Analysis

Belarus Is Risking Crisis on the Polish Border

The “weaponization” of migrants and growing provocations leave Warsaw few options.

By , an independent security researcher and consultant.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaks to border army units.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaks to border army units at the Belarusian-Polish border as migrants gather on the border in Kuznica, Poland, on Nov. 9. Polish Ministry of National Defence via Getty Images

A dangerous situation is developing on the Poland-Belarus border. Ever since Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko launched a brutal crackdown to retain power last August, Minsk has been increasingly isolated—and has lashed out at its neighbors, such as Poland, who support the Belarusian opposition.

The latest so-called weapon is migrants. Belarus has been enticing people to fly to Minsk from Iraq and other places, offering a supposed route into the European Union bloc. That’s produced improvised migrant camps in the forest on the country’s borders with Lithuania and Poland, where authorities are attempting to block migrants’ entry by deploying border control forces and improvised barbed wire fences. The situation is not only a political crisis but also a humanitarian one: As winter sets in, so will freezing temperatures, not to mention civilians between armed personnel.

The Polish media and government has emphasized the role of the migrants, and the move has been framed by Warsaw as an example of a “hybrid attack.” This has galvanized public opinion, the majority of which blames the Belarusian state for the crisis. Public opinion is for defending, perhaps even fortifying, the border.

A dangerous situation is developing on the Poland-Belarus border. Ever since Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko launched a brutal crackdown to retain power last August, Minsk has been increasingly isolated—and has lashed out at its neighbors, such as Poland, who support the Belarusian opposition.

The latest so-called weapon is migrants. Belarus has been enticing people to fly to Minsk from Iraq and other places, offering a supposed route into the European Union bloc. That’s produced improvised migrant camps in the forest on the country’s borders with Lithuania and Poland, where authorities are attempting to block migrants’ entry by deploying border control forces and improvised barbed wire fences. The situation is not only a political crisis but also a humanitarian one: As winter sets in, so will freezing temperatures, not to mention civilians between armed personnel.

The Polish media and government has emphasized the role of the migrants, and the move has been framed by Warsaw as an example of a “hybrid attack.” This has galvanized public opinion, the majority of which blames the Belarusian state for the crisis. Public opinion is for defending, perhaps even fortifying, the border.

But there are strong indications this is not just cynical “weaponization” of desperate people but a brewing border conflict of a more traditional type. “Hybrid war” is a vague and often overloaded term. To be sure, “irregular” activities below the threshold of armed conflict are, in principle, often legal under international rules, even when they are unfriendly or hostile. The Belarus-Poland conflict, however, is taking on a very different form.

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 the 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 have 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 neighboring Ukraine.

De-escalation is urgently needed, and with it, the withdrawal of uniformed formations from the borders and a stabilized 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.

That’s led many in Poland to suggest the construction of a physical border to block migrants and theoretically de-escalate the situation. The Polish parliament has already passed a law enabling this. There have been suggestions from European Union officials of high-tech solutions involving drones and sensors, but this is magical thinking; the technology does not exist, especially on the heavily forested border, to block a determined or adversarial intrusion except through the old, brutal methods of concrete, steel, wire, and guards.

Although fences or walls are controversial, especially from a human rights perspective, there are many examples of walls built for border stability reasons. More than 60 structures have been built since 1800, including most infamously the Berlin Wall and the Maginot Line, but also less famous ones like the Turkey-Syrian border wall, India-Myanmar wall, or Spain-Morocco wall.

It’s unclear whether there are any other realistic options. In principle and in an ideal world, the United Nations Security Council could take a stance. In our world though, any such motion would end up being vetoed by Russia. That said, EU ambassadors at the UN will discuss the matter and the possible moves, including with the involvement UN Security Council.

There is no magical and easy way out of a crisis manufactured by a determined actor that wants to cause trouble. Nor should NATO and the EU become hostages to a rogue Belarusian state. That is why there is no alternative but a coordinated response that protects Polish sovereignty, as well as the European Union’s border, discourages further intrusions at the border, and seeks a humanitarian solution for the migrants trapped by Minsk’s actions. The situation remains possibly the greatest challenge to Poland’s territorial integrity since the fall of communism.

Lukasz Olejnik is an independent security researcher and consultant, and a former advisor at the International Committee of the Red Cross. Twitter: @lukOlejnik

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration of a captain's hat with a 1980s era Pepsi logo and USSR and U.S. flag pins.

The Doomed Voyage of Pepsi’s Soviet Navy

A three-decade dream of communist markets ended in the scrapyard.

Demonstrators with CASA in Action and Service Employees International Union 32BJ march against the Trump administration’s immigration policies in Washington on May 1, 2017.

Unionization Can End America’s Supply Chain Crisis

Allowing workers to organize would protect and empower undocumented immigrants critical to the U.S. economy.

The downtown district of Wilmington, Delaware, is seen on Aug. 19, 2016.

How Delaware Became the World’s Biggest Offshore Haven

Kleptocrats, criminals, and con artists have all parked their illicit gains in the state.