memri
November 22, 2021 Special Dispatch No. 9648

Russia Walks A Tightrope On Belarus-Poland Border Standoff Over Migrants – Creating Space Between Moscow And Minsk While Shifting Blame To The West

November 22, 2021
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 9648

Tensions on the Belarus-Poland border appear to have abated as the Belarus authorities pulled some of the migrants back from the border and housed them temporarily in a logistics center. It was Belarus that had sparked the crisis by attempting to use the flow of migrants from Asia to bludgeon Europe into lifting the sanctions on Belarus that followed Alexander Lukaschenko's crushing of the protests against his claim to have been reelected president and the jailing and exiling of his opponents. Lukashenko also hoped to force Europe into treating him as a head of state rather than as a pariah.

There was little doubt in the West that Lukashenko had engineered the crisis.

Belarus first eased entry requirements for arrivals from the Middle East and elsewhere. It organized packages including visas, flights and Minsk hotels. The migrants were driven in taxis or buses to the Polish border, where they received help from Belarusian border guards in getting though the border fence. Belarusian forces even pulled down or cut through barbed wire and probed the border to help the migrants find the best places to cross.[1]

The regime knowingly connived at provisioning trips by the new arrivals to buy food and necessities for braving the elements at the border and the visitors were usually escorted by an official interpreter. [2]

The confrontation between Lukashenko and the West placed Russia in a dilemma. On the one hand, it could not abandon Lukashenko after having helped stabilize his power during the protests and painting him as the victor in the elections. Russia and Belarus are also in the midst of negotiations for integrating the two countries and creating a "union state" therefore Lukashenko is more than an ally and ideological soulmate but a person leading his country into Russia's embrace and perhaps providing Vladimir Putin with a way of extending his power beyond 2024.

On the other hand, the standoff between the EU and Lukashenko threatened to further exacerbate the already strained relations between Moscow and Brussels, and when Lukashenko threatened to impede supplies of fuel to Europe it undermined the claim that Russia was a reliable fuel supplier for Europe at a time that debate over the Nordstream 2 pipeline is still ongoing in Europe.

Official Russia attempted to finesse the dilemma. On the one hand it sought to deflect blame from Lukashenko for the crisis and shift responsibility to the West due to its misadventures in the Middle East harking back even to colonialism. On the other hand, it sought disassociate Russia from Lukashenko on the energy issue and pose as the good cop to Lukashenko's bad cop and claim that far from being behind Lukashenko's provocation, it was attempting to mediate in the crisis.

In the Russian media there were those who sought to echo the official line albeit in a more sophisticated and scholarly fashion, while other columnists blamed Lukashenko and the Poles in equal fashion. Finally, there were those who claimed that Lukashenko had embarrassed Russia but had it over a barrel.

A survey of Russian reactions to the recent crisis follows below:


Migrants stream to the border between Belarus and Poland (Source: Topwar.ru)

Vladimir Putin, in a television interview conveyed Russia's official position. He presented Russia as a well-intentioned mediator between two sides that were averse to communication:

"[Interviewer] Pavel Zarubin: Mr President, tensions are escalating on the border between the EU and Belarus. The European Union has already deployed army troops. Moreover, they are building up the contingent. You spoke with Angela Merkel twice, and you also spoke with Alexander Lukashenko. Why they do not speak to each other directly is probably also a question I would like to ask you. In general, what do you think of the developments there?

"The President of Russia Vladimir Putin: To begin with, why they do not speak with each other is not a question for me. We have nothing to do with that. But I inferred from my conversations with President Lukashenko and Chancellor Merkel that they are ready to speak with one another. I hope it will happen soon and some sort of direct contact will be established between the European Union, the EU leading nations, or at least between the Federal Republic of Germany and Belarus. This is crucial because the migrants’ goal is primarily to get into Germany."

