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The week-long Zapad (West) live military drills, held every four years by Russia, ended on Sept. 16, 2021, at Mulino in the Novgorod of Russia. The Multilateral ‘Joint Strategic Exercise,’ held in Russia and Belarus, largely drew participation from the Commonwealth of Independent States (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) with India, Mongolia, and Serbia completing the list of participants.
While the role of China as the observer in the Zapad 2021 has raised political and security concerns within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), this article argues that the Republic of Poland arguably used the ‘security threat’ posed by the Zapad 2021 military exercises as a convenient excuse to cover up its questionable stance on migration and refugee policy.
Poland declared a state of emergency on September 2 in the Podlaskie and parts of Lubelskie Voivodeships. This unprecedented move in the post-communist era covers 115 towns in Podlasie and 68 towns in Lubelskie. The ordinance bans any gathering of people on a three km-wide strip along the Poland-Belarus border, in particular Usnarz Górny – a village in the Podlaskie Voivodship, where a group of 32 Afghan refugees has been trapped for the past month.
The ban, which comes in the wake of the Zapad 2021 War Games, effectively prohibits any form of demonstrations or gathering along the Polish-Belarusian border. It further curtails journalists or humanitarian organizations from reaching out to the asylum seekers on this frontier.
In sanitizing the draconian ordinance, the Prime Minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, said that the declaration for a state of emergency had been necessitated by the threat posed by the Zapad 2021 military drills and the attendant ‘numerous provocations’ that comes with the drills.
He is further reported as stating that the Zapad 2021 drills in Russia and Belarus are a direct insult to the territorial integrity of Poland. What a coincidence! Is this not an excuse conveniently crafted to mask up Poland’s questionable migrant and refugee policy in light of the so-called ‘recent influx of migrants.’
Mathieu Boulegue, a Research Fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, rightly argues that the Zapad 2021 drills should be viewed as military exercises and not political maneuvering by Russia. He believes that the Zapad scare should not be overamplified to give credence to fears of a hybrid war.
The Zapad 2021 was just a collage of standard military action undertaken by any country when showcasing its weaponry, according to media reports. Despite the bloated military personnel of 200,000, the Zapad 2021 military platform was also used to showcase sporting skills, cultural ties to promote the strategic alliance between the participating nations. Therefore, for Poland to conveniently use Zapad 2021 as a threat aimed at destabilizing its internal security is arguably an excuse couched in legalese.
Realistically speaking, the participants and the alleged ‘victims’ of the Zapad 2021 have questionable geopolitical credentials in the eyes of the European Union. Russia, Belarus, and Poland have all taken questionable political decisions. Moreover, Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region is indefensible and has festooned into ethnic divisions in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
On the other hand, Alexander Lukashenko’s desperate cling to power in Belarus makes Robert Gabriel Mugabe smile in his grave. Moreover, it spurs some African leaders to frown at the European democracy. While it is true that Lukashenko has muffled the democratic voice in Minsk, the Warsaw administration should not conveniently grasp the excuse that Belarus is “flooding the EU with illegal migrants.” This argument exposes Poland’s hypocrisy on the issue of migration and refugee policy. Moreover, it is not at all linked to the Zapad military training.
The current nationalist Polish government, led by the Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS), has thrown dust in the face of the EU on several occasions. This has resulted in Poland becoming the first country to face the European Commission’s proceedings under its Rule of Law Framework.
Regarding the refugee policy, the Warsaw administration has created a dichotomy of desirable and undesirable migrants on several occasions. Together with her Visegrád allies (Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia), Poland has in the past been hauled before the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for not sharing the refugee burden. In its defense, Poland has used the principle of sovereignty as its ace and that it will not host refugees and asylum seekers who are given to ‘violent acts of a terrorist nature.’
What has not been alluded to is how Poland has disregarded the principle of non-refoulment in all cases involving asylum seekers from the Middle East. Instead, the Zapad 2021 narrative has conveniently been used as an excuse to defy the international obligation of States not to return asylum seekers at the frontiers when they seek international protection.
The situation of the Afghan refugees trapped between Poland and Belarus is thus an excellent example of how the Zapad 2021 turf has been used to excuse Poland from its international obligations conveniently and, in the process, exposed the hypocrisy in its refugee policy.
Opinion News by Shepherd Mutsvara
Edited by Cathy Milne-Ware
The views and the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Guardian Liberty Voice’s position.
The Economist: Russia holds the [Zapad] largest military exercise in Europe for 40 years
Ukrinform: Poland comments on Zapad 2021: Russia’s aggression against Ukraine also began with military exercises
Visegrad/Insight Event: Zapad 2021: Threats of the War Games
Mathieu Boulegue: Deciphering Russia’s Zapad-21 strategic military exercise, Chatham House.
Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Dmitriy Fomin’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image Courtesy of NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License