The US and its allies are increasing pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin over two crises on the edge of Europe that they accuse the Kremlin.
Riots broke out on Tuesday after Polish police fired tear gas and water cannons at thousands of migrants stranded there in the ice-cold forests and marshland on the Polish-Belarusian border.
Meanwhile, Russia is gathering troops on its border with Ukraine, a repeat of 2014 when Moscow invaded the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.
Washington and the Europeans accuse the Kremlin of complicity in both matters.
They say Belarus, Putin’s only ally in Europe, is deliberately pushing migrants from the Middle East to the border with Poland under the false promise of easy access to the European Union. Belarus has done little to stop the migrants, fueling a tense stalemate with Polish police that escalated Tuesday.
State Secretary Antony Blinken said in a tweet on Sunday that the fictitious migrant crisis is a deliberate attempt to “threaten security, sow division and divert attention from Russia’s activities on the border with Ukraine”.
French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Putin on the phone on Monday. Afterwards, one of his advisors said that NATO was ready to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty if necessary, reported Reuters. Ukraine has applied for NATO membership, but has so far been unsuccessful.
Putin has repeatedly denied these allegations. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was “wrong” for the Belarus crisis to divert attention from Russian troop movements. Instead, Putin has pointed to escalating US military maneuvers in the Black Sea.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko – an uncomfortable ally of Putin and often referred to as the last dictator in Europe – has also had a spate of talks with Western leaders. On Monday he spoke to Chancellor Angela Merkel about “ways and perspectives for solving” the refugee crisis and possible humanitarian aid.
“These problems don’t go away. The West and Ukraine must remain vigilant because this is a war of attrition. “
It was Lukashenko’s first known contact with a Western leader since his controversial election victory last year sparked mass protests and brutal crackdowns by his security services. Dissident activists accuse Russia of assisting in the raid, which made Belarus even more of a pariah among democracies and deepened its complicated ties with Moscow.
Some experts say Russia is cautious about getting caught up in yet another costly foreign escapade like the ongoing war in Ukraine. Nevertheless, last week Russia sent two nuclear-capable bombers and paratroopers over Belarus for joint exercises with Belarusian troops near the Polish border.
It is unclear whether Russia is directly involved in the Belarusian border crisis, says Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine forum at the London think tank Chatham House. But it follows “a pattern of Russia’s escalation on its western borders,” she said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Russian intelligence is involved in this type of hybrid operation,” added Lutsevych.
In response to an alleged crisis, the EU plans to increase sanctions against “anyone involved in smuggling migrants into this country”, including Belarusian airlines and travel agents, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Monday. The EU has already hit Belarus with four rounds of sanctions for cracking down after the elections.
According to estimates by the Ukrainian government, Moscow has mobilized around 100,000 soldiers on the border between Russia and Ukraine in the south. It’s not the first build this year, with similar numbers sending alarms through western capitals in the spring.
Russia and Ukraine have been in conflict since 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and began supporting separatists in the east of the country. That war has raged on since then, killing about 14,000 people despite a series of shaky armistices.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a press conference Monday that the “substantial, extensive Russian military armament” was “unusual” and that “Russia was ready to use this type of military capability to take aggressive action against Ukraine”.
Some experts believe that Putin is trying to use these threats to exert leverage in the stalled peace talks with Ukraine – and warn the West that there is a cost to assisting Ukraine.
Part of the problem is that the US and Europe were not strong enough to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine and Belarusian repression against opposition activists, Lutsevych told Chatham House.
“Putin believes that the West is not serious about the region: he believes that it is only lip service to Ukraine and the Belarusian opposition,” said Lutsevych. “These problems don’t go away. The West and Ukraine must remain vigilant because this is a war of attrition. “