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Poland-Belarus border: Military standoff is a ‘hybrid war’ scene of frozen refugees and razor-wire fences

Disturbing images are playing out along Poland-Belarus border with asylum seekers and refugees finding themselves caught in the middle of a “hybrid war” between the East and the West. Poland is forcing asylum seekers back into Belarus, which for its part is sending the refugees into Poland's razor-wire fences.

(CN) — They are ugly and dangerous scenes: Several thousand refugees and asylum seekers from war-torn countries are caught in the middle of a political and military standoff along the heavily guarded border separating Belarus and Poland, the edge of the European Union.

Since Monday, tensions between Belarus and the EU have escalated rapidly after Belarusian border agents pushed scores of refugees toward the heavily fortified Polish border, where they have been met by Polish police and soldiers, razor-wire fences, pepper spray and tear gas.

Refugees seeking entry into the EU attacked the fences on Monday with wire clippers, shovels and even felled trees at one section in a desperate effort to break through. Phalanxes of Polish border agents pushed them back, sometimes violently.

Belarus, with the help of Russia, is accused of luring refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria to Minsk and then pushing them toward the borders of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia in retaliation for the EU's support for efforts to bring down the authoritarian regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a Soviet-style strongman who's ruled over his country since 1994 in brutal dictatorial fashion.

The EU is helping the Belarusian opposition, which has been crushed by Lukashenko since massive protests broke out against the allegedly rigged August 2020 presidential elections that gave the longtime president an improbably high margin of victory.

For their part, Minsk and the Kremlin are calling Poland and the EU hypocritical for refusing to take in the refugees, arguing that the West is responsible for destabilizing Iraq, Syria and Libya and causing so many to flee their homelands. Authorities say there are up to 4,000 asylum seekers along the border and that several more thousand may be on their way.

“The responsibility for the resolution of the migration crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border lies with the West,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on social media. “It caused it by its actions in the Middle East. And it must be fully resolved in compliance with international humanitarian law.”

The EU's rhetoric meanwhile is becoming more sharp with a Brussels spokesman calling Belarus a “gangster” state this week. In response to the border crisis, the EU is preparing to impose even more sanctions on Minsk and “blacklisting” airline companies accused of transporting asylum seekers to Minsk, what the EU is calling a system of “human trafficking.” Even NATO has said it is ready to help Poland defend its border.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, denounced Belarus for “putting people's lives at risk.”

“The instrumentalization of migrants for political purposes by Belarus is unacceptable,” she said, adding the EU would not change its position on Belarus due to this new pressure.

She said sending refugees to the Polish border was a “hybrid attack” against the EU. Western analysts see Russia, and by extension Belarus, engaged in what some call a “hybrid war” against the West, deploying a mixture of propaganda and disinformation, hacking attacks, assassinations, military confrontation and other forms of aggression such as this alleged scheme to use refugees as pawns.

Polish police and border guards attach barbed wire at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno Grodno, Belarus, on Tuesday, a day after hundreds if not thousands of migrants sought to storm the border from Belarus into Poland, cutting razor-wire fences and using branches to try and climb over them. The siege escalated a crisis along the European Union's eastern border that has been simmering for months. (Leonid Shcheglov/BelTA via AP)

On Tuesday during an emergency session of parliament, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki used the border crisis to accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of seeking to “rebuild the Russian empire.” Poland has a long history of suffering at the hands of Russian and Soviet rulers.

“This is the latest attack of Lukashenko, who is an executor, but has an enabler, and this enabler is in Moscow, this enabler is President Putin, which shows a determination to carry out the scenario of rebuilding the Russian empire, the scenario that we, all Poles, have to forcefully oppose,” he said.

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Unwanted by Poland and apparently viewing Belarus primarily as a stepping stone toward the EU, the stranded refugees have set up tent camps along the border that runs through remote beech forests.

With the weather getting colder, their future prospects are far from certain. Most of the asylum seekers are men, but there are women and children too.

The asylum seekers spend the nights trying to stay warm around fires. At least nine asylum seekers have reportedly died along the border. They receive limited aid from Belarus authorities and Polish philanthropists, who are forced to use stealth tactics to deliver food and medicine to refugees because Poland has closed off the border area after declaring a state of emergency in September. Journalists too have been barred by Poland along the border, prompting allegations of censorship by Warsaw.

The tensions along the border — and the EU's support for Warsaw's tough tactics against refugees — also add a new dimension to political fissures between Poland's right-wing ultra-nationalistic government and the EU.

The EU is withholding billions of dollars in coronavirus recovery aid and threatening to levy hefty fines against Poland because the ruling Law and Justice party refuses to abide by EU law and claims Polish laws have primacy over EU ones. The clash has even given rise to talk of Poland leaving the bloc in a so-called “Polexit,” but that remains extremely unlikely because a majority of Poles enjoy the benefits of EU membership.

Domestically, the Law and Justice party may have a lot to gain from the clash with Belarus. By calling the state of emergency and confronting Putin and Lukashenko, critics contend it is trying to bolster its sagging popularity and stoke nationalist sentiment. The party's politicians portray Poland as being under attack and the border guards as “heroes.” They also accuse opposition figures critical of the border policy as being traitors.

About 15,000 Polish police and soldiers have been mobilized to the border, raising fears of a clash between Belarusian and Polish agents. Both sides are trading accusations that shots have been fired to scare refugees. Also present are armored vehicles, helicopters and other military equipment.

Poland is spending millions of dollars to string up miles of fence along the Belarus border, prompting criticism that Europe is turning itself ever more into a fortress. Similar fences are strung along borders in Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and around Spain's enclaves in Morocco.

Belarus seems to be following the playbook used by Turkey, which has at times funneled asylum seekers toward EU to extract political favors and cash from Brussels. In 2016, following a massive wave of refugees into Europe in 2015, the EU began paying Turkey large sums of money to stop refugees from entering the EU. That deal remains in place and it is heavily criticized.

Immigration from Muslim countries is a major source of friction in European politics, and opposition to immigration has given rise to many anti-immigrant right-wing forces across the continent.

By sending refugees who then get turned back violently at the Polish border, Belarus is trying to undermine the EU's image as a beacon of human rights and liberal values.

The Belarusian government accuses the EU of not living up to its principles.

“Having placed faith in the sincerity of the statements of European governments, migrants put everything they had on the line and headed to the EU countries with the last hope of finding a better life. However, on the Polish border, they have faced a barbed wire fence, an aggressive and dehumanizing attitude,” Belarusian state media said, citing a statement from the country's Presidium of the Council of the Republic within its National Assembly.

Poland passed a law in October that allows its border agents to immediately expel anyone crossing its border illegally. Human rights lawyers denounced the law as violating international law that says asylum seekers must be given a chance to have claims for protection heard.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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