Lukashenko, said Putin, was not to blame, and it was necessary to examine the roots of the crisis: "I would like to remind you what our Foreign Ministry has already stated. We should not forget the roots of these migration crises. Was it Belarus that unleashed these problems? No, the problems were caused by the West, by the European countries. These problems have political, military and economic dimensions. Military, because everyone participated in the Iraq operations, and now there are many Kurds from Iraq [among the migrants]; they had also fought in Afghanistan for twenty years, thus there are more and more Afghans there. Belarus has nothing to do with that. The migrants were also moving via different routes. And it is not surprising that they are now going through Belarus because, as Mr Lukashenko told me, Belarus has visa-free arrangements with the countries of origin."

Secondly, the migrants were attracted by better economic conditions in Europe not by Lukashenko:

"But there are also economic factors: there are very high social benefits for migrants in Europe, very high indeed. Say, given high unemployment, a good worker in the Middle East, including in oil producing countries, even if he is employed in the oil industry, earns a fraction of the social benefits that non-working migrants get, for example, in the Federal Republic of Germany. It is natural that people are heading there. Why should they work in turbulent conditions when basic safety rules are not observed when they can live idly with their families and get twice or three times as much? Because these benefits cover both adults and children, free education and, as a rule, free medical care. Let me reiterate, this is the policy of Europe’s leading nations."

Putin could not resist a jibe at Polish "brutality": "On the other hand, however, we kept hearing that humanitarian issues must be given top priority. However, when Polish border guards and army troops on the Belarus-Poland border beat up potential migrants and fire combat weapons over their heads, blast sirens and spotlights onto their camps at night, where there are children and women in the final weeks of pregnancy, all that does not go well with the ideas of humanism which supposedly underlie all policies of our Western neighbors."

Having laid the blame at Europe's door, Putin reverted to the role of dispassionate statesman with no dog in the hunt.

"I hope that direct contacts between the leaders of Belarus and the EU leading countries will help resolve these issues. This is number one.

"Second. I would like to say the following. I want everyone to know this. We have absolutely nothing to do with any of this. They are trying to shift the responsibility to us at the slightest pretext or even without any pretext. Our airlines do not carry those people. Not a single one of our airlines is involved. By the way, President Lukashenko told me that Belavia Airlines does not carry migrants either. They take charter flights, and with a visa-free arrangement these people just buy their tickets and come over.

"Indeed, there are certain groups that are shipping those people to the European countries, but those groups have been operating for a long time."

Having defended Lukashenko on the core issue, Putin disassociated Russia from Lukashenko's call for Russian planes and cutting off gas to Europe.

"Pavel Zarubin: There is an issue that has to do with Russia. Recently the President of Belarus Lukashenko threatened that he could cut off gas transit to Europe, and it is Russian gas. Moreover, Belarus addressed Russia with a request for the strategic aviation to patrol the skies over Belarus. What can you say about that?

"Vladimir Putin: They did not exactly address us. The strategic aviation cannot do anything to resolve such crises. We have scheduled exercises with our Belarusian colleagues, as we do regularly. It is our Western partners who constantly hold regular and irregular drills of various kinds there...

"Pavel Zarubin: What about Russian gas and its transit?

"Vladimir Putin: To be honest, this is the first time I hear about it because I spoke with Mr Lukashenko twice recently and he never told me about that, not even a hint. But he can probably do that. Although there is nothing good about it and I will certainly talk to him about this issue, unless he just said it in the heat of the moment...Of course, theoretically, Lukashenko, as president of a transit country, can issue an order to cut off our deliveries to Europe even though it will violate our transit contract. I hope it will not come to that. But on the other hand, sanctions are imposed on him and there is a threat of new sanctions. However, it would do more damage to Europe’s energy sector and would not contribute to the development of our relations with Belarus as a transit country."[3]

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s human rights envoy Grigory Lukyantsev amplified Putin's concern for the migrants' suffering, which was more important than apportioning blame:

"The core of these accusations resembles some kind of absurd situation. All accusations in this regard are addressed to one state, Belarus, although there are already accusations that we [Russia] allegedly had a hand in this, which is generally absurd... At the same time, they turn blind eye to what is happening in relation to the migrants themselves. They either hush it up, or say that all these are necessary measures. These are outright double standards in assessing the relevant situation."[4]

Lukyanov And Bovt Stress The Broader Picture

Another way of blunting criticism of Lukashenko was to view the crisis in a broader and more scholarly fashion.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs, in a column titled "The Migration Crisis Has Become a Prominent Issue of Disagreement Within The EU" traced the crisis to the disagreement between wealthy and self-confident Western Europe and the new Eastern European members:

"When a wave of refugees from the Middle East swept across the Europe in 2015, one of the many problems was the abrupt division of EU member states. Western Europe, accustomed to an immigration of people from less-developed parts of the world, for various reasons believed that to welcome and accept significant numbers of newcomers would be less dangerous. The stance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel was decisive in this matter....

