Belarus hybrid ‘tactics’ show need for smarter defence, EU says

Tensions rise at border as guards use water cannons against restive crowds

Poland's security services have used water cannons on migrants, footage shared by Polish officials shows, after they threw rocks at them from across the border with Belarus. Video: Reuters


Worsening tensions on the European Union’s eastern border, where Polish forces have used water cannons against restive crowds of people seeking to cross from Belarus, demonstrates the need for smarter defence co-operation, the bloc’s chief diplomat has said.

Josep Borrell spoke after presenting a strategy to defence ministers to build the EU’s joint response capabilities.

“We are witnessing instability, conflicts, transnational threats that impact our security. And certainly using hybrid tactics such as we see today at the border with Belarus is something that some months ago was even difficult to imagine,” Mr Borrell told reporters following the meeting.

“The classic distinction between war and peace has been diminishing. It’s not black and white. The world is full of hybrid situations, where we face intermediate dynamics of competition, intimidation and coercion. And what we are seeing today in the Polish and Lithuanian border with Belarus is a typical example of that.”

The meeting coincided with heightened concern over Russian troop movements near Ukraine and a worsening of the situation on the Polish-Belarus border, where thousands of people hoping to migrate to the EU have been flown in from mostly Middle Eastern countries by the dictatorial Minsk regime.

Trapped between lines of Polish and Belarusian border guards and with winter temperatures plunging, frustrations boiled over on Tuesday and some men began hurling rocks and debris at the Polish forces, while others attempted to break through a frontier fence.

The border forces responded with water cannons, driving back the men as a loudspeaker broadcast the warning “Attention, attention, if you don’t follow orders, force will be used against you”, footage showed.

Death toll

At least nine people have died on the border and there are fears the toll could climb as winter conditions worsen. The Polish government said on Tuesday that it was anticipating that the situation could go on for months.

Members of Poland’s Tatar Muslim minority held a funeral on Monday for a 19-year-old from war-racked Homs in Syria who drowned attempting to cross a river from Belarus, with his family watching over video link.

EU leaders have described the transport of people by the Belarusian regime to the borders of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland as “hybrid attack” designed to politically pressure the bloc in retaliation for sanctions imposed on Minsk for its crackdown on a pro-democracy movement.

Foreign ministers agreed this week to impose a new round of sanctions on the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, expected to target airlines and entities involved in organising the scheme.

At the start of the meeting EU defence ministers met with Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, who expressed “solidarity with Poland and other affected allies”.

“We are deeply concerned about the way the Lukashenko regime is using vulnerable migrants as a hybrid tactic against other countries and he is putting the lives of the migrants at risk,” Mr Stoltenberg said.

Support for Ukraine

There have been rising tensions elsewhere on Europe’s east.

French president Emmanuel Macron called Russian president Vladimir Putin to warn him he was prepared to defend the sovereignty of Ukraine, while Britain’s defence minister visited Kiev to underline Britain’s “unwavering” support.

It came as the United States flagged unusual Russian military activity and a concentration of forces near the border of Ukraine, which Russia invaded in 2014, annexing Crimea. Moscow has said drills by the US and its allies in the nearby Black Sea were a “provocation”.

Energy prices shot up after Germany’s energy regulator suspended approval of the politically sensitive Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would allow Russia to circumvent Ukraine with direct gas exports to the EU.

Further east, Armenia appealed to Russia for help after fighting erupted along its border with Azerbaijan, threatening a ceasefire brokered by Moscow last year that ended a war for control of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave that killed 6,500 people in 44 days.