Belarus-Poland Border Tensions Show Signs of Easing
Belarus moved hundreds of migrants from freezing camps into shelter, and Angela Merkel is talking with the Belarus leader, his first Western contact in over a year.,
Migrants camped in a logistics center close to the Belarus-Polish border at Bruzgi, Belarus on Wednesday.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times
BRUZGI, Belarus — The Belarusian authorities moved to ease pressure along the country’s frontier with Poland on Wednesday, a day after the main border crossing erupted in violence, with desperate migrants hurling stones at Polish border guards who responded with tear gas and blasts from water cannons.
Hundreds of migrants are now being sheltered in a sprawling brick warehouse a few hundred yards from the crossing, a much needed bit of relief for scores of families who have spent weeks camped in freezing and fetid fields with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Western officials have called the migrant crisis a “hybrid war” engineered by the Belarusian leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, to punish Poland for sheltering some of his most outspoken opponents and to pressure the European Union into lifting sanctions on his country.
But if it is a battle where migrants are used as pawns, it is also an information war. On Wednesday, the Belarusians sought to portray themselves as the humanitarians.
Migrants lining up for tea from the Belarusian Red Cross and Emergency Ministries at a logistics center close to the Belarus-Polish border at Bruzgi on Wednesday.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times
Yuri Karayev, an aide to Mr. Lukashenko, said that 1,100 migrants had already been moved from the area near the crossing known as “the jungle.” Some 800 people remained camped along the border, he said.
Asked whether they wanted to shut down the encampments entirely, he said, “That is our plan, that is our hope.”
Reporters from international news organizations, including The New York Times, were invited to witness the squalor and desperation at the border.
“Thank you Belarus. Thank you Belarus,” said Rebas Ali, 28, one of those being moved into shelter. “Beautiful Belarus.”
Belarusian officials insist that the humanitarian catastrophe has been created by the European Union’s refusal to abide by international law and give people fleeing war and despair the right to at least apply for asylum once they enter Poland, a member of the bloc.
Poland, eager to keep the migrants’ suffering out of the public eye, has sealed off its side of the border, barring aid workers, journalists and even doctors. On Tuesday, hundreds of migrants tried to rush into Poland, but Polish border forces used water cannons and tear gas to drive them back.
After the melee, the nationalist governing party in Poland sought to portray it as a great victory.
“Thank you to the soldiers for stopping today’s assault,” Mariusz Blaszczak, the minister of defense, tweeted on Tuesday. “Poland is still safe. All soldiers currently serving on the border will receive special financial rewards.”
He said that while the pressure at the main crossing eased overnight, there were attempts to cross at multiple other points along the 250-mile border.
“The situation at the Belarusian border will not be resolved quickly,” the defense minister said on Wednesday in an interview with the Polish Radio One, the national broadcaster. “We have to prepare for months, if not years.”
The total number of migrants at the border is estimated between 2,000 and 4,000, many of them from Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. Poland has now deployed more than 15,000 soldiers, joining scores of border guards and police officers.
Across the border, the number of Belarusian security forces deployed has not been made public. But scores stood guard outside the warehouse, their faces covered by black balaclavas. As the crisis escalated, migrants reported being beaten by Belarusian soldiers and being directed to different areas along the Polish border.
Even as hundreds of people were grateful for a warm meal and children were given milk and juice, many in the warehouses voiced uncertainty about what would happen next.
Balia Ahmed, 31, was in the warehouse with two children — 8 and 10 — and her husband. She said she was very nervous about being there for fear of being deported, but felt she had no other choice.
“My kids were freezing and about to die,” she said.
The green light in the window was easy to spot from the main road in Michalowo, a Polish town some 15 miles from the Belarusian border, in an area that in recent months saw thousands of asylum seekers trapped on their way to the European Union.
“It means that my house is a safe place for migrants to ask for help,” said Maria Ancipuk, a resident and the head of the City Council.
Ms. Ancipuk felt she had to act after a news report of a group of Yazidi children who were pushed back by border guards from her town into the freezing forest on the Belarusian side. “You just don’t forget such things,” she said, her voice trembling and her eyes full of tears. “I told myself: I will do everything so it would not happen here again.”
The European Union has accused the dictator of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, of funneling asylum seekers from the Middle East through his country into Poland, as a retaliation against sanctions imposed by the bloc on his regime after the disputed 2020 election and the following crackdown of the opposition.