"Back then it turned out that the newly accepted members of the EU don't understand the logic of grandees at all. Berlin and Brussels' attempt to introduce quotas across the EU for hosting refugees did not work at all. For one thing, the majority of migrants had no interest in staying in less developed countries that lacked social guarantees. This explains their persistent desire to reach Germany, Austria, Sweden, etc. Additionally, the states of Eastern and Central Europe strongly resisted the very idea.

"Back then Germany and other Western European states made numerous critical comments towards their eastern neighbors. They claimed that eastern EU member-states were lucky to be accepted to the EU, however now these countries unwilling to return the favor and help the union even with such a small favor as accepting several hundred refugees. Thus, a conclusion was reached: the eastern EU member-states are not ready for true civilization. In turn, the most thoughtful of the Eastern European commentators lamented that Europe's large and prosperous states are in principle unwilling to understand that in smaller and less prosperous countries 'small favor' can be perceived differently.

"For instance, Germany, which welcomes hundreds of thousands of people of a different culture and religion, does not think that a couple of hundreds or even thousands of migrants in Bulgaria or Slovakia would make a difference. Smaller nations, especially those that have recently regained/restored their national sovereignty, have a different stance. The fear of losing one's identity for these countries is very real, not a speculative one, although it's probably exaggerated."

Lukyanov conveniently recommends "Let's leave a question of how migrants from the Middle East end up in Belarus aside for the moment." It was necessary for the EU to deal with Lukashenko directly the way it did with Turkey's Recep Tayip Erdogan when the latter weaponized the flow of Syrian refugees.

"However, Warsaw, as well as the EU, took a principled position that there will be no negotiations with Minsk under Lukashenko's rule. The result was a public quarrel televised to the entire world, and Poland, defending itself from the migrants with an army doesn't look very attractive. Especially since it already has a long-lasting conflict with the EU on legal issues."

The current crisis harks back to decolonization that Lukyanov calls the main political even of the twentieth century. Migrations are an aftershock and "merely a premonition of the fire to come."[5]

Political scientist and columnist George Bovt claimed that this crisis signified the collapse of the international regimes governing refugees: "It's time to say last goodbye without honors, to the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees (if not de jure, then de facto). The convention was adopted on a wave of global peacemaking efforts after the nightmares of World War II and is based on the belief that international politics can be "conducted" in some miraculous non-conflict way. Well, here is the bad news... it is not working.

"Instead of providing an asylum to the unfortunate [migrants], various states conduct mandatory expulsions, including to places where such people will be in mortal danger; their cases are being redirected to third countries for review without reasonable guarantees of protection; insuperable obstacles, which work according to the principle 'not to our country,' are created for them, contrary to all the good human rights-related things that are prescribed by the Convention."

Actually, in the years before the Convention, argues Bovt, vast refugee migrations were absorbed without fanfare and conventions. Jews exiled from Spain, Huguenots fleeing France, the 60 million displaced by WWII or the creation of India and Pakistan.

In a potshot at the West, Bovt notes that the situation with refugees has worsened since the end of the Cold War: " It was after the end of the Cold War, when the 'forces of good' seemed to have emerged victorious, that the world's leading powers finally withdrew from the idea of creating a "standard procedure" for obtaining refugee status, which should've been subject to certain conditions prescribed by the UN. They transformed it into a burdensome and very subjective bureaucratic process.

