The bitter dispute between Warsaw and Minsk dramatically escalated last night when Belarusian troops ripped up the border fence and prevented Polish soldiers from rebuilding it.
Film footage released this morning by Poland’s Border Force reveals how its troops were blinded by lasers and strobe lights as they tried to shore up the frontier.
Hours earlier Belarus forces had destroyed part of the 120 miles of barbed wire fencing that separates the east European states. Migrants were also armed with tear gas by the Belarus military to attack Polish forces once they got across the border.
The incursion occurred near the town of Czeremcha which has seen hundreds of migrants pass through the frontier in recent weeks, amid accusations that Belarus is weaponizing the crisis with backing from Moscow.
The soldiers were carrying out the orders of their Minsk dictator leader Alexander Lukashenko to help migrants across the border to destabilise the EU.
A spokesman for the Polish Border Force told MailOnline: ‘Last night near Czeremcha, Belarusian soldiers began to destroy the temporary border by tearing up fence posts.
‘Polish forces were blinded by laser beams and strobe light,’ they said. ‘Also, a group of about 100 migrants were to cross and Poland says Belarusians gave them tear gas, which was used against the Polish forces.’
Speaking on Saturday, Lukashenko said that he wanted Russian nuclear-capable Iskander missile systems to deploy them in the south and west of the country.
The dictator told the National Defence magazine that he needed the Iskander mobile ballistic missile system, which has a range of up to 500 kilometres and can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads.
‘I need several divisions in the west and the south, let them stand (there),’ he said.
EU members Poland and Lithuania lie to the west of Belarus. Its south borders Ukraine. Lukashenko gave no indication of whether he had held any talks with Moscow about receiving the missile system.
Russia’s Defence Ministry did not immediately reply to a request to comment.
Belarus and Russia are formally part of a ‘union state’ and have been in talks for years to move closer together.
As the crisis escalated, Britain’s most senior military officer warned that there is a greater risk of an accidental war breaking out between the West and Russia than at any time since the Cold War.
General Nick Carter, chief of the defence staff, told Times Radio there was a greater risk of tensions in the new era of a ‘multipolar world’, where governments compete for different objectives and different agendas.
‘I think we have to be careful that people don’t end up allowing the bellicose nature of some of our politics to end up in a position where escalation leads to miscalculation,’ he said in an interview to be broadcast on Sunday.
Tensions have been mounting in eastern Europe in recent weeks after the European Union accused Belarus of flying in thousands of migrants to engineer a humanitarian crisis on its border with EU-member state Poland, a dispute that threatens to draw in Russia and NATO.
Putin said on Saturday that unscheduled NATO drills in the Black Sea posed a serious challenge for Moscow and that Russia had nothing to do with the crisis on close ally Belarus’s border with the bloc.
Carter said authoritarian rivals were willing to use any tool at their disposal, such as migrants, surging gas prices, proxy forces or cyber attacks. ‘The character of warfare has changed,’ he said.
Following the bi-polar world of the Cold War, and the unipolar world of U.S. dominance, diplomats now face a more complex multi-polar world, he said, adding that ‘traditional diplomatic tools and mechanisms’ of the Cold War were no longer available.
‘Without those tools and mechanisms there is a greater risk that these escalations or this escalation could lead to miscalculation,’ he said. ‘So I think that’s the real challenge we have to be confronted with.’
Britain said on Friday that a small team of UK military personnel had been deployed to explore ‘engineering support’ for Poland on its border with Belarus.
British Typhoon fighters also escorted two Russian military aircraft out of its area of interest on Friday, working with NATO partners to monitor the jets as they passed through international airspace.
There are also tensions over the Russian border with Ukraine. Earlier this week, America warned European leaders that Russia may be about to invade its neighbour, having annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014.
The warning was based on satellite images showing tens of thousands of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Moscow would commit a ‘serious mistake’ if any of the 90,000 Russian troops positioned to march into Ukraine did so.
Meanwhile, Polish police said on Saturday the body of a young Syrian man was found in Poland near the border with Belarus, police said on Saturday, amid mounting international tension over the migrant crisis the EU says has been orchestrated by Minsk.
Thousands of migrants from the Middle East are sheltering in freezing conditions on the border between Belarus and EU states Poland and Lithuania, which are refusing to let them cross. Some have already died and there are fears for the safety of the rest as bitter winter conditions settle in.
The death brings to 11 the number of migrants found dead on both sides since the crisis began in the summer, according to aid groups.
‘Yesterday, in the woods, near the border, near Wolka Terechowska, the body of a young Syrian man was found,’ Podlaska Police said on Twitter.
The police said they had been unable to determine the cause of death at the scene.
The discovery comes amid mounting international tension over the crisis, with neighbours of Belarus warning the situation could escalate into a military conflict and U.S. President Joe Biden expressing his concern.
Polish border guards estimate there are currently up to 4,000 migrants camped out along the border.
A large number of them are in a makeshift camp on the Belarusian side of the border in frigid conditions. Polish authorities report daily new attempts by the migrants to breach the border.
There is growing concern for their plight as temperatures continue to fall, with Poland refusing to allow them to cross and accusing Belarus of preventing them from leaving the area.
