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Polish police block migrants who gather on the Belarusian-Polish border in an attempt to cross it at the Kuznica Bialostocka-Bruzgi border crossing in Poland on Nov. 15, 2021.POLICJA PODLASKA/Reuters

Michael Bociurkiw is a Canadian-based global affairs analyst, the author of Digital Pandemic, and a former spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Over the weekend, the security situation in and around the borders of Belarus and Ukraine inched closer toward a full-blown confrontation with forces supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On Poland’s border with Belarus, guards from both countries faced off from a distance of just a few dozen metres as the Belarusians tried to dismantle a fence recently built by Poland to deter migrants from the Middle East. The European Union, NATO and the U.S. government have all claimed that President Alexander Lukashenko’s government is weaponizing migrants, encouraging people looking for a better life to enter Europe through Belarus before funnelling them to rush the borders of EU countries in frigid temperatures.

And in nearby Ukraine, intelligence reports have shown a worrying buildup of Russian armed forces on both the land and the sea, amid warnings from the West that there is a “high probability” of Russian military adventurism in the weeks ahead. The show of force – Ukraine’s deputy defence minister claims that more than 90,000 Russian troops are amassed along its borders – has set off alarm bells in several Western capitals, where Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine through proxy forces in 2014 have not been forgotten.

Both front lines are being watched closely, especially as much of Europe braces for potential gas shortages this winter. The Kremlin, which has been masterfully consolidating control over supplies to the continent – including with the newly constructed Nord Stream 2 pipeline into Germany – is sending signals that it is prepared to use energy as a political tool in defiance of threats of sanctions, should Moscow not get its way on the geopolitical stage.

This is straight out of the Putin playbook: simultaneously creating confusion on multiple fronts and striking while his opponents are preoccupied. These perfect storms are hitting just as Germany, traditionally the pace car of Europe’s diplomatic convoy, undergoes a major political transition after the departure of Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the few world leaders who has had the fortitude to stand up to Mr. Putin.

For the former KGB chief, using vulnerable migrants as human bargaining chips and sowing a border crisis is an opportunity to further divide the European Union over how to respond.

The good news is that Brussels was able to display rare unity. The EU backed Poland’s hard line stance against the migrants and threatened to impose a fresh round of sanctions on Mr. Lukashenko’s thuggish regime, as well as on any airlines and travel entities involved in migrant trafficking. Pushback also needs to be applied on Turkey, a NATO member, after its national carrier became one of the first non-Russian airlines to re-enter Belarusian air space after Mr. Lukashenko’s government reportedly compelled a Ryanair jet to divert and land in Minsk in May, in order to seize a wanted dissident who was on board.

Adding to the sense of unease in the region is that Ukraine has been achieving major battlefield gains in the Donbas with Turkish-built Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, a development that has not gone unnoticed by the Kremlin.

One thing is for sure: The muscle sent by Russia to Ukraine’s borders needs to be taken seriously. On Monday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned Russia to “prevent escalation and reduce tensions.” And the crisis will be an early test for Canada’s novice Foreign Affairs Minister, Mélanie Joly, who hasn’t yet issued a public statement on recent events but has pledged to deliver a foreign policy anchored on “humility and audacity.” A clear articulation of where Ottawa stands is needed immediately.

Given the changing scenario on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine and the growing, credible threats elsewhere along its borders, Canada should also review its security assistance to the Ukrainian Armed Forces with a strong emphasis on offensive training.

The situation on NATO’s eastern flank is dire indeed. The deck has now been stacked against Ukraine and the inexperienced administration of President Volodymyr Zelensky, amid the buildup of Russian troops, the border crisis, a looming energy shortage as well as a continuing battle with simultaneous coronavirus and polio outbreaks.

Mr. Putin’s grand plans include reunification with Ukraine and destabilizing the West. Mr. Lukashenko, meanwhile, is the Russian President’s ally through and through, and he will remain in power as a menace to the rest of the world as long as the Kremlin allows it. Russia’s latest show of force on the border of Ukraine, and Moscow’s willingness to use pipelines and human migrants as part of its geopolitical arsenal, will demand a major rethink of the West’s diplomatic tool box if it hopes to keep Mr. Putin in line.

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