As the standoff escalated in recent days, with clashes between the Polish authorities and migrants incited by the Belarusian police to breach the heavily guarded frontier, those caught in the middle have had to count on support from an unofficial network of local residents, activists from all over Poland and volunteer medics spread across the border area.
Only those who manage to lodge an asylum application receive some form of state support. Help from locals is even more crucial inside a two-mile-wide buffer zone surrounding the border, which has been closed off by the Polish authorities to all nonresidents, including journalists, doctors and charities.
But most helpers prefer not to publicize their activities. “There are only a few of us that are actively helping,” said Roman, a resident who asked to be identified by only his first name for fear of repercussions from the authorities and local far-right groups. “The majority remains silent.”
So far, putting out green lights as a sign for migrants has been largely symbolic, with very few of them aware of it. But it is as much a symbol for asylum seekers as it is for her neighbors, Ms Ancipuk said.
“People are scared of doing it,” said Ms. Ancipuk. “As soon as I put the light in my window, I started getting hate messages,” she said. “But I won’t be intimidated.”
BRUSSELS — As the human suffering and political machinations on the border of Belarus and Poland have raised tensions on the European Union’s eastern flank, Western officials have also been deeply worried about the buildup of Russian forces on the border with Ukraine.
The presence of more than 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine’s breakaway, Russian-supported separatist enclaves — with predeployed heavy equipment and armor, including tanks, artillery and short-range missile systems — has led American officials to warn of a “high probability” that Russia is planning further military aggression against Ukraine.
Last week, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, to warn Russia that new aggression against Ukraine would be a “serious mistake” with consequences. “We don’t have clarity into Moscow’s intentions, but we do know its playbook,” Mr. Blinken said. “Any escalatory or aggressive actions would be of great concern to the United States.”
On Monday, the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, also met Mr. Kuleba and cautioned Moscow against “any further provocation or aggressive actions” after the American warnings that Russia could be preparing to a launch a winter offensive in Ukraine.
“We have seen large and unusual concentrations of Russian forces close to Ukraine’s borders,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “NATO remains vigilant,” he added, saying that “any further provocation or aggressive actions by Russia would be of serious concern. We call on Russia to be transparent about its military activities.”
The Biden administration has been trying to reset relations with Moscow and at least stabilize them. And in April, before President Biden held a summit meeting in June with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, he warned Mr. Putin to pull back from an earlier troop buildup on the border with Ukraine.
The Russians withdrew some troops but left many in place, including with their equipment and armor, and they have recently built up troop numbers again. Moscow claims that it is responding only to a more modern Ukrainian military, aided by Washington and now equipped with some sophisticated armored drones that it bought from Turkey.
Mr. Putin, perhaps looking to his own legacy, continues to state publicly that he believes Ukraine to be an artificial country that belongs to Russia’s zone of influence, not to the West.
No one knows for sure what Mr. Putin is planning to do, a senior Western diplomat said, but suggested that the buildup near Ukraine is connected to the pressure on Poland and the European Union, both with migrants and with a reduced supply of natural gas, driving up energy prices, in order to keep Europe and the West off balance and Ukraine further disrupted.
The confrontation along the border of Poland and Belarus is many things — a humanitarian crisis in the making, a geopolitical standoff and another testament to the hardships of migration.
But it has also become a battle to control the narrative.
Belarus — blamed by the West for luring migrants to the country and engineering the crisis — is eager for the world to see the situation it has created. Poland, which has mobilized to block the migrants, is trying to restrict media coverage, which led to the detention on Tuesday of a New York Times photographer.
Poland’s nationalist government is prohibiting journalists from working in a “red zone” border area where migrants are trying to cross into the country from Belarus. It has also mobilized more than 15,000 soldiers, police officers and border agents in what leaders portray as a sweeping effort to keep the country safe.
On Tuesday evening, the Times photographer, Maciek Nabrdalik, and two colleagues were trying to document the militarization of the eastern frontier when they were detained by Polish soldiers for more than an hour. They were handcuffed, their cameras were inspected and their car was searched.
For more than a week, Mr. Nabrdalik had been driving along the border to document the buildup, and while police officers had often stopped him, asking for identification, they had allowed him to keep working as long as he stayed clear of the red zone. At dusk on Tuesday, the three photographers pulled up to a military encampment outside the tiny village of Wiejki, only a few miles from the border.
