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As Belarus border crisis deepens, Europe and U.S. on course for more sanctions

Migrants at a camp in the Grodno region of Belarus, near the Poland-Belarus border, on Nov. 10. (Leonid Shcheglov/BELTA/AFP/Getty Images)
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MOSCOW — The European Union will hit Belarus with new sanctions as early as next week in retaliation for the ongoing migrant crisis on the Polish border, according to a top E.U. official, following talks in Washington with President Biden.

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, also told reporters that further U.S. sanctions are being readied for early December against the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has used migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere as pawns in a deepening battle with the European Union.

“We have to protect our democracies from these kinds of cynical geopolitical power plays,” said von der Leyen. “We share the assessment that this is an attack by an authoritarian regime to try to destabilize democratic neighbors, and this will not succeed.”

Tensions have steadily escalated between the West and Russian-backed Lukashenko since he claimed victory in elections last year that were widely viewed by Western governments as rigged. Earlier this year, Belarus allowed arriving migrants to flood toward E.U. nations such as Lithuania.

Ahead of von der Leyen’s meetings with Biden on Wednesday, Russia sent two long-range strategic Tu-22M3 bombers to patrol Belarus’s western borders, in a show of support for Lukashenko’s otherwise isolated regime.

The new measures by the E.U. and the United States may also target “third-countries’ airlines” that have “facilitate[d] human trafficking” by flying migrants to Belarus in recent months, von der Leyen said.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said she phoned Russian President Vladimir Putin and told him the exploitation “of migrants against the European Union by the Belarusian regime is inhumane and completely unacceptable” and asked him to use his influence to stop it.

Poland has accused Belarusian soldiers of firing their weapons near terrified migrants to drive them across the border.

But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov blamed Europe for a “looming humanitarian catastrophe” that is due to “the unwillingness of our European colleagues to demonstrate the adherence to their European values.”

Many of the migrants on the border have told Belarusian state media they are trying to get to Germany, not stay in Poland. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas accused Lukashenko of “unscrupulously exploiting” the migrants by sending them to the border region.

“We will sanction all those who participate in the targeted smuggling of migrants,” Maas said, adding that the E.U. must “extend and tighten” sanctions.

Putin told Merkel that European leaders must talk to Minsk directly, the Kremlin press office said, but the two leaders agreed to continue consultations.

Putin holds considerable sway over Lukashenko, who pivoted to Russia for support when he faced mass protests after disputed August 2020 presidential elections.

“The Russian president proposed that a discussion of arising problems be arranged in direct contacts between representatives of E.U. member states and Minsk,” the Kremlin statement said.

The border crisis has been brewing since June but came to a head Monday, when a large column of migrants, mainly from the Middle East and North Africa, walked to the Polish border to seek entry, escorted along a highway by armed Belarusian security forces, before being funneled into a forest adjacent to the Polish border fence.

Poland said Monday that it was sending 12,000 troops to reinforce the border, as Maciej Wasik, Poland’s deputy interior minister, declared on Twitter, “They will not come in.” Warsaw officials said Wednesday that migrants made repeated attempts to break through the fence and enter Poland overnight, adding that more than 50 people had been detained near Bialowieza after crossing from Belarus.

Poland’s Ministry of Defense on Wednesday released a brief video taken from the Polish side, showing armed Belarusian servicemen firing their weapons near terrified migrants. The ministry said the video showed that Belarusian forces “intimidate migrants by firing shots in their presence.”

The E.U. slapped sanctions on Belarusian officials and entities in October 2020 over its “fraudulent” presidential election and Lukashenko’s ensuing violent crackdown on peaceful protesters. So far, four rounds of sanctions have targeted 166 people and 15 entities linked to the regime. There have also been sanctions over the forced diversion of a Ryanair flight to arrest an opposition journalist in May.

Lukashenko reacted angrily to the sanctions in June, warning that Belarus would no longer prevent asylum seekers, drugs and even nuclear materials from entering the bloc. From then a trickle of migrants grew to a flood, arriving by plane to the capital, Minsk, on tourist visas.

On Tuesday, in response to the migrant crisis, the Council of the European Union suspended visa facilitation arrangements for Belarusian officials seeking to travel to Europe.

The Kremlin has praised Belarus’s approach to the crisis as “constructive” and legal.

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