Winter is coming and thousands of migrants from Iraq, Syria and Yemen remain stuck in the freezing cold on the border between Russia’s ally Belarus and European Union member Poland. Their goal is crystal clear – to get to rich EU states such as Germany, France or Belgium as soon as possible. But tensions stemming from a feared new Cold War means these desperate refugees from the Middle East are being used as pawns in a geopolitical game.
For Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko migrants are merely an instrument. He brought them to the Eastern European country in order to punish the West for sanctions it imposed on Minsk following the crackdown on mass protests in 2020 and the arrest of dissident Roman Protasevich in May. His policy is very simple – the more restrictions the EU imposes on Belarus, the more migrants it will get. Brussels, however, does not intend to step back. The EU on Monday agreed to impose additional sanctions on Belarus. While the final details are still being thrashed out, they are expected to target some 30 individuals and entities including the nation’s foreign minister and Belarusian airline Belavia. Lukashenko, for his part, threatens to respond by cutting gas supplies to Europe.
Such a measure would undoubtedly have a severe impact on the entire continent given that Russia already reduced gas supplies to the EU, leading to an enormous increase in energy prices. However, given that the Yamal-Europe natural gas pipeline that passes through Belarusian territory is owned by Russia’s energy giant Gazprom, Lukashenko cannot stop gas transit unless he gets the green light from Moscow. If the Kremlin decides to raise the stakes and approves Lukashenko’s decision, blackouts in many European countries could very well become reality.
Quite aware that the migrant crisis could escalate and have grave consequences, the West has already started pressuring Russia to limit Lukashenko’s actions. The EU is reportedly preparing sanctions against Russian state flag carrier Aeroflot due to the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border. Some reports suggest EU leaders believe Aeroflot is transporting migrants from the Middle East to Minsk, who then try to cross the Polish border. The airline strenuously denies this claim. If Brussels really imposes such sanctions on the Russian company, the Kremlin could respond by banning the passage of Western airlines over Russian territory, which would undoubtedly result in an increase in the price of airline tickets for many destinations.
European threats to Aeroflot were taken very seriously by Turkish Airlines. The company confirmed that it is no longer accepting Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni nationals onboard their flights to Minsk, except for those holding diplomatic passports. Indeed, after the EU pressured Iraq to suspend all flights to Belarus, most migrants started flying to Minsk via Istanbul. Now that the Turkish route has been cut off, Belarusian authorities reportedly plan to increase the number of flights from several Middle Eastern countries to the former Soviet republic. The West is expected to keep trying to prevent such arrangements, but if Lukashenko remains determined to keep retaliating against EU sanctions, he could bring migrants from Central Asia, or even from Russia’s Chechen Republic, to the Belarus – EU border.
Poland, as well as Lithuania and Latvia, are building barriers along their borders with Belarus. Recent history shows such a measure could be very efficient. In 2017, the Hungarian government completed a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia. The result was a decrease in migrants’ attempts to illegally enter the EU. But if Lukashenko does not stop pursuing a cold war with the EU, he could redirect refugees southward – to Ukraine. Asylum seekers would then try to go to Poland, Slovakia, or even Hungary, on their way to the richer European countries.
From Belarus’ perspective, Western actions in the Middle East have destroyed several countries and migrants are now forced to seek a better life elsewhere. That is why Belarusian authorities constantly remind the EU that it has accepted the principle that if a person flees a war zone and one way or another reaches Germany, France, or any other EU member, he or she can apply for refugee status. Belarus’ ally Russia, through its Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, accused the EU of double standards, claiming that when refugees were reaching Europe from Turkish territory, Brussels allocated funds to keep them in Turkey. In other words, Lavrov openly suggested that the West should pay Lukashenko to stop sending migrants to the EU.
Such an option does not seem very realistic. From the EU perspective, any concessions to Belarus, be it financial aid or lifting sanctions, would be interpreted as a sign of weakness. That is why the West refuses to directly negotiate with Lukashenko, and has focused on pressuring Russian President Vladimir Putin. The outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel phoned the Russian leader twice within a week trying to resolve the migrant crisis. But any deal the West and Russia might reach will simply have to include Lukashenko. He is not Putin’s puppet, no matter how dependent on Russia his country is. The two leaders have a history of being at odds and disputes, especially in terms of energy arrangements, and Lukashenko was always striving to preserve as much of Belarus’ sovereignty as possible. As Putin recently said himself, the Belarusian president is a difficult negotiator. The EU is learning it the hard way.
Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”