"As a result, the victims of regional wars in Somalia, Angola, and even in the former Yugoslavia faced far greater challenges in obtaining refugee status than it was before the UN conventions. And instead of accepting such people and integrating them into their societies, separate "detention camps" (or similar forms of segregation, which are in essence, ghettos) were constructed en masse for them."[6]


George Bovt (Source: Radiokp.ru)

Kommersant Foreign Policy Specialist Yusin: Belarus And Poland Manipulated Russia And The West Into A Senseless Standoff

As opposed to Lukyanov and Bovt, who tried to broaden the frame to minimize Lukashenko's responsibility, other Russian commentators were willing to blame Lukashenko, although they also had harsh words for Poland. Maxim Yusin in a column titled " The Crisis with Migrants is Beneficial for Both Minsk and Warsaw " called the standoff a theater of the absurd and expressed fear that the crisis has played into the hands of Russia's opponents. He wrote: "From the very start of the crisis with migrants on the Belarusian-Polish border, the theater of the absurd feeling has not departed. This topic dominates the EU foreign ministers meeting, troops are gathering on both sides of the border, the press writes about the threat of conflict between two rival military blocs - NATO and the CSTO, and President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko threatens neighbors with Russian strategic aviation. If you watch emotional TV coverage from the scene, you might get the impression that the world is almost on the verge of a third world war.

"But then there are flashes of aerial footage in the same stories, and it becomes clear: the scale of the disaster is clearly exaggerated, only a few hundred migrants have accumulated on the outskirts of the border. And in total there are 2-3 thousand of them in this area, maximum 4 thousand.

"Compared to the waves that hit Europe in 2015, this is a drop in the ocean. Then the total was in the realm of hundreds of thousands, in the millions. That was really a problem. But even that stream, Europe half-digested sorrowfully, and Europe will not even notice 4000 given the general background.

"Why is there such a stir now, such a psychosis? The explanation is simple: too many people benefit from fanning this crisis.

"Its main initiator, Alexander Lukashenko, hopes to kill several birds with one stone: to raise his geopolitical importance in Vladimir Putin’s eyes, making himself an outpost on NATO’s path, to force Western leaders to enter into dialogue with him, and, finally, to create problems for his main ill-wishers in the EU - the Poles and Lithuanians.

"The Polish side has its own calculation. Until recently, virtually the main topic of European politics was the conflict between the EU leadership and Warsaw. They discussed sanctions against Poland for the fact that the country's authorities subjugated the judicial system. Now no one remembers punishment for the Poles. On the contrary, the European leaders declare their solidarity with them in the fight against the 'Belarusian dictator'.

The situation was also exploited by those forces in the West that are considered to be "hawks", supporters of a maximal harsh confrontation with Moscow. Washington (through the mouth of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken), London, and, naturally, Warsaw and the Baltic capitals made unprecedentedly harsh statements about Russia. The essence of the statements boils down to the fact that this entire crisis is conceived in the Kremlin, that Lukashenko is only doing Putin's will. Supporters of these versions, as a rule, do not produce any evidence or logical arguments as to why Moscow should seek an additional headache in relations with the West. But a list of possible anti-Russian sanctions has already been announced.[7]

Yusin's Kommersant colleague Dmitry Drize was also unsparing of Lukashenko:

"The 'migration confrontation' is far from over, but some intermediate conclusions can already be drawn. The main thing, so it seems, is that Russia has been dragged into this story, perhaps unwittingly. One can even try to forecast, that the situation will deteriorate. Lukashenko's tactics are very simple: He conveys a message to the West, "if you'll assert pressure on me, attack or threaten, I'll call the big guys, or big brother (if you prefer this wording) for help. There will be bombers armed with nuclear weapons, so don't complain later."

Meanwhile, the facts demonstrate that the Belarusian leader doesn't always keep his main ally aware of his plans and statements. Thus, Vladimir Putin's press secretary now has to reiterate the thesis that Russia keeps its word, complies with its obligations and is a reliable supplier of energy resources to the West. With such a statement Dmitry Peskov replied to the question of whether Alexander Grigorievich [Lukashenko] had coordinated with Moscow his threats to stop gas supplies to the EU and whether the Kremlin is surprised by such a turn of events. Peskov responded, as always, diplomatically, but at the same time unequivocally, 'No, Moscow was unaware.'"

