With Western leaders preoccupied with securing climate change commitments at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow, it is no surprise that a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin should choose this moment to inflame border tensions in Eastern Europe. In what amounts to a blatant attempt to undermine European security, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko has deliberately picked a fight with Poland by directing thousands of migrants to the Polish border.
Mr Lukashenko’s reputation as one of Europe’s more volatile characters was cemented by his country’s interception of a Ryanair passenger jet last summer, which was forced to land in Minsk so that the authorities could arrest a prominent opposition activist. Widely condemned as an act of air piracy, Mr Lukashenko’s conduct, together with his brutal suppression of protesters following last year’s disputed elections, has led to the European Union applying sanctions against his autocratic regime.
Belarus’s response has been to ship tens of thousands of migrants, primarily fleeing from Iraq, Syria and Yemen, to the Polish border, thereby providing a major security challenge to both Poland and the wider EU.
But while the Belarusian leader’s blatant attempt at bullying Brussels is aimed at easing the sanctions, European officials are convinced that Mr Putin is personally involved. As one Polish official remarked this week, “It is going on with Russian consent”. Mr Lukashenko himself conceded the dangers of Russian involvement, commenting that, “if we make some mistake, it will draw in Russia, the largest nuclear power.”
As is his custom in such circumstances, Mr Putin denies any involvement in stoking tensions with Poland, a crisis that has profound implications for the Nato alliance. So far it has prompted Lithuania to declare a state of emergency, while the Estonian defence minister has called it the “most difficult security crisis” for the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
With Brussels, which has accused Mr Lukashenko of indulging in “gangster-style” conduct, struggling to muster an effective response, and divisions emerging among EU leaders over how to tackle the crisis, it bears the classic hallmarks of a Putin-inspired destabilisation campaign.
The timing of the Polish border dispute fits the Russian leader’s disturbing habit of exploiting international gatherings to further his own agenda, such as launching Moscow’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 while the world was distracted by the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Mr Putin, who declined to attend the Glasgow gathering, has made clear his contempt for the Cop26 agenda by dismissing Boris Johnson’s call for the world’s developed economies to meet ambitious carbon emissions targets by 2030, instead offering vague promises that Russia might achieve its target by 2060 at the earliest. Mr Putin’s disinclination to tackle climate change prompted former US president Barack Obama to accuse the Russian leader of demonstrating a “lack of urgency”.
As with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose regime is similarly disdainful of Cop26, Mr Putin believes the West’s obsessive pursuit of net zero by ditching its reliance on coal, oil and gas will work to Moscow’s advantage. Apart from increasing – in the short-term, at least – Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, the Kremlin calculates that the economic damage caused by the West’s quest for carbon neutrality will ultimately increase Moscow’s geopolitical dominance.
Nor does the Russian leader seem reticent about demonstrating the Kremlin’s ability to make life difficult for its European neighbours. In the past week, US intelligence satellites have identified “significant” Russian military movement along the border with Ukraine. At the same time Russia’s state-owned Gazprom energy giant has halved its gas supply to Ukraine, and cut supplies to a pipeline running through Poland. The US military has identified another major military build-up near the town of Yelnya in Russia’s south-west, close to Belarus.
The most likely explanation for the Kremlin’s conduct is an attempt by Moscow to increase pressure on European leaders to approve the Nord Stream 2 pipeline running from the Baltic to Germany. Mr Putin has since eased the reduction in gas exports, causing a sharp drop in global prices, but his willingness to undertake actions that directly threaten European security reflect the Russian leader’s unrelenting desire to cause maximum disruption in Europe.
Moreover, Western leaders appear singularly ill-prepared to deal with what amounts to a concerted assault by the Kremlin against Nato’s eastern frontier. In Washington the Biden administration is too preoccupied with China to pay Russia any serious attention, while the suggestion that Brussels will respond to the crisis by pressing ahead with the creation of its own defence force will be music to Mr Putin’s ears, as it would seriously compromise Nato’s effectiveness.
So, even if Mr Putin is not directly responsible for the tensions on Poland’s border, he stands to emerge as the major beneficiary of the crisis.