EU approves new sanctions on Belarus, worries about Russian forces near Ukraine, and addresses crisis on Polish border

Would-be migrants to the EU on the Belarus border with Poland earlier this week
Thursday, November 18, 2021

On Monday, the foreign ministers of the EU member states, meeting as the Council on Foreign Affairs, approved new sanctions on Belarus and others involved in bringing thousands of Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis and others to Belarus under the pretext of thereby enabling them to enter the EU by crossing its border with Poland, Lithuania or Latvia. But as they approved the new sanctions and worried about the mounting humanitarian crisis on the Polish border, the ministers also worried about the significant build-up of Russian forces near eastern Ukraine and discussed what it might mean for Ukraine and the EU.  

The new sanctions are the fifth round of sanctions imposed on Belarusian officials and entities since the August 2020 rigged reelection of President Aleksandr Lukashenko. Lukashenko, first elected president in 1994, was reelected to his sixth consecutive term in an election the EU concluded was neither free nor fair, in which the results were falsified – the official results claimed he won more than 80 percent of the vote compared to only 12 percent for his opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya – and after which the regime responded to protests by her supporters with extensive violence and mass detentions. (Tsikhanouskaya herself was subsequently detained and released only after agreeing to leave the country. She now lives with her children in Lithuania. Her husband, who had been running against Lukashenko until his arrest in the spring of 2020, remains imprisoned in Belarus.)

The EU foreign ministers immediately called on the Belarusian authorities to stop the violence against the protesters and release those detained. That, of course, didn’t happen, and in early October 2020, the foreign ministers unanimously approved sanctions against 40 Belarusian officials, including the minister of internal affairs, the first deputy minister, three deputy ministers, the commanders of the internal affairs troops and special rapid response forces, a number of regional and city police commanders, the leaders of the Belarus KGB – Belarus is the only former republic of the USSR that retains the name and initials of the Soviet-era Committee on State Security – and 12 members of the Central Election Committee.

In November 2020, the foreign ministers approved sanctions on 15 more individuals, including Lukashenko and his son Viktor, the National Security Adviser. And in December, the foreign ministers approved sanctions on 26 additional officials who were responsible for the continuing violent repression and intimidation of peaceful demonstrators, opposition members and journalists. Sanctions were also imposed on a number of prominent businessmen and companies that were benefiting from and/or supporting the regime. The sanctions consisted of asset freezes on funds or economic resources in any EU member state and travel bans preventing the individuals from entering or transiting through the EU. In addition, EU citizens and companies were forbidden from making funds available to those listed.

On May 23, Belarusian military aircraft, claiming to have received information there was a bomb on board, intercepted a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius with 126 passengers aboard only a few miles from Lithuanian airspace and ordered it to fly, escorted by a MiG-29, to Minsk. After landing, Belarusian authorities went aboard and detained two individuals – Raman Pratasevich, a Belarusian activist and media editor who had been living in Vilnius for the past two years, and a friend – after which the flight went on to Vilnius. The EU leaders, meeting as the European Council the next day, strongly condemned the forced landing and called on the Council on Foreign Affairs to adopt relevant sanctions. In early June, the foreign ministers approved a ban on the overflight of EU airspace by any Belarusian air carrier and a ban on the planes of any such carrier from landing at or taking off from any EU airport.

In late June, the foreign ministers also imposed restrictive measures on 78 more Belarusian individuals and eight more entities for their involvement in the escalation of serious human rights violations and the continued violent repression of civil society, the democratic opposition, and journalists. Seven of the individuals and one of the entities were also designated in connection with the forced landing of the Ryanair flight. As a result, as of Monday, a total of 166 Belarusian individuals and 15 Belarusian entities are now the subjects of EU restrictive measures.

