As hundreds more migrants gather in sub-zero conditions at the Belarus border, ready to enter Poland and the European Union, Russia has sought to politically distance itself from what is quickly escalating into a geopolitical disaster—even as it sends paratroopers to the Belarus border as a small contingent of British “military engineers” have been deployed to help the Poles.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov walked back a threat made by Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who warned a day before that he could cut off the supply of Russian natural gas into Europe. “This is a statement by the president of Belarus,” Peskov said of the statement. “I want to remind you of President Putin’s statement that Russia has always fulfilled its contract obligations… Belarus is our ally, but it is a sovereign state.”
Russia is a major supplier of natural gas to Europe through a series of lucrative deals Moscow surely does not want to give up. “Russia’s reliability as a supplier and partner for current and future contracts cannot be called into question,” he said.
There’s been no response from Minsk over the comment from the top of the Kremlin, but Russia would have to sign off on any disruption of service because of the agreement concerning the pipeline that runs through Belarus. Russia in October was accused of using energy as a weapon by deliberately slowing down supplies, which has caused electricity prices in Europe to increase by 200 percent, according to the European Commission, which has blamed high demand in Asia and low deliveries of natural gas from Russia as the main driver.
The tension is starting to look like war games as Ukraine deployed 8,500 troops to its border with Belarus and the U.K. sent a small contingent to conduct reconnaissance to support Poland’s 15,000-strong border control. “Reconnaissance began before the support of the British engineering troops,” Poland’s Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak tweeted. “Our soldiers will strengthen in strengthening the fence on the Polish-Belarusian border. After the reconnaissance is completed, we will inform you about the details.”
In the meantime, Russia’s defense ministry announced that its paratroopers would be holding exercises on the Belarus border with Poland. “A unit of Russian paratroopers will practice a landing in an unknown territory in the Hrodna region of Belarus on November 12 as part of drills to inspect combat readiness of the paratrooper forces,” they announced Friday. Reports that two of those paratroopers fatally collided are yet unconfirmed.
The tension has prompted NATO to issue its own statement, warning, “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 group said in a statement, adding that they “strongly condemn the continued instrumentalization of irregular migration artificially created by Belarus as part of hybrid actions targeted against Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia for political purposes.”
EU threats of sanctions against airlines that have been transporting migrants—many who have Belarus visas but have no desire to stay in the rogue nation—have prompted a number of airlines to curb sales to Middle Easterners. Turkish Airlines announced Friday it will no longer sell tickets to any country connecting with Belarus to citizens of Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, who make up the bulk of the migrants hoping to cross into Poland. Belarus airline Belavia was forced to also ban citizens from those nations after Turkish officials said they would not allow them to board direct flights between the two countries. “In accordance with the decision of the competent authorities of Turkey, from November 12, 2021, citizens of Iraq, Syria, and Yemen will not be admitted on flights from Turkey to Belarus,” a statement issued by the Belarus national airline said.
Late Thursday, journalists and aid officials were allowed access to the border, which has exposed just how dire the situation is. At least seven people have been reported dead from hypothermia, but some reports now suggest that number is higher. Families, pregnant women, and elderly people are sleeping in tents with a distinct lack of access to anything close to hygienic. Fears of COVID-19 and other diseases have worried health experts because most of the migrants are coming from countries with very low vaccination rates.
A representative for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees told CNN that things were “catastrophic” and “worse” than previously thought. Many of those camping rough on the border have small children and little food or warm clothing.
“Something must be done,” said Mulusew Mamo, the UNHCR representative in Belarus. “The supplies of humanitarian aid that we are bringing in through Red Cross will continue for the next days.”
On Thursday, the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting to address the situation, in which predictable lines were drawn. The U.S. and many EU states condemned the “orchestrated instrumentalization of human beings whose lives and well-being have been put in danger for political purposes by Belarus.”
Russia and Belarus instead say the EU is at fault for failing to help migrants who they claim are seeking shelter after Western military “adventures” in the Middle East. “The narrative they will be promoting to you is that Belarus is responsible for this crisis, that Belarus is using migrants as a tool of war,” Russia’s deputy ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, said as the session began, according to The New York Times. “We are very aware of what’s happening on the border. It’s very disturbing. There are people who came, legally, to Belarus, and who want to enter the European Union countries. They are not being allowed to cross the border, they are being pushed from the border, they are being prosecuted, they are being beaten.”
On Friday, Poland announced they had stopped some 4,500 border-crossing attempts since the first of November, when the crisis started. Around two dozen people have made it through and applied for asylum. CNN reported that more than 4,000 migrants are now camped on the Belarus side of the border, hoping to get through. Poland has around 15,000 armed security troops to stop them.