"New Cold War": Tensions in Western-Russian relations at an all-time high

Amid the ongoing migration crisis, Ukraine has warned of the deployment of some 100,000 Russian troops near its borders

REUTERS/CHARLES PLATIAU  -   Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a joint news conference following a Normandy format summit in Paris, France, Dec. 9, 2019

The recent migration crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border has once again highlighted the rift in relations between the West and Russia. It has provoked a series of accusations from both sides that demonstrate how fragile these ties are.

The actors involved in this migration crisis are the European Union, in particular Poland and Lithuania, and Belarus. However, in addition to disputes between the parties involved, this controversy has spread to other powers, such as the United Kingdom, Russia, Ukraine and the United States. Although it may seem that this crisis does not affect these countries, the serious situation in the border area has become one of the main points on their agenda due to the distrust between Western nations, along with Ukraine and Russia.

crisis migratoria polonia bielorrusia
BELTA/OKSANA MANCHUK via REUTERS - Migrants gather at the Belarusian-Polish border in an attempt to cross it, as Polish police stand guard on the Polish side of the border, at the Bruzgi-Kuznica Bialostocka border crossing in Grodno region, Belarus November 15, 2021
Cross-accusations between Europe and Russia over migration crisis

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki pointed directly to Russia as the mastermind behind the crisis. "This attack that Lukashenko is carrying out has its mastermind in Moscow, the mastermind is President Putin," he said. Other European governments reiterated the Polish prime minister's words. Unsurprisingly, these statements did not sit well in Moscow. Putin alluded to the actions of Polish forces against the migrants. "This does not sit well with the ideas of humanity that supposedly underpin all the policies of our Western neighbours," he said. Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called Morawiecki's comments "absolutely irresponsible and unacceptable". Peskov also singled out the European Union as the culprit in the migration crisis. "This is nothing but new attempts to strangle Belarus," he stressed.

Belarus is subject to EU sanctions because of the oppression of the political opposition and the authoritarian nature of the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. In the wake of the border incident, Brussels has approved a new set of sanctions "for hybrid migrant attacks" against airlines and travel agencies. The Belarusian leader is Europe's longest-serving ruler, in power since 1994, and has sometimes been referred to as 'Europe's last dictator'. Internationally, Moscow is Minsk's main backer. 

Oficina del primer ministro polaco/Handout vía REUTERS - Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Minister of National Defence Mariusz Blaszczak near Kuznica Bialostocka, Poland, 9 November 2021.

The United States has also spoken out on the crisis, directly alluding to Russia. Biden assured the press that he was "communicating his concern to Russia and Belarus". For his part, Putin has reaffirmed that the Russian government "has nothing to do with this".

Russia presents itself as a mediator in the migration crisis

The Russian president assured that his country was "ready to help in resolving the situation of migrants on the border of Belarus and the European Union", reports TASS. The Russian news agency also noted that Putin has held telephone conversations with Angela Merkel and Lukashenko. Germany, in this context, plays a key role, as it is the desired final destination for many of the people stranded at the border.

"The president expressed his hope for direct contacts between Brussels and Minsk," Peskov announced. So far, there has been communication between Merkel and Lukashenko. The two leaders discussed possible solutions to resolve the migration crisis, while the German chancellor offered humanitarian aid to migrants at the border.

REUTERS/VASILY FEDOSENKO - File photo, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko (R) welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a meeting in Minsk, 11 February 2015.
London says Moscow bears 'clear responsibility' for migration crisis

The UK, despite no longer being part of the European Union, has chosen to speak out on the situation on the Belarusian border. Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, urged Putin to intervene in the crisis because, according to the British government, Russia has a "clear responsibility". She also warned that the UK would closely monitor developments in the region.

The Russian government has responded to the foreign secretary's comments by recalling the UK's past in the Middle East and its role in the flow of refugees. "The UK bears a clear historical responsibility for everything that has happened in the region: death of Iraqis, destruction of the Iraqi state, endless flows of refugees, the rise of Daesh, humanitarian disasters," said Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry. "Until London is held accountable for its crimes, its representatives have no right to point fingers at anyone," she added. 

