The focus of the entire world has been on Glasgow for much of October, as world leaders grapple with the issue of climate change.

Another global drama unfolds, though it is 2000 miles from us.

The gathering of thousands of would-be immigrants to the EU on the border between Eastern Europe’s last dictatorship, Belarus, and Poland is creating a crisis that, if mishandled, could have consequences every bit as grave as those debated at Cop26 – but far sooner. Yesterday, the temperature rose further when Russian paratroopers started landing in Belarus – just 20 miles from the Polish border. This was the Kremlin’s support for Europe’s sole ally.

This does not seem to be alarming. Although it is possible to imagine Russian troops being mobilized, this will still cause chills in the West. It’s a legacy from bad times during the Cold War. However, Belarus remains a distant outpost for many of us and its politics are not reverberant beyond its borders. The truth of the matter is however that we should all be concerned about the growing tensions.

Strategically, Belarus lies between Russia and the EU, with major transit routes across continental continents. It borders to the west three ex-communist countries, Lithuania, Poland, and Latvia, which are both members of NATO and the EU. Russia and Ukraine lie to the east.

Against this already volatile superpower rivalry, Belarus' authoritarian leader, president Alexander Lukashenko, has stepped up his own standoff with his Western neighbours, writes Mark Almond

Mark Almond reports that Alexander Lukashenko (Belarus’ president) has escalated the conflict with his Western neighbors in an attempt to counter this superpower rivalry. 

The Belarussian capital, Minsk, is just 400 miles from Moscow – spitting distance in that vast, sprawling location – and the two countries are allies of longstanding.

Conflict and discontent have been simmering since the 2014 Russian annexed Crimea. They also backed rebels from the Donbas region in south-east Ukraine to the consternation Western leaders.

The Russians were furious that the Ukraine had used its drone earlier this month to attack a rebel position. These tensions have escalated in recent days. They have now moved their own troops – together with tanks and artillery –towards the Ukrainian border.

The Americans are now warning European allies, just a few days back that Russia could mobilize in preparation to invade Ukraine’s eastern border.

President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, an authoritarian leader and a volatile member of the superpower competition, is stepping up his confrontation with Western counterparts. EU sanctions were imposed on him after his disputed win in 2020’s presidential election. The country was plagued by allegations of vote-rigging as well as mass protests that he instigated.

Now Lukashenko wants to punish the EU for daring to sanction him – and ‘weaponising’ migrants from the Middle East is his latest ploy. In recent weeks, Belarus has granted tourist visas to thousands of Iraqis, Syrians and some Africans, and then helped them try to cross into the EU via its bordering countries – mainly Poland, which has deployed 15,000 troops to hold them back.

Many of the migrants – mainly young men, but including some women and children – are now stranded at the border in deteriorating conditions

Many of the migrants – mainly young men, but including some women and children – are now stranded at the border in deteriorating conditions

Many of the migrants – mainly young men, but including some women and children – are now stranded at the border in deteriorating conditions. The European Commission accused Belarus of sponsoring people smuggling. Lukashenko, on the other hand, extols Western hypocrisy regarding human rights and freedom of movement.

However, the current migration crisis along the Polish-Polish border as well as the one on the English Channel may be indicators of worsening conditions. A possible exodus could be the result of Afghanistan’s famine warming.

Lukashenko has also been provoking the West in a second way. He’s trying to “weaponize Europe’s oil supply crisis,” threatening the blockage of pipelines that run through Russia, which supplies Russian gas to Europe. This would not only upset Russia’s backers, but it could also be detrimental to us now that gas prices are soaring and winter is fast approaching. And Lukashenko calculates that Vladimir Putin will back him to the hilt for fear of a pro-Western government replacing him in Belarus if he falls – a strategy now rattling nerves in NATO.

Lukashenko is also provoking the West on a second front as he tries to 'weaponise' Europe's energy supply crisis, threatening to block the pipelines through his country which supply Russian gas to Europe

Lukashenko also provokes the West from a second front. He tries to “weaponize” Europe’s crisis in energy supply, and threatens to stop the flow of Russian gas through his country.

There are too many historical examples that show how rapidly tensions can rise in Eastern Europe with grave geo-political implications. Lest we forget, in 1914 a small crisis in the Balkans dragged the members of the then big alliances – Britain, France and Russia against Germany and Austria-Hungary – into the First World War. Even if Washington and Moscow don’t want war, it is easy to see how a single shot from a border guard, or provocation by Lukashenko can send these tensions spiraling out of control.

Britain and America have sent small numbers of troops to Poland, but there is a real risk that Putin will gamble with the West if tensions rise. What would we do?