A crisis is unfolding on the border between Belarus and Poland. Thousands of migrants, many from the Middle East and South Asia, are battling freezing temperatures, a lack of food and medicine and ruthless border police as they attempt to cross into the European Union.
The scene at the Kuznica border crossing between the two countries has become increasingly dire in recent weeks, and reports from Polish authorities confirm seven dead on the western side of the border, with more suspected in Belarus. The border crisis on the edge of the EU is only the latest in a string of geopolitical crises spurred on by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that have destabilized Eastern Europe and created huge risks for the continent as a whole.
EU leaders need to recognize the danger posed by the unstable Lukashenko and work as a bloc to stand against his efforts to undermine European unity and security.
Since winning a heavily contested election rife with accusations of voter fraud and corruption in August 2020, Lukashenko has become increasingly erratic, cracking down on dissidents and threatening EU members with repercussions for speaking out in support of opposition leaders. EU officials accuse Minsk of orchestrating the recent surge in migrants as a punitive measure and using migrants as pawns to undermine the bloc.
Backed by Russian President Vladamir Putin, Lukashenko has denied his role in the border crisis and blamed the west for the situation in Poland. On Nov. 12, he went a step further, threatening to cut off the pipelines from Russia that supply Europe with oil and gas. This move, one that even Putin spoke out against the day after, represents a new provocation from Minsk and an effort by Lukashenko to punish the EU for its statements and sanctions against Belarus, sanctions that are expected to only grow more stringent due to the migrant crisis.
Months before the migrant crisis on the Polish border, Belarus was already violating international norms and challenging EU law. In May 2021, a flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania was forced to land in Minsk after a falsified bomb threat. Once on the ground, authorities arrested political activist and dissident Roman Protasevich. Lukashenko’s orders to ground the flight amount to a state-sponsored hijacking, a clear provocation that sets a dangerous precedent. The EU needs to ensure that political enemies of Minsk living in member states like Lithuania can live without fear.
After the grounding of the Greece-Lithuania flight, European leaders diverted planes around Belarusian airspace and Poland and Ukraine announced they would suspend all flights to and from the country. The United Kingdom also issued a statement saying it would bar any Belarusian flights from entering British airspace without express permission. Swift European action to address Lukashenko’s “aviation piracy” is encouraging to see, but more needs to be done to address the other ways Belarus threatens the bloc and European citizens.
Beyond kidnappings, Lukashenko has sent suspected death squads throughout Eastern Europe to hunt down dissidents. Activist Vital Shyshou fled Belarus after the brutal crackdown in the aftermath of the August 2020 election and settled in Ukraine. Less than a year later, he was discovered hanging in a park in Kyiv in a suspected assassination by the Belarusian KGB. Just five years earlier, another dissident journalist living in Ukraine was killed when a car bomb exploded. In 2012, a recording of the then-head of the organization discussing planned assassinations in Germany and Ukraine confirms that extrajudicial killings on foreign soil are a tool that Lukashenko, in power since 1994, is comfortable utilizing to silence critics of his regime. The EU should work with Ukrainian intelligence to identify and remove Belarusian agents and hamper Minsk’s ability to export political repression.
So far, the EU has placed a number of sanctions on Belarus, mainly in retaliation for the hijacking of the Greece-Lithuania flight. Following that, 78 Belarusian individuals and eight entities were added to the EU’s travel ban and asset freeze list. With the migrant crisis reaching a critical point, Brussels is considering another round of sanctions to stem the flow of people into the EU through Belarus, a tactic the EU has dubbed a “hybrid attack” from Lukashenko. Officials hope to get a new round of sanctions put into place soon and work with the UK, United States and Canada to punish the regime in Minsk.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas spoke out in favor of sanctions on Nov. 12, saying that Lukashenko would eventually run out of money and be forced to end his attacks on the EU. She framed the migrant crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border as a threat to the entire bloc and stressed the need for a unified response.
While the resolution to the situation at the border remains unclear as EU officials negotiate in Brussels, the fact that Belarus has become one of the EU’s greatest geopolitical risks should be abundantly clear. As long as EU officials fail to curb the attacks Lukashenko has been orchestrating since last August, more Belarusian dissidents are at risk and more migrants will suffer.
Caught between a vindictive dictatorship and a bloc determined to shore up its border, these migrants have few options and even fewer allies.