As Belarus threatens European gas supplies, here’s how a migrant crisis is turning into a Russia-EU face-off

November 11, 2021, 4:00 PM UTC

Nuclear-capable Russian bombers have flown for a second day near the borders of the European Union, and there’s a possibility that Russia-to-EU gas flows could soon be partially strangled. It’s an extraordinarily tense moment on Europe’s eastern front, and it’s all down to the exploitation of a humanitarian crisis by the dictator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko.

The EU has accused Lukashenko of weaponizing thousands of Middle Eastern and African migrants by funneling them to the bloc’s borders, where many are now effectively trapped. Russia appears to have taken Lukashenko’s side, and the autocrat has now threatened to block gas Russia-to-Europe gas flows that cross Belarusian soil—a disastrous exacerbation of Europe’s existing energy crisis, if it comes to pass.

Here’s how the situation developed, and what might come next.

What is Belarus’s relationship with Russia?

Belarus was part of the Russian Empire before it became a founding member of the Soviet Union. Most of its population speaks Russian, and it remains an economic and cultural Russian satellite. However, relations between Moscow and Minsk are complex.

Lukashenko became president in 1994 and has retained the position through a series of stolen elections. Some analysts see his tactics as having been influential in Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. But while the two countries are close enough to have formed a “Union State” a couple of decades ago, Lukashenko has often shunned Putin’s embrace, most notably by refusing to recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. For much of his tenure, he has forged a fairly independent path between Russia and the EU. However, that all started to change last year.

There were heavy protests ahead of Belarus’s August 2020 election. The Belarusian authorities arrested some alleged Russian mercenaries, claiming Moscow and the Belarusian opposition were plotting to destabilize the country. The crackdown was particularly brutal around the election itself—Lukashenko claimed 80% of the vote, but opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said she got more than 60%—with hundreds of protesters being tortured and some killed. The EU imposed sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime, but there was more to come.

In May, a Belarusian fighter jet forced a Greece-to-Lithuania Ryanair flight to make an emergency landing in Minsk. All passengers were subjected to a security check, and the authorities nabbed the guy they were looking for: the dissident blogger Roman Protasevich, who was arrested with his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. Protasevich subsequently appeared in a video on state television, showing signs of torture, and confessed to organizing mass riots. The EU was furious at the state-sponsored hijacking and expanded sanctions against Lukashenko and his regime.

How are the migrants involved?

Lukashenko found a grotesque way to get his revenge on the EU, in particular the EU members with which it shares borders: Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Soon after the Ryanair incident, Belarus started welcoming growing numbers of undocumented migrants from countries such as Iraq, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Then it escorted them to its western borders, so they could pass into its EU neighbors.

The move was not entirely unprecedented—last year, Turkey “weaponized” Syrian refugees by encouraging them to enter Greece at a time when President Recep Erdoğan was annoyed about EU criticism of Turkey’s actions in Syria. But if Lukashenko wanted to cause a European panic, he succeeded. Poland, whose right-wing populist government has been having furious arguments with Brussels over the rule of law, is suddenly enjoying the EU’s full-throated support as it tries to protect its borders.

This week, Poland closed its border with Belarus, and Lithuania declared a state of emergency along its Belarusian border. There are currently decreasing illegal crossings from Belarus into Latvia, but the Baltic nations and Poland are cooperating closely on the issue. Poland has sent as many as 15,000 soldiers to its border, and Lithuania has placed its troops on high alert.

It’s now a full-blown humanitarian crisis, as several thousand migrants are now effectively trapped on the Poland-Belarus border in freezing conditions, with each side accusing the other of mistreating them. The situation is so dire that Iraq on Thursday announced it would organize an evacuation flight for the stranded Iraqis who wish to come home.

Russia’s reaction has been characteristically cynical. Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested the EU could solve the problem by paying Belarus to keep the migrants, much as the EU did in 2016 with Turkey. On Wednesday, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Putin and asked him to intervene, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov suggested help was not forthcoming, saying: “It is apparent that a humanitarian catastrophe is looming against the background of Europeans’ reluctance to demonstrate commitment to their European values.” Peskov also rejected at an accusation by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki that Moscow was the “mastermind” of the crisis.

How bad can it get?

The signs are not positive right now, and things are moving quickly. One thing is for sure: Russia is very much on Belarus’s side.

On Wednesday, two nuclear-capable Russian strategic bombers undertook a training mission over Belarus, simulating bombing runs with Belarusian fighter jets playing intercept. The exercise was repeated on Thursday, when the Belarusian Defense Ministry also claimed Poland’s massing of troops and tanks at the border was “more like forming a strike group of forces,” rather than an attempt at migrant control. Lukashenko: “Let them scream and squeak. Yes, those are nuclear-capable bombers, but we have no other choice.”

The Belarusian dictator also threatened to turn off the Yamal-Europe pipeline, a key route for Russian gas supplies (around a fifth of the Russian gas that the EU consumes passes through Belarus). “We’re heating Europe, and they are threatening us that they will close the border,” Lukashenko said Thursday. “What if we cut off natural gas flows there? Therefore, I would recommend the leadership of Poland, Lithuanians, and other empty-headed people to think before speaking.”

Europe is already experiencing an energy crisis that Brussels has pinned on Moscow, alleging that Russia is limiting gas supplies to force approval for the contentious new Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany. It is only in recent days that Russia has started to gradually increase its gas supply to Europe, and it is not yet clear whether there will be enough to cope with forecasted cold weather. So Lukashenko’s threat has been taken seriously.

“We should not be intimidated,” said EU Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni in response. Meanwhile, the defense ministers of the Baltic states—Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia—said in a joint statement that the border crisis posed “serious threats to European security.”

“Large groups of people are being gathered and transported to the border area, where they are then forced to illegally cross the border. This increases the possibility of provocations and serious incidents that could also spill over into military domain,” they warned.

What happens next is likely down to Russia. The Yamal-Europe pipeline is owned by Gazprom, the mostly state-owned Russian energy giant, and Lukashenko wouldn’t be able to turn it off without permission.

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