A military camp outside the village of Wiejki, only a few miles from the border.Credit…Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times
“It is close to the restricted zone but outside the zone,” Mr. Nabrdalik said. “We came to the gate and introduced ourselves and told them we would take photographs outside and just wanted to give them a heads up. This is completely legal in Poland.”
As the photographers prepared to leave, more than a dozen armed soldiers surrounded them, ordered them to empty their pockets and remove their coats in the frigid weather, and then handcuffed them. Soldiers then emptied Mr. Nabrdalik’s car and inspected their cameras.
“I told them listen, we are journalists, what they are doing now is breaking the law in Poland,” Mr. Nabrdalik said.
The police arrived more than an hour later and the tone changed, Mr. Nabrdalik said. Police officers offered a flashlight to help them collect their belongings from the side of the road, and, eventually, they were allowed to drive away.
On Wednesday, the Polish Press Agency, the national news agency, released a statement condemning what it called an “attack” on photojournalists. Poland’s Ministry of Defense posted a statement on Twitter saying that the detention of the photographers was not an “attack” but a legitimate operation by soldiers in a tense environment.
“It should be remembered that soldiers serve in conditions of escalating tensions and are aware of the increasing use of methods of hybrid combat,” the ministry said. “We all need to be aware of how to act in an emergency.”
Abdullah al-Yousef, a 24-year-old from Idlib, Syria, arrived in Belarus last week on a flight from Lebanon. Speaking by phone from Minsk, the capital, he said he was preparing to head for the Polish border the next morning.
“Tomorrow I will try to cross,” he said. “I don’t know what is waiting for me, but I’m hearing the border is not looking good.”
A friend from Idlib was already at the frontier, he said, making his fourth attempt to cross into the European Union. The scene at the border has been chaotic: migrants, egged on by Belarusian security forces, have stampeded toward checkpoints heavily guarded by Polish border units, which have sometimes responded with water cannons and tear gas.
Mr. al-Yousef’s plan: take a taxi to the border and use GPS navigation on his phone to find his way into Poland with a handful of other migrants.
His entire journey has cost about $8,000. A stonemason by trade, whose wife and two children remained in Lebanon, his hope was to make it to Germany, he said.
“I want to start a new life,” he said.
The next several days were harrowing. He and four other migrants walked through forests and swamps to reach the frontier, where he said they were beaten by Belarusian border guards who took their money and warned them not to return. “No Belarus, no Poland,” they said.
After five days and nights of failed crossings, Mr. al-Yousef had hardly any money left for water or food. He returned to Minsk and spent his last $50 on a room for one night at the hotel. The next day at noon, he had to check out; that night, he said, he slept in a park.
Now he is stuck. He cannot return to Lebanon because he doesn’t have a visa to enter, going back to Syria is not an option — and most crucially, he is out of cash. He had just five Belarusian rubles, about $2, left in his pocket.
“It cannot buy myself a meal,” he said in a WhatsApp voice note on Tuesday, adding that he was losing hope.
“I’m really confused,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”
On Wednesday, he sent another note, saying he was going to go to try his luck at the border again.
Asylum seekers from the Middle East arriving on the Polish side of the border, many of them in dire condition, are at risk of being pushed back into Belarus by the Polish authorities. Their best chance for getting food, water or medical assistance is reaching out to local activists.
Although providing help is legal, activists describe operating in fear of the authorities. They say it is like playing “a cat-and-mouse game” to get to stranded migrants before border guards.
The Polish government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice party, has been accused by human rights organizations of illegally pushing back asylum seekers who manage to enter Poland from Belarus.
Local roads and forests surrounding the emergency zone, which is off limits to anyone but residents, are being patrolled by the police and special army units.
In the absence of organized help, volunteers roam the forests looking for stranded migrants, leaving rescue packages containing food, water and warm clothes on trees. Support is coming from across Poland, with people sending homemade soups, some of them attempts at Middle Eastern cuisine, and good wishes. Tamara, a 4-year-old from Torun, about 300 miles from the border, made a drawing wishing asylum seekers good luck that her parents put in an aid package.
At least eleven people have died at the border in recent weeks, according to the Polish authorities, but the real death toll might be much higher.
Medics on the Border, a team of volunteer doctors, has been providing aid to migrants stranded in the vast and damp forests straddling the Polish-Belarusian frontier. Even the doctors are barred by Polish authorities from operating in the emergency zone.
