By Maria Kiselyova and Alan Charlish
MOSCOW – Russia took the rare step of dispatching two nuclear-capable strategic bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace on Wednesday in a show of support to close ally Belarus at a time when it is locked in a migrant standoff with the European Union.
Moscow’s decision to up the ante came as the 27-nation bloc considered sanctions on Wednesday to punish Minsk for what it calls an artificially created crisis, something Belarus denies.
Migrants trapped in Belarus made multiple attempts to force their way into Poland overnight, Warsaw said on Wednesday, announcing that it had reinforced the border with extra guards.
United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called on states to deescalate and resolve the “intolerable” crisis.
“These hundreds of men, women and children must not be forced to spend another night in freezing weather without adequate shelter, food, water and medical care,” she said.
The Tupolev Tu-22M3 bombers that Russia sent to overfly Belarus are capable of carrying nuclear missiles, including hypersonic ones of the kind designed to evade sophisticated Western air defences.
Russia blamed the EU for the crisis on the border, accusing it of failing to uphold its own humanitarian values and of trying to “strangle” Belarus with plans to close part of the frontier. It also said it was unacceptable for the EU to impose sanctions on Belarus over the crisis.
The Kremlin said a suggestion by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki that Moscow had a role in the flow of migrants into the EU was irresponsible and that President Vladimir Putin had told German Chancellor Angela Merkel the EU should discuss the crisis directly with Minsk.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he hoped responsible Europeans would “not allow themselves to be drawn into a spiral that is fairly dangerous” after talks with his Belarusian counterpart.
The bloc’s 27 ambassadors are set to agree on Wednesday that the growing numbers of migrants flying to Belarus to reach the EU border amount to “hybrid warfare” by President Alexander Lukashenko – a legal basis for new sanctions.
“Mr. Lukashenko …unscrupulously exploits people seeking refuge as hostages for his cynical power play,” Germany’s acting Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Twitter.
He described images from the Belarusian border, where people are stuck in freezing conditions with little food and shelter, as “horrific” but said the EU could not be blackmailed.
The EU accuses Belarus of encouraging the migrants – from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa – to try to illegally cross the frontier in revenge for earlier sanctions imposed on Minsk over human rights abuses.
Lukashenko has denied using the migrants as weapons.
Germany’s Merkel urged Putin to put pressure on Belarus over the situation at the border, a German government spokesperson said.
Thousands of people have converged on the border this week, where makeshift razor wire fences and Polish soldiers have repeatedly blocked their entry. Some of the migrants have used logs, spades and other implements to try to break through.
“It was not a calm night. Indeed, there were many attempts to breach the Polish border,” Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak told broadcaster PR1.
Video from the border obtained by Reuters showed young children and babies among the people stuck there.
“There are lots of families here with babies between two or four months old. They have not eaten anything for the past three days,” the person who provided the video told Reuters, saying they were a migrant themselves and declining to be named.
The Polish border guards service reported 599 illegal border crossing attempts on Tuesday, with 9 people detained and 48 sent back. Blaszczak said the force of Polish soldiers stationed at the border had been strengthened to 15,000 from 12,000.
After midnight, two groups of migrants were turned back. One that was around 200 people near the town of Bialowieza and another of around two dozen was turned back near Dubicze Cerkiewne, a spokeswoman told Reuters.
Neighbouring EU state Lithuania, which followed in Poland’s footsteps by imposing a state of emergency at its border on Tuesday, reported 281 migrants were turned back that day, the highest figure since August when such push backs began.
The EU accuses Lukashenko of using “gangster-style” tactics in the months-long border standoff, in which at least seven migrants have died. The new EU sanctions would target around 30 individuals and entities including the Belarusian foreign minister, three EU diplomats told Reuters.
European Council President Charles Michel said the EU needed to make up its mind if it was ready to finance fences to help countries such as Lithuania protect the bloc’s external borders against a “hybrid attack” by Belarus.
Lukashenko’s government blames Europe and the United States for the plight of the people stranded at the border.
The crisis erupted after the EU, United States and Britain imposed sanctions on Belarus over its violent crackdown on mass street protests that were sparked by Lukashenko’s disputed election victory in 2020.
Lukashenko turned to traditional ally Russia for support and financing to ride out the protests. The migrant crisis has given Moscow an opportunity to double down on its support for Belarus, a country it regards a strategic buffer against NATO, and criticise the EU.
Poland denies accusations by humanitarian groups that it is violating the international right to asylum by hustling migrants back into Belarus instead of accepting their applications for protection. Warsaw says its actions are legal.
Some migrants have complained of being repeatedly pushed back and forth by Polish and Belarusian border guards, putting them at risk of exposure, lack of food and water.
“Yesterday we helped to secure and evacuate one group of immigrants,” said Michal Swiatkowski, 30, a member of the Polish Red Cross rescue group from Ostrowiec Swietokrzyski.
“There were 16 people, most of them were children. They did not require medical attention, although we donated warm clothes, blankets and some food,” he told Reuters.