Shocking scenes have unfolded on the Polish border in the last week, with the country’s security services deploying water cannon and tear gas to hold back migrants arriving from Belarus.
These migrants, who mostly originate from the Middle East, have been weaponised by the Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko in his fight back against Western sanctions imposed on Belarus this summer.
While Poland has reacted to Lukashenko’s scheming with physical force, recent reports indicate that the EU’s next move will be to sanction Aeroflot, the airline part-owned by the Russian government, which it claims has transported migrants from the war zones of the Middle East to Belarus.
However, sanctions have not succeeded in restraining the Lukashenko-Putin axis thus far and their extension to include Aeroflot looks set to result in a Russian backlash, whether it be in the form of a trade war, or worse, in the onset of a military conflict.
Responding to reports of the company’s imminent sanctioning, an Aeroflot spokesperson firmly refuted the bloc’s accusations around migrant transportation and made clear that the airline would launch legal action in response.
As Aeroflot’s role in the migrant crisis is far from clear, and considering the historically fraught relations between the EU and Putin’s Kremlin, it seems that Aeroflot’s sanctioning would be less an act of meaningful diplomacy and more a symbolic gesture to highlight the EU’s discontent and distrust of Russia.
Yet President Putin is unlikely to remain passive in the face of the blacklisting of one of his government’s major financial assets. Indeed, instant retaliation looks likely, and with the EU in the throws of an energy crisis, the cutting off of Russian gas, which accounts for 40% of the bloc’s usage, would be a quick win for the Kremlin.
Such a move would dash the EU’s hopes of a rapid recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and would send inflation, which is already proving to be far from transitory, to levels unknown in this century.
Another tempting option for the Kremlin would be the closing of Russian airspace to European planes. This would not only undermine the operations of many of the EU’s international carriers but could prove to be the death knell for the pandemic-battered airline industry.
Whatever route the Kremlin takes, and it may decide to hit the EU on multiple fronts, as their living standards fall, European citizens will be justified in demanding of their leaders whether the continued sanctioning of Belarus was worth it.
The inevitable anger over a fall in living standards is one thing but it will be as of nothing compared to the outpouring of concern and fear in Europe if the EU’s spat with Russia leads to a military altercation.
The Kremlin has already demonstrated its expansionist ambitions in 2014with the annexation of the Crimea and in the recent Zapad war exercises, both of which showcased the Kremlin’s military capabilities.
Lukashenko’s Belarus, now firmly ensconced in the Kremlin’s orbit through its acceptance of Russian economic and military aid, will provide Putin with the ideal base to launch an incursion on the EU’s Eastern border.
Needless to say, such a grave outcome would be confirmation that the bloc’s current sanctions on Belarus have failed to pacify Lukashenko and may instead result in a wholly avoidable loss of life.
While this sort of diplomatic crisis is usually defused via intensive bilateral negotiations, the anarchy on the Polish border, and the deterioration of Russia and the EU’s relationship, are escalating so quickly that a détente now seems a remote possibility.
The EU needs to quickly re-assess an approach that may make sense to its policymakers nestled safely in Brussels, but looks set to have serious economic ramifications for its citizens and endanger communities in the Baltic States, the Ukraine and Poland in particular.
The return of measured diplomacy, something that the EU has prided itself on since its inception, has never been in greater need. The bloc’s primary aim must be to use its economic and political power to serve the best interests of the Belarusian people, and while sanctions may target the despotic Lukashenko, his citizens feel their effects most keenly.
A failure to appreciate this may mean that the sanctioning of Belarus is viewed in hindsight as the smoking gun that deepened Europe’s energy crisis, sparked an economically crippling trade war, and worse still, triggered further Russian incursions into Eastern Europe.