Russia dispatched paratroopers Friday to the Belarus border near Poland, where hundreds of migrants are camped trying to cross into the European Union.
The Kremlin said the sudden deployment was for snap drills, but it coincided with a buildup of Russian military forces near the Ukrainian frontier and was contributing to rising European and American alarm.
Two of the Russian paratroopers died Friday after their parachutes collided and deflated in a gust of wind, a statement released by the Russian defense ministry said. The ministry said the soldiers attempted to use their reserve parachutes, but they were at too low of an altitude for the chutes to function properly.
Both soldiers later died of their injuries at a hospital, according to the ministry statement. It added that the paratroopers who took part in the snap drills flew back to Russia after the exercise, according to The Associated Press.
Moscow has been accused of helping its ally, Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, of orchestrating migrant crossings into Poland as a form of “hybrid warfare” against the European Union and to goad the bloc. Senior American officials have raised the prospects with NATO allies that Russia might be plotting to seize more parts of Ukraine in a repeat of its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, said midweek, “We don’t have clarity into Moscow’s intentions, but we do know its playbook. Our concern is that Russia may make the serious mistake of attempting to rehash what it undertook back in 2014 when it amassed forces along the border, crossed into sovereign Ukrainian territory, and did so claiming falsely that it was provoked.”
Russian officials deny the military buildup on the Ukraine border or the dispatch of paratroopers to Belarus is unusual or aggressive. “A unit of Russian paratroopers will practice a landing in an unknown territory in the Hrodna region of Belarus on Nov. 12 as part of drills to inspect combat readiness of the paratrooper forces,” Russia’s defense ministry said Friday in a statement.
The Belarusian defense ministry Friday rather undercut its Russian counterpart’s characterization of the paratroop deployment as a snap drill by suggesting it was establishing with Russia a “threat response system.” Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin was quoted by state media as saying: “It seems that our neighbors, particularly Poland, are ready to unleash a conflict seeking to involve Europe as part of solving their domestic political problems and problems in relations within the EU.”
Last week, President Joe Biden sent William Burns, the CIA director, to Moscow, to emphasize American concerns about the military moves and burgeoning migrant crisis amid a jarring war of words and reciprocal rounds of recriminations and diplomatic protests between Belarus and Poland.
Poland — as well as Lithuania and Latvia — have been militarizing their borders with Belarus to try to stop record numbers of migrants crossing their borders. They accuse Lukashenko of engineering the migrant crisis in reprisal of the European Union for imposing sanctions on Belarus for last year’s disputed elections and in response to a harsh crackdown on protesters challenging the legitimacy of Lukashenko’s rule. The election was widely seen as rigged.
Lukashenko has half-heartedly denied he’s seeking to needle or blackmail Europe by trying to fuel a migrant crisis but said he was reacting to foreign pressure. “We are not blackmailing anyone with illegal immigration,” he told journalists in Minsk’s Independence Palace in August. “We’re not threatening anyone. But you have put us in such circumstances that we are forced to react. And we’re reacting.”
In October alone, Poland recorded 15,000 attempted illegal border crossings. Last week Poland deployed 2,500 more troops to the border, bringing to 10,000 the number of soldiers patrolling the country’s border. Piotr Wawrzyk, Poland’s deputy foreign minister, said, “The actions taken by the Belarusian authorities in recent weeks have the increasingly evident hallmarks of a deliberate escalation.”
At least 2,000 migrants, including women and children, are stuck at the border in freezing conditions. Some have complained of being beaten by Polish border guards when they were forced back into Belarus. Humanitarian organizations are critical of both Poland and Belarus.
“It is shocking to witness Europe’s inability to properly handle such a low number of migrants stranded at the Poland-Belarus border,” says Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“A few thousand people at Europe’s Polish border, many of whom have fled some of the worst crises in the world, is a drop in the ocean compared to the number of people displaced to countries that are much poorer elsewhere,” he adds.
But Egeland also criticized Minsk. “The way Belarus is using migrants and refugees to achieve political ends is equally outrageous. Vulnerable people are not chess pawns to be used in a geopolitical struggle,” he said.
Security experts and Western officials are split on whether the Kremlin is calling the shots when it comes to the migrant crisis on the Belarus-Polish border. Or whether it is seizing opportunistically on the standoff.
Poland's prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, has accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of authoring the crisis. Belarus's authoritarian leader is orchestrating it, but “it has its mastermind in Moscow,” he said midweek.
But some experts see the Kremlin as seeking to capitalize. “Is there any evidence out there that Russia genuinely is 'behind' the brutal weaponization of migration by Belarus? Sure, it will cynically spin/exploit it as it can [as we've seen], but actually orchestrating it?” Mark Galeotti, author of the book “We Need to Talk About Putin,” tweeted.
The Kremlin has denied it is an aggressor and is accusing NATO of provocation. It says there has been an uptick in military activity by the West, mirroring the European and American claims against it. Russia's defense ministry claimed Thursday it scrambled a Sukhoi SU-30 warplane to intercept a British spy plane, a British Boeing RC-135, when it neared Crimea.
Russia assembled about 100,000 troops near Ukraine's border earlier this year, saying they were training. Moscow later announced their withdrawal, but Ukraine claims most of the force remained in the region. Western and Ukrainian officials say more Russian units, including elite ones, have been gathering near the border, with some deployments happening covertly overnight.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Wednesday that Washington did not immediately know what to make of it to the massing of tens of thousands of Russian troops along the Ukraine border. “We’ve seen this before … What does this mean? We don’t know yet, too early to tell,” he said.
Poland announced Friday that Britain is dispatching a contingent of British troops to assist with the construction of a fortified wall along its parts of its border with Belarus. “Reconnaissance has begun ahead of the support from British engineering troops,” Poland’s defense minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, wrote on Twitter. “Our soldiers will cooperate in strengthening the fence on the Polish-Belarusian border.”
Some Western officials have told VOA they expect a Russian and Belarus escalation in the coming days and weeks, a bid to entangle the European Union in talks with Belarus’s Lukashenko.
They point to the latest phone exchange Thursday between Putin and Germany’s caretaker chancellor, Angela Merkel, as evidence. Kremlin officials say the Russian leader called on the bloc to restore relations with Minsk “in order to solve the problem” of the migrant crisis. According to a statement on the Kremlin’s website, the two leaders also discussed Ukraine, and Putin blamed Kyiv for what he dubbed “destructive policies."