Belarusian authorities said Saturday they were delivering aid including tents and heaters to the migrant camp – a move that could make it a semi-permanent presence on the borders of the EU.
State news agency Belta reported that government bodies were erecting tents at the camp and that a generator had been delivered.
‘The Belarusian side is doing everything to provide them with what they need. Water, firewood and humanitarian aid have been delivered,’ Igor Butkevich, the deputy head of the state border committee, told Belta.
Belarus said on Saturday that the number of migrants arriving at a makeshift camp on the border was growing daily, and that a group of up to 100 had crossed into Polish territory.
‘There’s a group (of migrants) close to the crossing point… They are indeed on Polish territory. Up to 100 people,’ the RIA news agency quoted the Belarusian state border committee as saying.
The Polish Border Guard said Belarusian soldiers had torn up a section of the temporary fence erected by Poland to deter migrants during the night.
On Saturday, Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski told private broadcaster RMF FM he would meet U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines to discuss the situation next week. He said around 1,500 people were camped at the border and that this number was growing.
Poland, Austria, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have asked international aid organizations to organise humanitarian and medical assistance in Belarus to ‘avoid tragedies and prevent (a) humanitarian crisis’ at the Polish border.
The Polish Border Guard said there were 219 attempts to illegally cross the border on Friday. The Lithuanian border guard says 144 migrants attempted to enter on Friday.
Migrants have been trying to cross the border for months, but the crisis came to a head when hundreds made a concerted effort on Monday and were pushed back by Polish border guards.
Sporadic attempts to cross have continued, and Polish police said Saturday that the body of a young Syrian man had been found in a forest close to the border.
Police said the cause of death could not be immediately determined and that a group of around 100 migrants had attempted to cross the border during the night in the area.
Many of the reported incidents at the border are very hard to verify. Independent journalists face limits to their reporting in Belarus, and a state of emergency in Poland’s border zone prevents media from entering the area.
The state of emergency ends Nov. 30, and the Polish government said Saturday that it is working on a plan to let journalists at that time be able to again report from the border area with the permission of the Border Guards.
European leaders have accused Lukashenko, who has ruled ex-Soviet Belarus for nearly 30 years, of luring the migrants to his country to send across the border in revenge for sanctions imposed over a bloody crackdown on his opponents.
The EU is expected next week to widen the penalties to include new sanctions for ‘human trafficking’.
‘I want everyone to know. We have nothing to do with it,’ he said in an interview with state broadcaster Vesti, after Poland and other Western critics accused Moscow of working with Minsk to send thousands of migrants to the EU border.
Putin said European leaders needed to talk to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko if they want to resolve the crisis, which has left hundreds of migrants, mainly from the Middle East, trapped on the border.
‘As I understand it, Alexander Lukashenko and (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel are ready to talk to each other,’ Putin said.
‘I hope this will happen in the near future – this is most important.’
He again blamed the West for the crisis, saying its policies in the Middle East were the reasons migrants wanted to go to Europe in the first place.
‘We should not forget where these crises associated with migrants came from. What, is Belarus the cause of these problems or something?’ Putin said.
‘No, these reasons were created by Western countries themselves, including European countries. They are political, military and economic in nature.’
Putin also said on Saturday that Moscow considered recent Black Sea exercises by US and other NATO ships as a serious challenge.
‘The United States and its allies in NATO are carrying out unplanned exercises in the Black Sea. Not only is a rather powerful naval group involved in these exercises, but also aviation, including strategic aviation. This is a serious challenge for us,’ he said in an interview with state broadcaster Vesti.
Putin also appeared to ease concerns after Lukashenko threatened on Thursday to retaliate against any new European Union sanctions against Minsk over the migrant standoff.
The Russian strongman said Belarus had not consulted him before raising the possibility of cutting Russian natural gas flows to Europe, adding that such a move would risk harming ties between Minsk and its key ally Moscow.
His warning briefly lifted spot gas prices in Europe, which gets about a third of its supplies of the fuel from Russia, including via the Yamal-Europe pipeline that runs through Belarus to Poland and Germany.
The Belarusian section of the Yamal-Europe pipeline is owned by Russia’s state gas monopoly, Gazprom.
‘I’ve recently spoken to (Lukashenko) twice and he didn’t mention this to me once, he didn’t even hint,’ Putin said in a state television interview, making his first public comments about the Belarusian threat.
‘Of course, in theory, Lukashenko as president of a transit country could order our (gas) supplies to be cut to Europe. But this would mean a breach of our gas transit contract and I hope this will not happen,’ Putin added.
Russia has been Belarus’s closest ally for years, helping with everything from cash to cheap energy supplies and military assistance, but Lukashenko’s comments come at a sensitive time for Russia’s energy exports to Europe.
Analysts say Lukashenko’s gas comments have likely tested Putin’s patience. Russian gas supplies already at the centre of heated debate in Europe.
European gas prices – and therefore, energy bills – are on the rise this year as the recovery from the pandemic has triggered a spike in demand, forcing customers from Europe to Asia to fight for supplies.
Some European politicians have accused Moscow of failing to do more than just send contractual gas volumes, in order to calm down prices.