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Russian Foreign Ministry/Handout via REUTERS - Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova attends a news conference in Moscow, Russia April 22, 2021.

Putin reiterated Zakharova's assertions. "Let us not forget where the crisis associated with migrants came from. These causes were created by Western countries, including European countries," he said. 

Relations between Moscow and London are also not at their best. Since the incident in the Black Sea this summer, tensions between the two have increased. Russia accused the British ship HMS Defender of sailing through Russian territorial waters, while the UK claimed it was crossing into Ukrainian waters. Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, declared during the climate summit in Glasgow that current relations with Russia are "not what London wants". He pointed to the 2018 Salisbury poisonings and the Ukrainian crisis in Crimea as "major difficulties".

In this context, General Nick Carter, the UK Chief of Defence Staff, has warned of the danger of an "accidental war between the West and Russia". Carter highlighted the "absence of traditional diplomatic tools". "Diplomats now face a more complex multipolar world," he added.

According to the British general, at the present moment the risk of a "war between the West and Russia" is the highest since the Cold War. "This is the real challenge we have to face," he warned.

Jeff Overs/BBC/Handout vía REUTERS - British Army General Sir Nick Carter appears on BBC television's The Andrew Marr Show in London, Britain, July 11, 2021.
New escalation of tension on the Ukrainian border and in the Black Sea 

In the midst of a migration crisis that has once again sparked controversy between the West and Russia, tensions between Kiev and Moscow have once again escalated. Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, has warned of the deployment of Russian soldiers near its borders. According to Zelensky, Moscow has sent some 100,000 units.

Because of this military display, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has warned of a 'possible military attack by Russia'. The US has reaffirmed Kuleba's fears by stressing that Russia could be "planning a possible invasion of Ukraine". Moscow, for its part, has described the US report as "empty and unfounded efforts to exacerbate tensions".

The European Union has taken a stand with Ukraine in its dispute with Russia. France's foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has expressed 'continued unwavering commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity' during a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. 

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AP/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/SPUTNIK - Russian President Vladimir Putin

Ukraine has also backed European states during the migration crisis, in particular Poland, the main one affected. "Ukraine supports Poland at this difficult time and hopes to resolve the artificially created crisis in a peaceful and civilised manner," said Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyskiy.

However, Russia has turned its attention to the Black Sea, where NATO has intensified its manoeuvres since this summer. Putin has called these actions a "provocation". "These manoeuvres by the United States and some of its allies reinforce tensions between Russia and NATO," the Kremlin said in a statement.

Since the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and the Kiev authorities in the Donbas region has intensified. In this context, the EU and the US have supported the Ukrainian government, which has also enjoyed the full backing of NATO in past escalations, such as the one in April. 

AFP/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI - US President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the Oval Office of the White House on 1 September 2021, in Washington, DC.

Decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the tension between the West and Russia remains latent. Moreover, in this context of a "new Cold War", it is necessary to highlight the role of China, a power that has increased its influence in recent years, not only in the Asia-Pacific region, but also in other parts of the planet such as Africa and Latin America. Beijing's expansionist character has made it one of Washington's main rivals. Although former US president Donald Trump launched a trade war with China in 2018 by raising tariffs on Chinese goods, Biden has continued that contest, and even toughened the measures. On the other hand, Biden maintains the same policy with Moscow. "China and Russia know that the United States has the most powerful military in the world," the US president said recently while discussing the situation in Taiwan. 

AP/EFREM LUKATSKY - US Navy sailors from the destroyer USS Ross, watch a Russian military aircraft fly over, during Sea Breeze 2021 exercises, in the Black Sea, Thursday, July 8, 2021.

This phrase could well define current US foreign policy, a policy that presents Russia and China as the main antagonists and has been extrapolated to Europe as well, where distrust of Beijing and Moscow is growing.