Western officials have been paying more attention to Eastern Europe in recent weeks.
A triple potential crisis has emerged in Russia’s relations with its Western neighbors. Some officials from the Biden administration, CNN relationships, fear that Russia might fuel tensions as a prelude to another foray into Ukraine, while others think it is part of a larger leverage game.
Events were bizarre and confusing, involving an airlift of migrants from the Middle East and armored military divisions moving to Ukraine. Part of the action took place in Belarus, a Russian client state.
Here are five points on how to make sense of what is happening.
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Tensions are on the rise in all areas of Eastern Europe.
In recent weeks, tensions have started to build over Russia’s actions towards its neighbors.
Senior US diplomats met with Russian officials. CIA Director Bill Burns fly in Moscow earlier this month, where he spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This sparked a flurry of diplomatic activity between Europe and the US CNN reported last week after Burns’ trip, US diplomats began a “major awareness” in Europe about a potential Russian threat.
So what is the cause of the budding crisis?
Three voltage theaters: Ukraine, Baltic countries and gas.
Tensions occur in two geographic areas: the Ukraine-Russia border and the Belarusian border with Poland and Lithuania.
It all takes place with the natural gas issue and the upcoming winter heating season as a backdrop.
Russia remains the main source of natural gas for Europe. The pipelines cross Belarus, Ukraine, the Black Sea and, recently, the North Sea.
The fact that it provides a gas supply for the winter heating season has historically allowed Russia to exert influence on Europe and transit countries such as Ukraine which collect taxes from the gas flow. Right now, Europe is arguing whether to certify the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which offers Russia a direct gas transit route to Germany passing under the Baltic Sea.
Tensions began to rise in October as Russia blocked gas supplies to Europe, causing the already high prices to rise further as temperatures begin to drop and usage increases.
But it is Belarus that is triggering the strongest alarms.
The strangest and most alarming escalation of tensions has occurred along the Belarusian border with Poland and Lithuania.
It is a region known to NATO planners as the Suwalki Corridor, a narrow tract of land comprising the only border between Poland and the Baltic states, backed by the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on one side and Belarus on the other.
Belarusian dictator Aleksandar Lukashenka has ordered the country’s army to escort refugees to the border area, as Russia has sent nuclear bombers to circle ahead.
It is not clear exactly what Lukashenka is up to par, but Belarus maintains close ties with Russia, with the two countries maintaining a military alliance and allowing other citizens to travel back and forth freely. Belarus receives massive subsidies from Moscow that have allowed it to stay afloat, but have also given Russia extensive influence over its policy.
Refugees have been drawn into this.
This account in Deutsche Welle paints a picture of the path that many of the refugees travel, paying the traffickers who have agreements with the Belarusian embassies. According to the German foreign ministry, flights from Beirut, Damascus and Amman to Minsk have increased in recent weeks, plausibly allowing more refugees to make the journey.
From there, the Belarusian military reportedly accompanies migrants to the fields along the border.
All of this raised a controversial issue for Europe: the prospect of another 2015-style wave of migrants.
People stranded at the border flee violent places and face a horrible situation. But their location there, and the false promise that Belarus could serve as an easy entry point to the European Union, fueled anti-immigrant protests in Warsaw this week. Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have all asked for EU funding to build walls along the Belarusian border.
Lukashenka, for his part, dared Poland this week to seal the country’s border, and threatened to cut the country’s gas pipelines to Europe.
“You have imposed sanctions against me, against the Belarusians,” he said. “You launched a hybrid against Belarus. And you, scoundrels, fools, do you want me to protect you from migrants? “
It is all part of a pressure campaign that has put NATO in tension.
Some analysts think of Lukashenka as a Kremlin stooge, while others see him as a loose cannon whose behavior draws Moscow into situations it would prefer to avoid.
Relationships suggest that some in the Biden administration fear another Russian foray into Ukraine, while others see it as part of a leverage game against Europe over the gas trade and part of Moscow’s campaign to destabilize its Western neighbors.
The Russian government, for its part, has adopted the usual tactic of only partially admitting what is happening.
A Russian foreign affairs newspaper, known for being close to the Kremlin, hailed the situation as an “invasion from the north” through an analogy with Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”.
“Migrants didn’t always come to Europe from the south – there was a time when they came from the north,” wrote the magazine’s authors on the publication’s Telegram channel. “Then look for each other, when it was better: then or now?”