Russia and Belarus hold joint military drills as migrant crisis on western border grows

The Russian and Belarusian military held joint paratrooper drills, the third time this week near the Poland-Belarus border, where thousands of people are stranded in deplorable conditions, trapped at the center of an intensifying humanitarian and geopolitical crisis.

On Friday, the Belarusian defense ministry said were “in connection with the buildup of military activity near the state border of the Republic of Belarus.”

Two Russian paratroopers died during the maneuvers after their parachutes failed due to strong wind, state news agency TASS reported, citing Russia’s defense ministry.

Some 15,000 Polish soldiers have been deployed to Poland’s border with Belarus in recent days in reaction to a tense standoff that the European Union, the United States and NATO say is of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko’s making.

NATO said on Friday it was monitoring for any escalation or provocation in the situation on its members’ borders with Belarus after the drills.

Western leaders, including prime ministers of neighboring Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, are accusing the Lukashenko regime of manufacturing a migrant crisis on the EU’s eastern frontier as retribution for sanctions over human rights abuses.

Lukashenko’s government has repeatedly denied such claims, instead blaming the West for the crossings and treatment of migrants.

Trapped in the crossfire are upwards of 2,000 people stuck between Poland and Belarus who are now facing conditions the United Nations has called “catastrophic,” with desperate scenes of hunger and hypothermia playing out in freezing forests and at makeshift camps at the border.

Russia, Belarus’ largest (and most important) political and economic partner, continues to defend Minsk’s handling of the border crisis while also denying 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 on Thursday.

The aircraft, known to have nuclear capabilities, practiced “issues of interaction with ground control points” with armed forces of both countries, the Russian defense ministry said.

Migrants fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria and Iraq had come to Belarus with the expressed purpose of moving deeper into Europe and of trying to find a better life.

Since the beginning of November, there have been 4,500 recorded border crossing attempts, according to Polish authorities. The Polish border guard said it had recorded around 1,000 crossing attempts in the last few days, including some “large-scale” efforts with groups of more than 100 people trying to breach the fence.

Belarusian authorities estimate that the number of migrant arrivals to the border could swell to 10,000 in the upcoming weeks if the situation isn’t resolved.