Belarus appeared to be moving Monday to de-escalate a long-running standoff with Poland and the European Union. Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said he is preparing to start repatriating around 4,000 asylum-seekers camped out in freezing temperatures at the border with Poland.
“Active work is underway in this area, to convince people —please, return home,” Lukashenko was quoted as saying by state news agency Belta. But he added the caveat: “Nobody wants to go back.”
Poland — as well as Lithuania and Latvia — have been militarizing their borders with Belarus to try to stop record numbers of migrants, mainly from Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, attempting to cross their borders. They accuse Lukashenko of weaponizing human desperation by using asylum-seekers as pawns in reprisal for the EU’s imposing sanctions on Belarus for last year’s disputed elections. The election was widely seen as rigged.
Lukashenko’s remarks came as European Union leaders advanced a raft of new sanctions against Belarus targeting officials, businesses and airlines involved in the organized ferrying of migrants from the Middle East and the Gulf to the borders of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
The sanctions package contains two parts targeting migration facilitators and also those accused of human rights abuses inside Belarus, where Lukashenko has overseen a harsh crackdown on protesters challenging the legitimacy of his rule.
Belavia, the Belarusian state-owned airline, is high on the target list and the company's existing and future aircraft leasing contracts would be impacted. But ahead of the imposition of new EU sanctions, the airline announced it would stop flying travelers from Dubai who have come from several other Middle Eastern countries. Iraq also announced it is planning a repatriation flight Thursday for Iraqis stranded on the Belarusian-Polish border.
Before a meeting in Brussels of EU foreign ministers to discuss fresh sanctions, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said, “Today we are going to approve a new package of sanctions against Belarusian people responsible for what's happening ... and we are going to launch a framework in order to implement other sanctions to other people, airlines, travel agencies and everybody involved on this illegal push of migrants in our borders.”
Borrell told reporters he spoke with the Belarusian foreign minister telling him “The situation on the border was completely unacceptable and that humanitarian help was needed.”
Meanwhile, Poland is calling on NATO to intervene in the migrant crisis on the border with Belarus. “It is not enough just for us to publicly express our concern. Now we need concrete steps and the commitment of the entire alliance,” Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said Sunday. He said Poland, Lithuania and Latvia may request a meeting under Article 4 of the alliance’s treaty which requires member states to consult when the territorial integrity of another is being compromised.
Lukashenko has half-heartedly denied he has been seeking to needle or blackmail Europe by trying to fuel a migrant crisis, but said he was reacting to foreign pressure. “We are not blackmailing anyone with illegal immigration,” he told journalists in Minsk’s Independence Palace in August. “We’re not threatening anyone. But you have put us in such circumstances that we are forced to react. And we’re reacting,” he said.
In October alone, Poland recorded 15,000 attempted illegal border crossings. Last week, the country’s defense minister tweeted that his government had boosted the number of Polish troops sent to the border to 12,000, up from the 10,000 deployed earlier.
Katarzyna Zdanowicz, a spokesperson for the Polish Border Guard, said Monday that the situation at the border in the Kuznica area was “very tense and very dangerous.” She said migrants had been throwing stones at Polish border guards and “weapons” were being “pointed towards our servicemen” with a flare fired at them. Polish officials say Belarusian guards have been encouraging migrants to trample down obstacles and cut wire fences, handing them bolt-cutters.
In the last few days, several airlines and governments have scrambled to avoid being impacted by EU sanctions. Syria’s Cham Wings Airlines suspended flights between Damascus and Minsk Saturday. Turkey said it will ban Syrian, Yemeni, and Iraqi citizens from boarding flights from Istanbul to Minsk. The Iraqi government suspended direct flights between Iraq and Belarus last week.
But NATO officials and EU diplomats appear less than convinced that Lukashenko is sincere about ending the high-stakes standoff, which they see as part of a broader pattern of provocations ultimately authored and stoked by Moscow.
They point to the Belarusian leader’s comment that the migrants do not want to be repatriated. And they say Belarusian authorities Monday encouraged thousands of migrants sheltering in a migrant camp in the village of Bruzgi to join the throng already on the border by circulating a rumor in the camp that the Polish government was about to open the border.
Polish authorities sent out SMS messages saying the information was a “total lie,” and in the text messages: “Poland won't let migrants pass to Germany. It will protect its border. Don't get fooled, don't try to take any action."
Poland has accused the Kremlin of pulling Belarusian strings and Britain’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, has called on Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, to intervene, saying he could bring an end to the migrant crisis with a phone call to his ally Lukashenko, who has also raised the prospects of shutting down a pipeline running through Belarus carrying natural gas to Western Europe from Russia.
In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin rejected accusations that Russia is stoking the migrant crisis, saying Western powers had “a desire to place their own problems at somebody else’s door. It’s their own fault.”
But Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said the migrant crisis is part of a Kremlin strategy of hybrid warfare. He linked it with a Russian military build-up on the border of Ukraine, which is also prompting alarm in Washington, Kyiv, and European capitals.
“When we see migrants used as a weapon, when we see disinformation used as a weapon, when we see gas used as a weapon, and soldiers and their guns, these are not separate elements,” Ukraine's top diplomat said in an interview with the Politico.eu website.
After meeting with Kuleba, NATO’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg warned Monday that the Russian military build-up near the Ukrainian border has reduced the time the West will have to prepare for any incursion into Ukraine. He said the Western alliance needs to be “realistic” following warnings last week by US intelligence officials that Moscow could be planning a repeat of its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
“We see an unusual concentration of troops, and we know that Russia has been willing to use these types of military capability before to conduct aggressive actions against Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said. Russia has dismissed talk of an invasion as “alarmist” and accuses Western powers of provoking tensions in the region, saying there has been an uptick in military activity by the West, mirroring the European and American claims against it.
Russia's defense ministry said last week it had scrambled a Sukhoi SU-30 warplane to intercept a British spy plane, a British Boeing RC-135, when it neared Crimea.
Russia assembled around 100,000 troops near the Ukraine border earlier this year, saying they were there for training. Moscow later announced their withdrawal, but Ukraine claims most of the force remained in the region. Western and Ukrainian officials say more Russian units, including elite ones, have been deployed near the border, with some troop movements happening covertly overnight.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that Washington did not immediately know what to make of the massing of tens of thousands of Russian troops along the Ukraine border. “We’ve seen this before. … What does this mean? We don’t know yet, too early to tell,” he said.
“Everyone is wondering, what’s Putin going to do? I think he loves it when we ask those questions,” said David Kramer, who was assistant secretary of state in the administration of George W. Bush. He said the Kremlin thrives on discomfiting the West by being unpredictable.