The situation has shifted to border tensions that go beyond the attempt to use or stop the migrants. There are many indications of this, most visibly the presence of armed, uniformed formations in close proximity to each other on both sides of the border. At the beginning of November, there were more than 12,000 soldiers (with the latest reports saying 20,000) at least on Poland’s side. Belarus is less transparent about it, but there is no denying that armed Belarusian personnel are also present near the border.
This poses a risk of things spinning out of control, deliberately or otherwise. Small incidents can escalate fast, and there are already reports of clashes like feigned shots. This and other kinds of unprofessional conduct, where untrained or ill-disciplined security forces test borders, is a major escalatory factor. There are many past examples, such as the deadly clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers in June 2020 in the Himalayas.
There are already reports of blanks being fired at the Belarusian side and images of masked personnel, unlikely to be migrants, attacking the barbed wire fence on the Polish side. There have been incursions by armed men into Polish territory, including scenes of them reloading weaponry and taking aim at targets, without actually firing. It’s unclear just who is behind these incidents and whether they’re directly taking orders from the Belarusian state. These are clear violations of Polish sovereignty, and the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has summoned the Belarusian chargé d’affaires. The Belarusian side responded in kind, summoning the Polish chargé d’affaires. In a statement, NATO communicated its worries over territorial violations. The European Commission condemned the actions of Belarus and called for fresh sanctions on Belarusian authorities, some of which are already in place.
Meanwhile, there has been a flurry of statements by Poland and Belarus, each sticking to their own narratives. Statements on Belarusian government websites are blaming Poland (and Europe) for the alleged humanitarian abuses. This information war is running parallel to the border conflict, as are disputes on social media. Online struggles like this are an inevitable part of modern conflict, as in the vitriolic Armenian-Azerbaijani exchanges on Twitter during the recent Nagorno-Karabakh war. But the real danger remains the constantly worsening border situation, where provocative actions could easily degenerate into genuine violence.
In official communication, Russia expressed concerns without explicitly supporting or condemning either side. Given that Minsk deliberately created the situation though, this was effectively offering support for Belarus, a long-term client of Russia’s that has essentially remained Lukashenko’s only source of foreign support. In Poland, fear of Russian manipulation in conflicts is constant, especially given the fate of neighbouring Ukraine.
De-escalation is urgently needed, and with it, the withdrawal of uniformed formations from the borders and a stabilised situation. But it’s hard to see how that happens through conventional diplomatic channels, especially given the increasingly chaotic and deplorable Belarusian government, seen when it forced a plane from the skies and kidnapped an opposition journalist just a few months ago. Minsk is a bad faith partner for simple de-escalation.