In November 2021, migrants from Syria, Iraq and other war-torn regions gathered on Belarus’s border with Poland attempting to cross into the European Union. They were met with a chilling warning from Polish border guards, blasted over loudspeakers in English: “Force may be used”.
Poland’s President Andrzej Duda claimed his border guards and police were staving off a migrant invasion orchestrated by Belarus - an apparent attack on the country’s sovereignty and an attempt to upend regional peace.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on the other hand claimed that the migrants are just trying to find refuge in Germany and accused Poland of spraying them with chemicals and beating them.
Through interviews and state media, both world leaders positioned themselves as heroes and victims of a humanitarian crisis that saw thousands of desperate people enduring freezing temperatures at the border. Both leaders threatened to involve their partners in defence — for Poland, NATO, and for Belarus, Russia.
The crisis began when the EU and U.S. sanctioned Belarus after its 2020 presidential election. Lukashenko won 80 percent of the vote, but there were widespread claims of electoral fraud.
In June 2021 Lukashenko retaliated by announcing that he would no longer police his country’s border with the EU. This, along with reduced visa restrictions, drew a surge of people hoping to use Belarus as a gateway to the EU. A migrant crisis along the borders between Belarus and Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland began to build, with Western heads of state accusing Lukashenko of manufacturing the crisis.
By November, the focal point of the crisis was along the Polish-Belarusian border, with an estimated 3-4,000 migrants living in encampments.
The situation quickly escalated.
The UN called for both sides to meet their obligations to refugees, while the EU condemned Lukashenko. Poland met with NATO leadership, asking for more forces to be deployed on its eastern flank. Russia sent strategic bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace. Referring to the aircraft Lukashenko said, “Yes, these are bombers that are able to carry nuclear weapons. But we have no other choice.” Poland’s Duda said he was considering using the backing of NATO if necessary.
As the situation at the Poland-Belarus border escalated, Russia simultaneously began a massive troop build-up along its border with Ukraine. Denys Shmyhal, Ukraine's Prime Minister, said the migrant crisis and the troop build-up were "absolutely connected". U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken alleged that the migrant crisis was being used to distract from the troop build-up, although the Kremlin repeatedly denied the allegations.
By December, at least ten migrants had died at the border. There were some signs of de-escalation - Belarus said it was relocating migrants to heated shelters - but Belarus continued to perform military exercises with Russia into 2022, and by February, Russia had 30,000 troops stationed in Belarus, according to NATO.
On the 18th of February 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden said Moscow had stationed as many as 190,000 troops in and around Ukraine. On Thursday, Russia invaded Ukraine and launched military attacks across the country.
In this episode of Source Material we see how in the lead-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Lukashenko and Duda used state media to frame the humanitarian crisis to their political advantage. Through cellphone and state propaganda we get a sense of the dire and terrifying reality on the ground for asylum-seekers. And finally, we see how the escalating tension between Belarus and Poland preceded a Russian troop build-up in Belarus in the months leading up to this week’s invasion of Ukraine.