The doctors describe the dilemma of treating patients they then have to leave in the middle of the forest. Most asylum seekers do not want to visit a hospital because of the risk of being detained and pushed back into Belarus.
“There is no follow-up, and you cannot survive in the Polish woods for a long time in winter,” Jakub Sieczko, an anesthesiologist from Warsaw and a coordinator for Medics on the Border, said in an interview. “It is sick that we have to hide people from state authorities.”
An emergency pack containing food and water was left on a tree by volunteers from the Granica Group in a forest near Michalowo, Poland.Credit…Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times
Wojtek Wilk, the head of the Polish Center for International Aid, a charity that took over operations on Monday from Medics on the Border, called the situation “an unusual crisis.”
He said that he had 20 years of humanitarian aid experience in countries like Nepal, Ethiopia and Lebanon, but that he had never come across such legal uncertainty for the people he was supposed to be helping. The charity is currently negotiating with the authorities for access to the emergency zone, Mr. Wilk added.
With the news media barred from the border area, a growing misinformation crisis is contributing to the sense of confusion and insecurity among local residents. And as the standoff on the border has been escalating, some locals say it brings back bloody memories of World War II, still vivid in the border region of Podlasie, which suffered extensively under the Soviet and the Nazi occupation.
“During the war, I would face death by firing squad,” said Maria Ancipuk, who has been helping migrants in her hometown, Michalowo. “Today, in the worst-case scenario, I will go to prison. This is nothing.”
Mr. Sieczko said the situation reminded him of “the darkest moments in Poland’s history.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is taking the lead in trying to find a diplomatic way out of the migrant crisis on the European Union’s eastern frontiers, talking with President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus — and aggravating some of her European allies.
Ms. Merkel, who on Wednesday had her second phone call this week with Mr. Lukashenko, is the first leader of an E.U. or NATO country in more than a year to have direct contact with a ruler the West calls illegitimate.
Her phone calls have not gone over well with Poland — which has described the massing of migrants on its border as an attack by Belarus — or with the Baltic states, all of which are on the eastern frontiers of both NATO and the E.U. They have accused the German leader of bypassing them and playing into the hands of Mr. Lukashenko and his main ally, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, speaking while traveling in Montenegro on Wednesday, said that his country “will not accept any agreements reached over our heads.”
Estonia’s foreign minister, Eva-Maria Liimets, said the West was in danger of rewarding Mr. Lukashenko for a crisis of his own making, as he tries to pressure the E.U. to lift sanctions against Belarus. “He wants the sanctions to be stopped, and to be recognized as head of state so he can continue,” Ms. Liimets said on Wednesday.
The governments of Lithuania and Latvia — which, like Poland, border Belarus and are trying to keep out migrants — were also displeased, according to European news media.
But Ms. Merkel’s spokesman, Stefan Seibert, said her meetings were held in “close coordination with the European Commission and after preliminary information from important partners in the region.”
That is not quite the same as saying she was speaking for the E.U., but Moscow seemed ready to interpret it that way. Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said Wednesday of Ms. Merkel’s contacts: “It is very important that contact has been made between representatives of the E.U. and the leadership of Belarus.”
Western leaders had shunned Mr. Lukashenko since his violent suppression last year of street demonstrations, after he claimed a landslide re-election that critics said was a sham. But the Kremlin says the West should deal directly with him to resolve the migrant standoff.
He wants not only recognition, but the lifting of E.U. sanctions imposed on his repressive government. Instead, the European Union moved this week to impose new sanctions in response to what it said was his deliberate engineering of the border crisis.
Ms. Merkel’s office released a low-key description of her conversation on Wednesday with Mr. Lukashenko, saying only that she had “underlined the need to provide humanitarian care and return options for the people affected,” working with the United Nations and the European Union.
Mr. Lukashenko’s office went much farther, claiming that the two leaders “agreed that the problem will be addressed at the level of Belarus and the E.U., and that the two sides will designate officials who will immediately enter into negotiations in order to resolve the existing problems,” the Belarus state news agency reported.
On Wednesday, Ms. Merkel’s office said she had also called Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, to underline “Germany’s full solidarity with Poland.”
It was unclear, but a subject of speculation, what leverage Ms. Merkel may have tried to use with Mr. Putin or Mr. Lukashenko. She has long been the European Union’s most influential leader, but she is also now a lame duck, holding office only until a new governing coalition is formed in Germany.
A Belarusian pipeline operator has slowed the flow of oil to Poland, according to a Russian news report on Wednesday, claiming that it was related to unplanned maintenance.
