By Kara Fox, Anna Chernova, Katharina Krebs and Matthew Chance | CNN
Russia and Belarus bowed their military power for the third time this week near the border between Poland and Belarus, where thousands of people are stranded in deplorable conditions, trapped at the center of an intensifying humanitarian and geopolitical crisis.
On Friday, Russia and Belarus held joint paratroop exercises near Poland, exercises that the Belarusian Ministry of Defense said were “in connection with the building of military activity near the state border with the Republic of Belarus.” Two Russian paratroopers died during the maneuvers after their parachutes failed due to strong winds, the state news agency TASS reported, citing Russia’s Ministry of Defense.
Some 15,000 Polish soldiers have been deployed to Poland’s border with Belarus in recent days in response to a tense battle that the EU, US and NATO say is led by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
NATO said on Friday that it was monitoring any escalation or provocation in the situation at its members’ borders with Belarus after the exercises.
Western leaders, including prime ministers from neighboring Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, accuse the Lukashenko regime of creating a migrant crisis at the EU’s eastern border in retaliation for sanctions on human rights violations.
Mr Lukashenko’s government has repeatedly denied such allegations and instead blamed the West for the passage and treatment of migrants.
Trapped in the crossfire, up to 2,000 people are trapped between Poland and Belarus, which are now facing conditions that the UN has called “catastrophic”, with desperate scenes of hunger and hypothermia unfolding in freezing forests and in temporary camps at the border.
Russia, Belarus’s largest (and most important) political and economic partner, continues to defend Minsk’s handling of the border crisis, while rejecting any involvement in it.
Russia demonstrated that support by flying two long-range Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 supersonic long-range bombers over Belarusian airspace on Wednesday and Thursday.
The plane, which is known to have nuclear capability, practiced “issues of interaction with checkpoints on the ground” with armed forces from both countries, the Russian Defense Ministry said.
Neighboring Ukraine is also upscaling security. On Thursday, it announced it would hold military exercises with about 8,500 soldiers and 15 helicopters in an area near its borders with Poland and Belarus to address a potential migrant crisis.
The demonstration of power unfolding throughout the region continues to test a fragile political order, with claims from the United States about Russia’s military armament this week raising concerns about the potential for a broader geopolitical crisis.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that the US was “concerned about reports of unusual Russian military activity” and mentioned the possibility that Russia might “try to resume” its 2014 invasion of Ukraine.
Russia on Friday rebuffed the allegations, saying they represented an “empty, unfounded escalation of tensions.”
‘This will not succeed’
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the border crisis a “challenge for the whole of the EU” earlier this week. “This is not a migration crisis. This is an authoritarian regime’s attempt to try to destabilize its democratic neighbors. It will not succeed,” she said.
Western powers are now preparing to impose new sanctions on Belarus, and the EU said it was considering sanctions against third-country airlines to contribute to the crisis by transporting people to Minsk, the Belarusian capital.
On Friday, Turkey’s foreign ministry said in a tweet that it would ban people from Syria, Iraq and Yemen – where many of the migrants stuck at the border come from – from flying from Turkish airports to Belarus. The ministry on Thursday backed claims that it contributed to the crisis, saying they “refuse to be produced as part of a problem in which Turkey is not a party.”
EU Council President Charles Michel responded to the tweet, saying “thank you” for “the support and cooperation.”
However, Moscow has not moved, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denies allegations that the Russian airline Aeroflot had helped refugees travel into Belarus. Statements by Aeroflot show that it “did not provide and does not provide for the transport of migrants to Minsk,” Peskov said, adding that “although some airlines are involved in this, it is in no way in breach of any international rules.”
In the United States, the White House National Security Council announced on Wednesday that it was preparing “follow-up sanctions” designed to hold Belarus accountable for “ongoing attacks on democracy, human rights and international norms.” This is the second round of sanctions announced by the United States in recent months. It is not clear when the new measures will be implemented.
The EU is also expected to “expand and tighten its sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime,” Germany’s acting foreign minister Heiko Maas said on Thursday.
The human cost
Meanwhile, conditions for migrants trapped at the border continue to deteriorate, with people in a temporary migrant camp near Bruzgi on the Belarusian border now starving and desperate for firewood near the freezing point.
CNN was given exclusive access to the camp, where chaotic scenes at a food distribution area unfolded as the Belarusian Red Cross tried to distribute food aid to densely packed crowds while Belarusian security forces pushed them back. Disappointment and grief are to be felt throughout the camp.
Migrants fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria and Iraq had come to Belarus with the express purpose of moving deeper into Europe and trying to find a better life. But now there is a bitter feeling of disappointment that is not happening.
Since the beginning of November, according to Polish authorities, there have been 4,500 registered border crossing attempts. The Polish border guard said it had registered about 1,000 crossing attempts in the last few days, including some “large-scale” operations with groups of more than 100 people trying to break the fence.
Humanitarian groups accuse the Polish ruling party of violating the international right to asylum by pushing people back to Belarus instead of accepting their applications for protection. Under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. Poland says their actions are legal.
As the conflict continues, people keep coming. Belarusian authorities estimate that the number of migrants arriving at the border could rise to 10,000 in the coming weeks if the situation is not resolved.
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