Who is benefitting from the Poland-Belarus border crisis?

The escalation of tensions in Eastern Europe is a convenient smokescreen for domestic troubles.

Asylum seekers set up a camp at the Bruzgi border post on the Belarusian-Polish border near the Polish Kuznica border crossing on November 15, 2021 [AFP/Leonid Shcheglov]

Over the past few weeks, tensions along the Belarusian-Polish border have escalated, as thousands of asylum seekers try to cross into Poland, a member of the European Union. Belarus’s lax visa process has lured many people from war-torn countries in the Middle East hoping to make it to EU territory.

When Poland deployed its military to the border to stop the entry of asylum-seekers, thousands of men, women and children were stranded in the cold on the Belarusian side of the border and became a political football between Belarus and Poland.

The crisis and the parallel escalation of tensions between Poland, Belarus and Russia have served governments on all sides in the pursuit of their foreign and domestic agendas.

By now it is clear that the humanitarian disaster at the border was manufactured by Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko, who has been under sanctions and in isolation by the EU since last year’s flawed presidential elections.

The Belarusian authorities directed the flow of asylum seekers towards the borders of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, which have refused to accept the results of the vote and are currently hosting the bulk of Belarusian political refugees and members of the quasi-government in exile. Lukashenko’s desire to confront an open subversion of his regime by these countries is clear.

But it is not only its neighbours to the west that Minsk is seeking to pressure. The border crisis is part of its larger strategy to blackmail both the West and Russia with the prospect of a full-out global conflict.

Belarus is the closest ally of Russia and officially a part of an entity known as the Union of Russia and Belarus. The latter exists largely on paper, but it does provide for a common defence policy and free movement between the two countries, which means the Belarusian border with Poland and the two Baltic states is effectively Russia’s external frontier separating its security zone from the realm of NATO. Therefore, any conflict at this border by extension becomes a conflict between Russia and NATO, which is exactly how the far-right government in Poland is now trying to frame it.

In a recent interview, Lukashenko also went as far as threatening to block the Yamal pipeline, which supplies Russian gas to the EU via Belarus. On Tuesday, Russian news agency TASS reported that Belarusian oil pipeline operator Gomeltransneft temporarily limited oil supplies to Poland through the Druzhba pipeline after starting unplanned maintenance.

Yet, many hawkish commentators in the West and Eastern Europe have pointed a finger at Moscow as the instigator of the border crisis and claimed that Lukashenko’s threats must have been sanctioned by the Kremlin. Simultaneously, senior US officials made radical claims about Russia building up troops with the view of invading Ukraine.

The logic of these accusations is hard to fathom. Russia finds itself in the middle of a four-month period, during which the German energy regulator should certify Nord Stream 2 – a pipeline that will deliver gas to the EU directly, bypassing Ukraine and Belarus. On Tuesday, news came in that Germany is suspending the certification process on technical grounds – a move that will further delay the project and will be interpreted by the Kremlin as a deliberately hostile act

It remains unclear why Russia would want to stage a border crisis directly threatening Germany (where most asylum seekers are heading) and simultaneously invade Ukraine during this very period. Isn’t Nord Stream 2 designed as a super-weapon that will put Ukraine on its knees by depriving it of gas transit revenues, as the same hawkish commentators have been claiming for years? If so, why invade Ukraine now?

Conversely, the logic of provoking Russia into reckless behaviour with regards to Belarus and Ukraine in order to derail Nord Stream 2 looks more compelling. This would be in the interest of the US, which has tried to pressure Germany into abandoning the near-finished project.

At least the Russian military build-up around Ukraine does appear to be a reaction to what Russia sees as the West crossing the red lines, which Russian President Vladimir Putin outlined earlier this year in his state of the nation address.

In an interview with Rossiya TV channel on November 13, he clearly tied the build-up to the unscheduled arrival of American warships in the Black Sea, combined with flyovers by nuclear-capable bombers on October 20. To the latter incidents, Russia responded by sending its bombers to fly over Belarus in close proximity to Poland.

Ukraine has also seen an escalation of tensions. In October, reports surfaced of the Ukrainian army using Turkish-built Bayaraktar drones against Russian-backed forces in Donbas. There is also an ongoing legal attack against Putin’s man in Ukraine, Viktor Medvedchuk, and the clampdown on his media empire, which was accused of promoting Russian narratives.

Additionally, there is a Polish angle in the ongoing crisis. It serves as a useful distraction for the far-right Polish government, which finds itself entangled in a bitter conflict with the EU over the rule of law. Last month, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal invalidated some provisions of the EU Treaty by ruling that they were incompatible with the country’s constitution. That decision is posing the greatest challenge to the integrity of the union since Brexit.

The crisis is also an opportunity for the Polish government to present itself as a “defender” of “Europe’s borders” against a perceived invasion from the East. It is also an opportunity for the right-wing government to incite more xenophobia in the Polish society. Racist anti-immigrant tirades are a staple of Polish far right politics.

But while the Polish government is embracing anti-Russian rhetoric and posturing, its domestic politics closely resemble the Kremlin’s. In degrading the rule of law and gradually undermining the independence of the judiciary, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) seems to be taking a page out of Moscow’s playbook. As if copycatting Putin’s strategy, it is also aggressively promoting “traditional values”, which includes homophobic legislation and – outstripping Russia on that front – “LGBT-free zones” declared in many municipalities as well as a flat ban on abortions.

A favourite Kremlin tactic is supporting toxic government-controlled media, which denigrates the opposition and circulates fakes – something the PiS has also indulged in.

The smokescreen of geopolitics has long allowed Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe to get away with their infringements on democratic procedure and human rights. They excel in selling Russia’s mythological otherness and its allegedly intrinsic belligerence. The reality though is that Putin’s regime, unrestrained by rule of law constraints that come with EU membership, is just a grotesque example of the far-right authoritarian trend that is engulfing the entire East European region.

The spectre of a hostile Russia and trouble at Europe’s eastern borders also benefits certain political quarters in the West. They give fodder to lobbyists and military-industrial complex groups which promote conflict to encourage increased defence spending. They fuel divisions and fears of conflagration, undermining the work of those who genuinely stand for advancing democracy and liberalism in post-communist spaces.

This war industry is perpetuating dictatorships, such as Putin’s and Lukashenko’s, by constantly gifting them with opportunities to escalate belligerent rhetoric and lift the rallying flag of a threat against the nation.

In the end, those who suffer the consequences of manufactured crises and escalations of tensions are ordinary people who have to bear the brunt of far-right politics and war-centred economies.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.