The report, by the Tass news agency, raised the specter that energy might be being used as a weapon in the confrontation between Belarus and the European Union. Several major oil and natural gas pipelines important for Europe’s economy flow across the same border where migrants have been massing for weeks and pressing for entry into Poland and the European Union.
But the chances of a major slowdown of critical energy supplies seemed remote as Russia, a steadfast ally of Belarus, pushed back on earlier threats from the government there that it could turn off the energy spigot.
The report cited a Russian energy official saying the Belarusian pipeline would be partly closed for three days for unplanned maintenance. Igor Demin, a spokesman for the Russian pipeline company Transneft, told the news agency that the shutdown would not affect long-term supplies.
“The plan for this month will not be revised.” It was unclear how much crude oil was blocked. The pipeline has capacity to ship about 1.2 million barrels per day.
The oil slowdown followed a blunt threat last week by Belarus’s leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, to halt the flow of natural gas.
“We provide heat to Europe, and they are threatening us with the border closure,” Mr. Lukashenko said. “What if we block natural gas transit?”
The Kremlin quickly pushed back on the gas threat. President Vladimir V. Putin’s spokesman said Russia would “remain a country that fulfills all of its obligations in supplying European customers with gas.” The gas kept flowing.
The slowdown on the oil pipeline, called Druzhba, is less disruptive than a natural gas cutoff as refineries typically stock several weeks of crude oil reserves, meaning a short-term shutdown of the pipe would not immediately affect gasoline or diesel supplies in Europe.
The sudden surge of migrants to Belarus from the Middle East that is now the focus of a political crisis in Europe was hardly an accident.
The government of Belarus loosened its visa rules in August, Iraqi travel agents said, making a flight to the country a more palatable journey to Europe than the dangerous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece.
It also increased flights by the state-owned airline, European officials said. And according to Latvia’s defense minister, Artis Pabriks, Belarusian intelligence agents then actively helped funnel migrants from the capital, Minsk, to the frontiers with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
Several Iraqi migrants said that Belarusian security forces had given them directions on how to cross into European Union countries, even handing out wire cutters and axes to cut through border fences.
European leaders have characterized the moves as a cynical ploy by Belarus’s autocratic leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, to “weaponize” migrants in an effort to punish European countries for harboring his opponents and imposing sanctions.
Now, thousands of people are stranded or hiding along the border in freezing conditions, not allowed in the European Union countries nor, circumstances are making clear, wanted by Belarus, the country that lured them there in the first place.
The human tide has turned cities like Sulaimaniya, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, into bustling ports of departure for migrants eager to take an expensive and risky journey for the chance of a better life in Europe.
Iraq will send a plane to Belarus on Thursday to bring home some of the migrants who have gotten caught in the middle of what Western countries have called a manufactured crisis that grew out of tensions between the Belarusian leader and the European Union.
Iraqi Airways, the state airline, said it had planned the evacuation flight, intended only for those who want to return voluntarily. It is part of efforts to ease the humanitarian crisis that has left thousands stranded at the Belarusian border trying to reach the European Union through neighboring Poland, a member of the bloc.
Iraq’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday that it had registered 325 people so far for the evacuation flight out of Minsk, the capital of Belarus. That number is expected to rise by Thursday’s flight, but it is still a small fraction of the several thousand Iraqi citizens at the border who are determined to try to make it to Europe.
On Sunday, Dubai banned travelers from Iraq from passing through the emirate on their way to Belarus, cutting off the last major air route from the Middle East to Minsk. Along with Iraqis, Syrians also appeared to be blocked from boarding airlines in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, even if they had visas to Belarus, according to travel agents and passengers.
Some had leveraged their life savings to make the journey.
The flight ban followed an intense diplomatic campaign by European Union members alarmed by the tide of thousands of mostly Iraqi migrants lured to Belarus when it loosened its visa rules in August. Hoping for a path into the European Union, the migrants instead found themselves in freezing forest camps on the borders with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
Over the weekend, several airlines in the region put in effect bans similar to that imposed in Dubai. But the effect was more immediate in Dubai, where airline employees prevented some travelers from boarding planes, effectively stranding them.
Thousands of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, have traveled to Belarus in hopes of reaching the European Union, but have been prevented by Poland and Lithuania, E.U. member countries, from entering. They are camped along the border with Poland, stranded in the bitter cold.