Drize claimed that part of the fallout from the affair would be Western blame for Russia and damage to its reputation as a reliable supplier of energy: " So, what about the political settlement? Angela Merkel twice had a phone conversation with Vladimir Putin, asking him to influence Lukashenko. It's known, that Moscow, to some extent, is considered to be responsible for his actions. Naturally, the Kremlin does not agree with this perception, but the Western partners are not eager to negotiate with Lukashenko, while the latter is not inclined to enter dialog either. So, there is every reason to believe that Russia will eventually made responsible for all of this.

"I want to believe in the victory of common sense, but it's time has not yet arrived, the situation must reach the boiling point, and there is clearly still a way to go. However, one shouldn't procrastinate in this regard, as business is suffering, the situation is detrimental to the economy... How can one remain a 'reliable supplier' when there are serious talks of a major war, and your own gas can be suddenly cut off."[8]


Dmitry Drize (Source: Kommersant.ru)

Alexei Venediktov, Editor-in-Chief of the Echo of Moscow radio station claimed that Lukashenko was calling the shots due to the negotiations between Russia and Belarus to create a union state between the two countries – an objective keenly sought by Putin. Interviewed by Irina Voroboyeva, Venediktov called Lukashenko "a smart fellow" and explained.

" Because I'm about to say things that will make users downvote your program, the things that people won't like. Excuse me, radio listeners, [who won't like my words] and who outnumber other radio listeners by dozens of times. It's not clear who manipulates whom, Putin manipulates Lukashenko, or vice versa. Naturally, Putin is a bigger [figure], a cooler, more powerful [politician]. It is quite obvious that the story of the migration border crisis works in Lukashenko's favor, no matter what actually happens there.

"Russia, as we know, will have to support any, I cannot stress this enough, any of Lukashenko's actions because in the long term (in 2023-2024) a decision on the Union State have to be made. Thus, now one has to ignore the damage that Lukashenko will do now to Russia as well."[9]

Turning The Crisis To Russia's Advantage

Stanislav Mitrakhovich, an expert at the National Energy Security Fund and at the Russian Federation's Financial University, warned that although Russia had disassociated itself from Lukashenko's threat to cut off fuel supplies to Europe, Lukashenko could still carry out his threat unilaterally.

" the Belarusian leader himself is quite capable of taking such a step because of his conflicts with Brussels. Lukashenko is a politician 'with his own mind' and, as we remember, often gets into quarrels even with Moscow. Thus, this scenario is realistic."

In such an eventuality, Mitrakhovich believed that the only way for Moscow to turn the tables to its advantage was to harp on the need for Europe to promptly certify and commission Nord Stream-2 pipeline. Nordstream 2 connects Russian gas directly to Germany without passing through intermediate states.[10]

Stanislav Mitrakhovich (Source: Media.az)

Venediktov in the aforesaid interview claimed that Putin had already recouped some of the losses from the affair by playing the role of the responsible leader in contrast to Lukashenko:

He [Putin] is still selling this image. He announced today that Merkel is ready to talk to Lukashenko. This is a big victory for Putin, because the leadership of Western Europe, of NATO, demonstrate: we don't recognize Lukashenko as president, i.e. they don't talk with him. And now Lukashenko thanks to Putin made Merkel speak to him, as if on an equal footing, to recognize him."[11]

 

[1] Washingtonpost.com November 13

[2] Telegraph.co.uk, November 9, 2021.

[3] Kremlin.ru, November 13, 2021.

[4] Tass.com, November 13, 2021.

[5] Rg.ru, November 9, 2021.

[6] Gazeta.ru, November 15, 2021.

[7] Kommersant.ru, November 16, 2021.

[8] Kommerant.ru, November 12, 2021.

[9] Echo.msk.ru, November 13, 2021.

[10] Vz.ru, November 13, 2021.

[11] Echo.msk.ru, November 13, 2021.

Share this Report:

MEMRI
2021 End-Of-Year Campaign