Russian President Vladimir Putin wasted no time supporting his far-right ally Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus on Tuesday as the two discussed a worrying dilemma created entirely by the Belarusian leader.
Thousands of irregular migrants from the Middle East have been amassing unabated on the Belarus side of the border with Poland in recent days, causing tension on the European side of the border. Poland has accused Belarus of “luring” and even “depositing” the migrants there with a threat to nudge them over the border, all in retaliation for harsh sanctions against the increasingly rogue nation.
Europe lodged sanctions against Belarus after Lukashenko ordered the diversion of a Ryanair flight on a false bomb threat to arrest dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who were traveling from Athens to Vilnius over Belarusian airspace. The United Nations aviation agency ICAO has since launched an investigation into the matter—which left many national airlines rerouting to avoid the country’s airspace—and eventually led to EU sanctions, including a ban of Belarus carriers to fly over or land in EU airports.
Belaruse has denied luring migrants in retaliation, but has in the past prohibited any passage of those trying to reach Europe via their territory. European Union president Ursula von der Leyen called on member nations to impose new sanctions over the migrant row, saying the use of “migrants for political purposes is unacceptable.” She also called for sanctions on any third country airlines that are complicit in ferrying migrants to the Polish border.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s diplomatic chief said they would “not hesitate” to adopt sanctions “against any companies and countries that play into the hands of smugglers.” He went on to say, “The migrants are provided with visas, plane tickets and an aircraft ready to transport them to Minsk from where they are taken to the borders of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.”
On Tuesday, Putin and Lukashenko held a phone call which the Kremlin described as cordial and in which they “exchanged opinions on the situation with refugees.” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov added, “It is a real problem that concerns Belarus and Poland. We are, of course, very concerned. We see that Belarusian specialists are working in a very responsible manner. We hope that this will not in any way transform into a threat to our security.”
In a readout of the bilateral meeting, Minsk said the topic of discussion focused on the “harsh actions of the Polish side towards peaceful people.”
Poland has deployed thousands of troops and erected razor wire to stop the migrants from crossing into Europe. On Monday, a tense standoff at the border led to violent scuffles.
Over 30,000 migrants have attempted to enter Europe by way of Poland from the Belarusian side of the border since early 2021, the European Union border guard Frontex says.
NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has called Belarus’s actions “unacceptable” and warned they will not stand by if one of their member states is in trouble. “The Lukashenko regime’s use of migrants as a hybrid tactic is unacceptable,” Stoltenberg said Tuesday. “The Secretary General remains in close touch with Allied governments on the issue.”