The European Commission said on Friday that if Lukashenko made good on his threats, it would further harm gas suppliers.
During Saturday’s interview, Putin said that if Belarus did cut off supplies, it would ’cause great damage’ to the European energy sector ‘and would not help in developing our relations with Belarus as a transit country’.
‘I will raise this with him (Lukashenko) in case this wasn’t something (he) said in the heat of the moment,’ Putin said.
Russia, which this week started to increase supplies to refill its European storage ahead of the winter heating season, has said more could come once its newly built Nord Stream 2 pipeline gets a green light from Germany.
Nord Stream 2 is another Russian pipeline designed to bypass transit countries, particularly Ukraine, which has a history of gas pricing standoffs with Moscow.
The Kremlin calls the pipeline a ‘purely commercial project’ and denies that politics are behind it in any way.
Putin’s comments came after RAF fighter pilots and heavy US bombers took to the skies above the North Sea in a show of strength as tensions in Eastern Europe threaten to spill over.
British Typhoons and F35 Lightning jets teamed up with US B1 and B52 bombers in a joint military exercise dubbed Operation Point Blank this week.
The US air force said the mission showed its ‘commitment to work closely with our allies and partners to deter any potential adversary from aggressive actions.’
The exercise came as a pair of Russian nuclear bombers forced the RAF to defend British airspace over the North Sea on Friday.
The Typhoons were scrambled from Lossiemouth, Scotland, and Coningsby, Lincolnshire, along with a refuelling jet from Brize Norton, Oxfordshire as British troops were deployed at the Polish border amid a Kremlin-backed migrant crisis.
The two Russian Tu-160 ‘White Swan’ bombers entered ‘the UK area of interest,’ the MoD confirmed, without giving further details, as photographs show the RAF jets escorting the bombers.
The Kremlin warplanes approached Dutch airspace before being intercepted by the RAF and were seen heading north into international airspace over the North Sea at around 12.45pm, according to Mil Radar.
As the Royal Engineers arrived in the region, hundreds of Russian paratroopers jumped from military aircraft into Belarus. They conducted tactical rehearsals 25 miles from the flashpoint at the border.
The Russian defence ministry said the troops, two of whom died, flew home after the exercise, which was interpreted as a show of support for Lukashenko.
Tory former defence minister Tobias Ellwood backed the Ministry of Defence’s demonstration of solidarity with Poland.
He said: ‘Nato states will need to act swiftly to stay ahead of the threat, while countries which share borders with Russia will require further support. ‘Any failure to do so would be interpreted as weak behaviour by President Putin. He could absolutely invade Ukraine. It is a reflection of just how weak the West has become.’
Meanwhile, European Commission vice president Margaritis Schinas said in an interview in Saturday’s edition of French newspaper Le Figaro that sanctions on Belarus would be ‘approved and applied’.
He said they would apply among others to Belarusian state airline Belavia, which has been accused of ferrying groups of migrants from Turkey and elsewhere to Minsk.
The EU said Friday it was having some success in efforts to stem the flow of migrants to Belarus, after Ankara banned Iraqis, Syrians and Yemenis from flying to the country from Turkey.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s top foreign policy adviser told AFP on Saturday that Turkey was also not to blame.
‘Travellers are going to Belarus and from there to Lithuania, Poland and other EU countries. Blaming Turkey for that, or Turkish Airlines, is simply so misguided, misplaced,’ Ibrahim Kalin said.
Tensions remain high at the border, where thousands of troops have been deployed on both sides.
Belarus said Friday it would ‘respond harshly to any attacks’ and held joint drills with Russian paratroopers near the border.
Russia, Lukashenko’s main ally, sent planes including strategic bombers to patrol over Belarus this week.
But Moscow’s support for Minsk is often cautious, and Putin in the interview said Lukashenko was acting entirely on his own when he threatened this week to cut off Russian gas transit through Belarus to Europe.
‘Honestly speaking, it was the first I heard about it,’ Putin said. ‘He never told me, did not even hint. Well, he can probably. But it would not be good.’
After the large migration into Europe in 2015, Europe has been reinforcing its borders to discourage the arrival of more migrants and refugees. Still, every year, tens of thousands try to get in, embarking on dangerous and sometimes deadly journeys by sea and land.
Since the summer, thousands have been lured by what appeared to be a new and easier way to slip into Europe, through Belarus.
The EU accuses Lukashenko of creating the artificial route in order to retaliate for sanctions against his regime imposed after an election in 2020 widely viewed as flawed and a harsh crackdown on internal dissent that followed.
The restrictions were toughened after an incident in May when a passenger jet flying from Greece to Lithuania was diverted by Belarus to Minsk, where authorities arrested dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich. The EU called it air piracy, barred Belarusian carriers from its skies and cut imports of the country’s top commodities, including petroleum products and potash, an ingredient in fertilizer.
A furious Lukashenko shot back by saying he would no longer abide by an agreement to stem illegal migration, arguing that the EU sanctions deprived his government of funds needed to contain flows of migrants. Planes carrying migrants from Iraq, Syria and other countries began arriving in Belarus.