Merkel appeals to Putin to intervene in Belarus border crisis

Call comes after Polish PM said Russia was behind flow of people from Middle East to EU borders

Angela Merkel has asked Vladimir Putin to intervene in the crisis on the Belarus-Poland border in an appeal to Minsk’s key foreign sponsor as the EU prepared a new set of sanctions against Belarus.

In a phone call on a crisis that has escalated dramatically since Monday, when 1,000 people mainly from Iraqi Kurdistan arrived on the border, the German chancellor told Putin that the “use of migrants by the Belarusian regime was inhuman and unacceptable and asked [Putin] to influence the regime in Minsk”, according to the chancellor’s spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, who described the situation as “state-sanctioned human trafficking”.

The conversation came hours after Poland’s prime minister accused the Russian president of “masterminding” the surging numbers and underlined the role that regional alliances were playing in the standoff and ensuing humanitarian crisis. Thousands of people are in the forests along the border, where temperatures fall below zero after nightfall.

Russia has denied any involvement and blamed Europe. The Kremlin readout of the phone call with Merkel said Putin “proposed to establish a discussion of the [current] problems in direct contacts between representatives of the EU member states and Minsk”. It did not mention Merkel’s request that Putin intervene or promise any action from Russia to end the crisis.

But Moscow sent a potent message of support for Minsk on Wednesday as it dispatched a pair of nuclear-capable Tu-22M3 bombers on a patrol mission over Belarus. The Russian defence ministry called the rare deployment of the strategic bombers a preparedness check of Russia and Belarus’s joint air defence network.

Poland and neighbouring Lithuania have declared a state of emergency on their borders with Belarus, where the authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, has been accused of ferrying asylum seekers from the Middle East to the EU’s borders as revenge for the bloc’s criticism of his crackdown on opposition.

After a meeting of EU diplomats in Brussels on Wednesday, about 30 individuals and entities are facing sanctions, most likely including Belarus’s national air carrier, Belavia, and travel agencies. A full list of those to be targeted is expected to be finalised by the end of the week, then confirmed on Monday and brought into force next month.

The EU has already imposed sanctions on 166 individuals tied to the Belarusian regime, including Lukashenko and his son, since the president embarked on a campaign of repression against opponents in order to stay in power after disputed elections last August, including forcing the landing of a Ryanair flight in order to arrest a dissident.

An option to include Turkish Airlines and Russia’s Aeroflot in the sanctions regime for bringing people into Belarus from the Middle East was discussed but sources played down the likelihood of a decision being taken that would widen the scope of the crisis.

The arrival of more than 1,000 people, many from Iraqi Kurdistan, at the Polish border on Monday brought the crisis to a head, with the EU accusing Belarus of a “hybrid attack”. Polish border guards said on Wednesday that two groups of several dozen people had breached the borders overnight. They were arrested and expelled, they said. Lithuanian border guards said they had prevented 281 attempts to cross the border illegally on Tuesday.

Charles Michel, the European Council president, said during a visit to Warsaw on Wednesday that Belarus’s actions were unacceptable. “Possible sanctions are on the table … and we want to make sure that we coordinate with all the member states in order to make the best possible choices and to identify what are the best possible tools in order to be effective. It must stop, this hybrid attack against the EU,” he said.

Poland’s accusations against Russia, the most direct yet in a crisis in which the Kremlin has not played a direct role, came amid an extraordinary session of parliament on Tuesday as the prime minister called Putin an “enabler” of Lukashenko.

“This attack which Lukashenko is conducting has its mastermind in Moscow. The mastermind is President Putin,” Mateusz Morawiecki said in the Sejm, Poland’s lower house of parliament, which is dominated by the rightwing Law and Justice party.

Morawiecki said Putin was determined to “rebuild the Russian empire” and called the crisis at the border “a new kind of war, in which people are used as living shields”.

Moscow has been an increasingly crucial ally for Belarus in the past year as the EU has pushed Minsk further into isolation.

On Tuesday, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said western countries including EU member states, and Nato, were the “root” of the crisis. “They were pushing for a western-style better life and democracy the way it is interpreted by the west,” he said, referring to US-led interventions and alleged western backing for the Arab spring.

Belarusian travel agencies are accused of issuing visas and bringing in hundreds of people from Iraq, Syria and other countries to Minsk, from where they then travel west to try to cross the border and from Poland pass on to Germany. Many of the airlines are either Belarusian or based in the Middle East.

Asked whether Germany would take in migrants unilaterally, Merkel’s spokesperson said the question was “irrelevant”. A spokesperson for the German interior ministry said if Belarus did not provide humanitarian aid, then the European Union needed to do so, not just one member state.

Additional reporting by Philip Oltermann


Andrew Roth in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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