum system, has used the current crisis to pass a law allowing migrants to be pushed back at the border without consideration of asylum applications—in contravention of the Geneva convention on human rights. While expressions of solidarity for member states in a crisis is understandable, it is disappointing that the NATO and EU leaders have not shown a similar level of empathy for the few thousand frozen migrants at the centre of the emergency. Instead, it seems as if, once again, it is more important to signal Fortress Europe credentials than sympathy for vulnerable outsiders.