At about that time in June, the consequences of a seemingly-innocuous change in March in the procedure for obtaining a visa to visit Belarus began to become apparent in the EU member states that share a border with Belarus. The change, reportedly introduced at Lukashenko’s direction to retaliate for the EU’s sanctions, simplified the procedure for obtaining a visa to visit Belarus by making one available to anyone claiming to be a “tourist.” “Tours” were arranged that involved a one-way flight to Minsk and a very brief stay in a hotel there, after which the individual would be transported to the Belarusian border with Poland, Lithuania or Latvia. The “tours” were sold – at exorbitant prices – by supposed “travel agents” in Iraq, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. By the summer, this government-sponsored human trafficking had brought to Minsk, and then a day or two later to one of the Belarusian borders with an EU member state, large numbers of “tourists” intent on getting to the EU. In July and August, for example, Lithuania had 50 times more asylum-seekers appear at its border with Belarus than in all of 2020. By August, more than 4,000 “tourists” had crossed that border, the closest EU border to Minsk. The EU soon became aware of what was happening and put pressure on some airlines to cancel direct flights to Minsk. But flights of other airlines continued and the flow of supposed “tourists” moved toward the more distant Polish border and continued to do so even as Poland installed fencing and additional guards.

After agreeing to impose new sanctions on Belarus and others involved in the movement of would-be migrants to the EU border, the foreign ministers discussed how the EU might deal with the serious humanitarian crisis involving the several thousand would-be migrants on the Polish-Belarusian border who didn’t have adequate food, water, warm clothing and accommodations and were trapped between two countries, one of which wouldn’t let them in and the other of which wouldn’t let them return to Minsk and from there return home. The obvious solution, of course, was for Frontex, the EU’s agency that administers its policies regarding borders and immigration (and which happens, by coincidence, to be headquartered in Warsaw), to create, with Poland’s cooperation, processing centers at the border at which the would-be migrants could be sheltered and provided food and medical assistance while their situations were evaluated, and for the EU to induce Belarus, with EU financial assistance, to provide the migrants with food and shelter and arrange for them to return to Minsk and then to their home countries. But inducing Belarus to do that would undoubtedly come at a high price for the EU – certainly, substantial financial assistance and, quite possibly, also official recognition of Lukashenko’s election and withdrawal of some if not all of the sanctions imposed on Belarus over the past year.

After discussing the Belarus situation, the EU foreign ministers turned to another serious issue – the recent significant build-up of Russian forces near Ukraine. Last spring, as the U.S. and its NATO allies began their large-scale DEFENDER-Europe 21 joint exercise, Russia moved roughly 100,000 troops plus equipment to territory immediately adjacent to eastern Ukraine, a substantial portion of which has been controlled since 2014 by pro-Russian separatists and in which there is, in effect, a “frozen conflict” between Ukrainian forces and the pro-separatist forces which are supported by Russia. After the DEFENDER-Europe 21 exercise concluded, most of the Russian troops that had been deployed to the territory adjacent to eastern Ukraine were withdrawn. But much of their equipment was left in place – in effect, forward-positioned for possible future use. In September, Russia and Belarus began Zapad-2021, their large-scale joint military exercise that takes place every four years and this year involved, according to the Russian ministry of defense, 200,000 Russian troops plus tanks and other armored equipment. (Zapad is ‘West’ in Russian.) After the exercise concluded, a significant number of Russian troops were again deployed in territory to the north and east of Ukraine as well as in Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014. The Ukrainian government estimates that more than 100,000 troops, of which more than 90,000 are ground troops, have been re-deployed after Zapad-2021 to Russian territory adjacent to northern and eastern Ukraine and to Crimea.

Why so many Russian troops are positioned in territory immediately adjacent to Ukraine is unclear and the subject of considerable speculation. One possibility, of course, is that, after seven years, Russia is tired of the inconclusive “frozen conflict” in eastern Ukraine and wants to settle it by sending in additional troops to secure the portions of Luhansk and Donetsk regions that are now tenuously held by the pro-Russian separatists while the EU and NATO are distracted by the Belarus issue. An alternative possibility is that even if, after seven years, it is an inconclusive “frozen conflict,” Russia wants to make it clear that it won’t abandon the pro-Russian separatists and allow Ukraine to regain control of those regions and that it will, therefore, remain a “frozen conflict” for the foreseeable future. After all, a substantial portion of the population in those regions is of Russian heritage and speaks Russian, and a substantial number of enterprises, including enterprises that produce military equipment, have long-standing commercial ties with Russia.

