By Joanna Plucinska and Andrius Sytas
WARSAW, Poland – Countries bordering Belarus expressed concern on Thursday that a crisis over growing numbers of migrants trying to break through its frontiers into the European Union could escalate into a military confrontation.
Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia condemned “the deliberate escalation of the ongoing hybrid attack by the Belarusian regime, which is posing serious threats to European security”, referring to charges that Belarus is using migrants as a weapon.
“This increases the possibility of provocations and serious incidents that could also spill over into military domain,” a joint statement by the Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian defence ministers said.
Migrants stranded inside Belarus threw rocks and branches at Polish border guards and used logs to try to break down a razor wire fence overnight in new attempts to force their way into the EU, the authorities in Warsaw said on Thursday.
The EU may impose new sanctions on Belarus as soon as Monday after accusing Belarus of mounting a “hybrid attack” on the bloc by encouraging thousands of migrants fleeing war-torn parts of the world to try to cross into the bloc.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, already under sanctions for cracking down on protests, threatened to retaliate against any new measures, including by shutting down the transit of natural gas via Belarus. Europe’s gas market, where prices have hit record highs in recent weeks, would be highly sensitive to any interruption in the flow of Russian gas via Belarus.
The crisis has sparked a new confrontation between the West and Russia, which dispatched two nuclear capable strategic bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace on Wednesday in a show of support for its ally. Belarus said Russian planes carried out drills for a second day on Thursday.
“Yes, these are bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons,” Lukashenko said. “But we have no other option. We must see what they are doing there beyond the borders.”
He also said attempts were being made to transfer weapons to the migrants, in what he described as a provocation in comments carried by Belarus state media. He did not provide any evidence and it was not clear who he was accusing of doing this.
The Kremlin said Russia had nothing to do with tensions on the border and suggested the presence of heavily armed people on both sides – an apparent reference to Belarusian and Polish border guards – was a source of concern. The Kremlin also rejected as “crazy” a suggestion in a media report that its state flag carrier Aeroflot could be targeted with retaliatory sanctions.
Trapped between two borders, the migrants have endured freezing weather in makeshift camps. Poland has reported at least seven migrant deaths in the months-long crisis and other migrants have expressed fear they would die.
None of around 150 migrants gathered near the town of Bialowieza managed to breach the border, the spokeswoman for the border guards service Ewelina Szczepanska told Reuters, saying there had been 468 attempts at illegal crossings on Wednesday.
Neighbouring EU state Lithuania, which like Poland has imposed a state of emergency on the border, also reported new attempts to breach the frontier.
Foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said Lithuania asked the United Nations to discuss creating a “humanitarian corridor” from the Belarusian border for the migrants to return to their countries of origin.
“We have information from social media, that there are people at the border who want to come back, to Iraq and other countries. The only international organization that can pressure Belarus is the United Nations”, he told reporters in Vilnius.
Poland’s deputy foreign minister Pawel Jablonski said the crisis is “the worst threat Poland has faced in the last thirty years”, telling Italian daily La Stampa it expects an escalation in the coming days.
EU foreign ministers may approve a fifth Belarus sanctions package on Monday that could include further listings of individuals and companies, a diplomat said on Thursday. The bloc’s executive commission said airlines that bring migrants would be on the list.
Ukraine said its border guards, police and national guard would hold drills on the border with Belarus on Thursday to protect the country from possible attempts by migrants to breach the frontier. While not an EU member, Ukraine is wary of becoming another flashpoint in the crisis.
The EU accuses Lukashenko of manufacturing the situation in revenge for earlier sanctions after the veteran leader unleashed a violent crackdown on mass street protests against his rule in 2020. Lukashenko and Russia have said the EU was not living up to its humanitarian values by preventing migrants from crossing.
Large groups of people fleeing conflicts and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere started flying to Minsk this spring. They then travel to the border with EU members Poland, Lithuania or Latvia and try to cross.
Poland’s prime minister has urged the EU to take action to stem the flow of airlines ferrying migrants to Minsk.
EU Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas was in the United Arab Emirates on Thursday as part of a visit to countries in the region whose airlines are operating flights to Belarus, diplomats and officials said.