Russia and Belarus tested their military might for the third time this week near the Polish-Belarus border, where thousands of people are in deplorable conditions, trapped in the center of an intensifying humanitarian and geopolitical crisis.
On Friday, Russia and Belarus held joint paratrooper exercises near Poland, which the Belarusian Defense Ministry said were “in connection with the accumulation of military activity near the state border of the Republic of Belarus.”
Two Russian paratroopers died during the maneuvers after their parachutes failed due to strong wind, state news agency TASS reported, citing the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Some 15,000 Polish soldiers have been deployed to Poland’s border with Belarus in recent days, a reaction to a tense standoff that the European Union, the United States and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) say belongs to Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko .
NATO said on Friday that it was monitoring any escalation or provocation in the situation at its members’ borders with Belarus after the exercises.
Western leaders, including prime ministers from neighboring Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, are accusing the Lukashenko regime of fabricating a migration crisis on the EU’s eastern border in response to sanctions imposed for human rights violations in the country.
Lukashenko’s government has repeatedly denied such claims, blaming instead the West for the crossings and the treatment of migrants.
Trapped in the crossfire, more than 2,000 people are between Poland and Belarus facing conditions that the United Nations has called “catastrophic”, with desperate scenes of famine and hypothermia taking place in frozen forests and makeshift camps on the border.
Russia, Belarus’ biggest (and most important) political and economic partner, continues to defend Minsk’s management of the border crisis, while denying any involvement in it.
Russia demonstrated this support with the flight of two Russian long-range supersonic Tupolev Tu-22M3 bombers over Belarusian airspace on Wednesday and Thursday.
The aircraft, known for having a nuclear capability, engaged in “interaction issues with ground control points” with the armed forces of both countries, the Russian Defense Ministry said.
Neighboring Ukraine is also expanding security. On Thursday, it announced that it would conduct military exercises with about 8,500 soldiers and 15 helicopters in an area close to its borders with Poland and Belarus to combat a potential migration crisis.
The show of force unfolding across the region continues to test a fragile political order, with US allegations of Russia’s military buildup this week deepening concerns for a broader geopolitical crisis.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that the US is “concerned about reports of unusual Russian military activity” and mentioned the possibility of Russia “trying to repeat” its 2014 invasion of Ukraine.
Russia reacted to the allegations on Friday, saying they represented an “empty and unfounded escalation of tensions”.
“This will not be successful”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the border crisis a “challenge for the entire European Union” earlier this week.
“This is not a migration crisis. It is an attempt by an authoritarian regime to try to destabilize its democratic neighbors. This will not be successful,” she said.
Western powers are now preparing to impose new sanctions on Belarus, and the EU said it was considering penalties against third-country airlines for contributing to the crisis by transporting people to Minsk, the Belarusian capital.
On Friday, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a tweet that it would ban people from Syria, Iraq and Yemen – where many of the migrants stranded at the border are from – from flying from Turkish airports to Belarus.
On Thursday, the ministry denied allegations it was contributing to the crisis, saying they “refuse to be portrayed as part of an issue that Turkey is not a part of.”
EU Council President Charles Michel responded to the tweet saying “thank you” for the “support and cooperation”.
Moscow did not budge, however, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejecting accusations that the Russian company Aeroflot had helped refugees travel to Belarus.
Aeroflot’s statements demonstrate that it “has not and is not providing transport for migrants to Minsk,” said Peskov, adding that “even if some airlines are involved in this, this in no way contradicts any international regulations.”
In the United States, the White House National Security Council announced on Wednesday that it was preparing “follow-up sanctions” designed to hold Belarus accountable for “continuous attacks on democracy, human rights and international norms.”
This is the second round of sanctions announced by the US in recent months. It is not clear when the new measures will be carried out.
The EU is also expected to “widen and tighten its sanctions against the Lukashenko regime,” German acting Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Thursday.
Meanwhile, conditions for migrants stranded at the border continue to deteriorate, with people in a makeshift migrant camp in Bruzgi on the Belarusian border hungry and desperate for firewood in near-freezing temperatures.
A CNN gained exclusive access to the camp, where chaotic scenes in a food distribution area took place as the Belarus Red Cross tried to distribute food to crowds. At the same time, Belarusian security forces were pushing them back. Disappointment and pain are palpable throughout the camp.
Migrants fleeing war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq had come to Belarus for the express purpose of going to Europe to try to find a better life. But right now, there’s a bitter sense of disappointment that this isn’t happening.
Since early November, 4,500 border crossing attempts have been reported, according to Polish authorities. The Polish border guard said it had recorded about 1,000 attempts to cross the border in recent days, including some “large-scale” efforts with groups of more than 100 people trying to breach the fence.
Humanitarian groups are accusing the Polish ruling party of violating international asylum law by pushing people back to Belarus instead of accepting their requests for protection. Under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution in other countries. Poland says its actions are legal.
As the impasse continues, people continue to come. Belarusian authorities estimate that the number of migrants arriving at the border could increase to 10,000 in the coming weeks if the situation is not resolved.
*With information from Nadine Schmidt, Katharina Krebs, Antonia Mortensen and Magda Chodownik, from CNN
**This article has been translated. Read the original in English
Reference: CNN Brasil