A third possibility is that Russia, alarmed by the military assistance the U.S. and other NATO countries have provided Ukraine as well as recent NATO activity in the Black Sea, fears that Ukraine, possibly with NATO support, may move militarily against the pro-Russia separatists who control substantial portions of eastern Ukraine and wants to make it clear that any effort by Ukraine to reclaim that territory by force will prompt a military response by Russia. And of course, given the fact that, after its annexation in 2014, Crimea is an integral part of the Russian Federation and the fact that the Sevastopol naval base there is, as it has been since the 1780s, the headquarters and home port of Russia’s Black Sea fleet that, among other things, now includes some of Russia’s most advanced and stealthy submarines, moving large numbers of Russian troops to Crimea sends a strong message to the U.S. and Ukraine, which co-hosted Sea Breeze, a multinational naval exercise in the Black Sea this summer that included a NATO fleet, and to NATO, which subsequently conducted Breeze 2021, its annual naval exercise in the Black Sea that involved 30 ships of 14 NATO members or partners. The message: Don’t Even Think About It.

Last Friday Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister, and Florence Parly, the French Defense Minister, met with their Russian counterparts, Sergey Lavrov and Sergey Shoygu, within the framework of the Franco-Russian Cooperation Council for Security Issues and discussed both the Belarusian and Ukrainian issues. In regard to the former, the French ministers “condemned the irresponsible and unacceptable behavior of the Belarusian authorities when it comes to the use of migration flows for political ends targeting several EU countries…[and] encouraged Russia to mobilize its close ties with Belarus to ensure that this behavior is put to an end.” In regard to Ukraine, the French ministers “expressed their concerns about the deteriorating security situation in Ukraine and clearly warned of  the grave consequences [of] any fresh attempts to undermine Ukraine’s territorial integrity.” They called upon Russia “to  reinvest in the Normandy Format negotiations and agree to an N4 [Russia, Ukraine, France, Germany] ministerial meeting in the near future, consistent with President Putin’s commitment. They also reminded Russia of the commitments it has made, within the framework of the OSCE, regarding the transparency of military movements and activities and the full implementation of the confidence-building and transparency measures provided for within this framework.”

On Monday, after meeting with Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, on the sidelines of the EU’s Eastern Partnership Foreign Ministers meeting, Le Drian and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas issued a joint statement in which they said, “Germany and France are steadfast in their unwavering support for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Against the backdrop of renewed concerns about Russian movements of troops and hardware near Ukraine, we call on Russia to adopt a posture of restraint and provide transparent information about its military activities. Any new attempt to undermine Ukraine’s territorial integrity would have serious consequences. We called on Ukraine to maintain a posture of restraint…. We also shared concerns about the deteriorating humanitarian and security situation in Donbas. We called on Ukraine to continue the full implementation of the Minsk agreements and to maintain its full engagement into the discussions conducted in the Normandy [i.e., N4] format. We remain committed to the resolution of the conflict on the basis of the Minsk agreements. We express regret that Russia has repeatedly refused to meet at the level of Foreign Ministers in the Normandy format and once more express our readiness to meet and engage constructively and substantially. We repeat our call on Russia to do the same.” French President Emmanuel Macron conveyed the same message directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin in a two-hour phone call Monday in which, according to an adviser, Macron reiterated “our willingness to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and the presidents discussed possible ways to deescalate the situation, including through resumption of the N4 negotiations.

The speculation continues about Russia’s intentions in redeploying, after its Zapad-21 exercise with Belarus, a large number of troops, possibly in excess of 100,000, to territory immediately adjacent to eastern Ukraine and to Crimea. But there has at least been some progress made by the EU in addressing the other big issue on its agenda this week – the humanitarian crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border. After two telephone calls between Commission Vice President Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, and telephone calls Monday and again yesterday between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Lukashenko in which Merkel, while resisting Lukashenko’s demands for recognition of his election and withdrawal of the sanctions, underscored the gravity of the humanitarian crisis, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced it was providing €700,000 to Belarus for food, blankets and health supplies for the would-be migrants at the border with Poland and that additional assistance would be made available to assist in arranging their return to their home countries. In announcing the assistance, von der Leyen said, “We are ready to do more. But the Belarusian regime must stop luring people and putting their lives at risk.” And importantly, late yesterday Belarus finally provided shelter for some of the would-be migrants and began making arrangements to return them to Minsk and then on to their home countries.

Questions about Russia’s intentions in regard to Ukraine remain. But at least the EU is addressing the humanitarian crisis on the Polish border.

David R. Cameron is a professor emeritus of political science and the former director of the MacMillan Center’s Program on European Union Studies.