Hold Belarus accountable for bid to ‘destabilise’ EU border, says West

The Guardian, 12.11.2021
Andrew Roth, corresponsal en Moscú

Western delegates on UN security council call for ‘strong reaction’ from international community, but make no mention of Russia

The United States and European delegations on the UN security council have urged action over Belarus’s behaviour on its border with Poland, describing the migrant crisis as “orchestrated” and saying Minsk was endangering migrants “for political purposes”.

Poland says the government of strongman Alexander Lukashenko has lured about 2,000 migrants, mainly Kurds from the Middle East, to Belarus for the purpose of sending them across the border into Poland and thus the EU in revenge for sanctions.

These people are now living in a tent camp on the border in near-freezing temperatures. Poland, which has established a state of emergency in the border region enforced by hundreds of troops, refuses to allow them in.

After an emergency meeting on the crisis the western delegations at the security council in New York issued a joint statement condemning:

“the orchestrated instrumentalisation of human beings whose lives and wellbeing have been put in danger for political purposes by Belarus”.

They said Belarus was doing this with:

“the objective of destabilising neighbouring countries and the European Union’s external border and diverting attention away from its own increasing human rights violations”.

This tactic is unacceptable and calls for a strong international reaction and cooperation in order to hold Belarus accountable,” the western statement said without mentioning any kind of concrete measures to punish Belarus.

“It demonstrates how the Lukashenko regime has become a threat to regional stability. We call on the Belarusian authorities to stop these inhumane actions and not to put people’s lives at risk,” it added.

Poland, along with other EU members such as Lithuania and Estonia, claim that Lukashenko has enabled thousands of people to travel from the Middle East through Minsk and to the EU borders as revenge for the sanctions imposed against him for his harsh crackdown on dissent in 2020. Belavia, the Belarusian state airline, has strongly denied it is involved in any trafficking of vulnerable people from Middle Eastern capitals such as Damascus to the border with the EU.

On Friday the airline said it would stop citizens of Iraq, Syria and Yemen boarding flights from Turkey to Belarus at the request of Turkish authorities. “In line with a decision by the ... Turkish authorities, citizens of Iraq, Syria, Yemen will not be accepted for transportation on flights from Turkey to Belarus from 12.11.2021,” Belavia said in a statement on its website.

The statement at the security council made no mention of Belarus ally Russia, whose deputy UN ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, rejected western allegations that it was working in conjunction with Minsk to send the migrants over the EU’s eastern border into Poland. “Absolutely not,” he said.

Lukashenko is backed by Russian president Vladimir Putin in the standoff, and the Kremlin leader staged another strong show of support for his ally by sending two nuclear-capable strategic bombers on a training mission over Belarus for a second straight day on Thursday.

Lukashenko has threatened to cut deliveries of gas to Europe via a major pipeline in retaliation against any new sanctions that the EU might impose in response to the border crisis.

The EU has called Lukashenko’s facilitation of illegal border crossings a “hybrid attack”. Belarus denies the allegations but has said it will no longer stop refugees and migrants from trying to enter the EU.

Ukraine said on Thursday it would deploy thousands of guards and security personnel to its border with Belarus. Ukraine’s interior minister, Denys Monastyrsky, said thousands of security personnel would run drills on the country’s shared border with Belarus “to counter a potential crisis with migrants”.

The Belarusian defence ministry said two Russian Tu-160 strategic bombers practised bombing runs at the Ruzany firing range, located in Belarus about 60km (37 miles) east of the border with Poland. As part of the joint training, Belarusian fighter jets simulated an intercept, the ministry said.

A pair of Russian Tu-22M3 long-range bombers flew a similar patrol on Wednesday, and Belarusian air defence assets practised intercepting them.

The Belarusian defence ministry said that such Russian bomber flights will be conducted on a regular basis.

The Russian military said the bombers spent over four-and-a-half hours in the air during the mission, intended to buttress the countries’ alliance. It said the bomber patrol “wasn’t aimed against any third countries”.

Asked about flights of Russian military planes over Belarus, Polyanskiy said this was in response to what he called a massive build-up of Polish forces on the border.

“We have our obligations also within the unity between Russia and Belarus. So if there is a build-up of military resources on the border with Belarus, we have to react. This is just reconnaissance flights, nothing more than this,” he said.

Asked if the deployment of Russian forces on the border with Ukraine meant Russia planned to invade its neighbour, Polyanskiy said: “Never planned, never did, and never will do, unless we’re provoked, of course, by Ukraine or by somebody else.”

Russia’s national flag carrier, Aeroflot, responded to reports that the EU was mulling sanctions against the airline for its alleged involvement in bringing to refugees and migrants to Belarus. Aeroflot strongly rejected the claim.

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