Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator, has warned that "nuclear superpower" Russia could be dragged into the escalating border crisis with Brussels.
The Belarusian leader said on Tuesday he did not want armed confrontation, but claimed his Russian allies could be drawn into the row over migrants on the border with Poland.
“We are not bullying,” he told the Belta news agency. “Because we know that if, God forbid, we make some mistake, if we stumble, it will immediately draw Russia into this whirlpool. And this is the largest nuclear power.
“I’m not crazy. I perfectly understand what this can lead to. Therefore, there is no heroism here – I won’t grab a machine gun and go to the Polish border.”
Mr Lukashenko’s intervention came after he was accused by the European Commission of acting like a “gangster” by using migrants as political pawns.
“This is part of the inhuman and really gangster-style approach of the Lukashenko regime that he is lying to people, he is misusing people, misleading them, and bringing them to Belarus under the false promise of having easy entry into the EU,” a commission spokesman said.
Polish soldiers were forced to form a human shield on Monday as migrants cut through the fence
Brussels also announced it was pressing more than a dozen countries – including Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon – to prevent their nationals leaving for Belarus and monitoring flights from another 20 states across Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It has already successfully leaned on Iraq to halt flights from Baghdad to Minsk.
Amid the mounting border crisis, Russia has publicly called on the EU to pay Belarus to shoulder the burden for thousands of migrants waiting on the bloc’s external border.
In a public show of support for Minsk, the Kremlin backed “responsible” Belarusian soldiers, who have been accused of transporting people to the Polish frontier in an “unprecedented” attack on the European bloc.
Migrant travel routes through Belarus
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, compared the crisis to 2015-16 and urged the EU to help Belarus deal with the influx of migrants, as it did when it paid Turkey €6 billion to stem the flow of people from war-torn Syria and Iran.
"During political discussions, some said: why, when refugees came from Turkey, the EU allocated funding so that they could stay on the territory of the Turkish Republic – why is it impossible to help Belarusians as well?" he said.
In another nod to the fears that surrounded the 2015-16 migrant crisis, Lithuania has claimed that dozens of migrants who had crossed over from Belarus in the past months belong to terrorist groups.
Poland on Tuesday sealed part of its border with Belarus as the prime minister warned that the attempted crossing of thousands of migrants that began on Monday posed a threat to the entire bloc.
"This hybrid attack of (Belarusian President Alexander) Lukashenko’s regime is aimed at all of us. We will not be intimidated and will defend peace in Europe with our partners from NATO and EU," Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said.
Migrants on the border of Belarus with Poland
Credit: Yuri Shamshur
"Sealing the Polish border is our national interest. But today the stability and security of the entire EU is at stake."
Belarus has responded by warning Poland against escalating tensions on the border, saying Warsaw’s treatment of migrants would be a "litmus test" of its commitment to international norms.
"We would like to warn the Polish side in advance against any provocations directed against the Republic of Belarus to justify illegal use of force against disadvantaged, unarmed people, among whom there are many children and women," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
Thousands of migrants
After being spotted massing on the Polish-Belarusian border on Monday and trying to break through barbed wire, around 4,000 migrants camped out on the Belarus side in freezing overnight temperatures.
Footage published by the Polish police on Tuesday showed migrants’ tents and campfires. They said on Twitter that the night was calm, although a rock was thrown at a police car on Monday.
At 6am on Tuesday, Polish authorities shut an official border crossing with Belarus, with Warsaw saying it had deployed additional soldiers, border guards and police.
Polish government spokesman Piotr Muller warned of a possible "escalation … which will be of an armed nature".
Poland Belarus border
Video clips show hundreds of migrants walking towards the Polish border near Kuznica village and some trying to breach a fence using spades and other tools.
A spokesman for Poland’s special services said estimates showed there could be up to 12,000 migrants in Belarus waiting to be sent to the border.
Minsk has been encouraging migrants to cross into the EU for months now in revenge for sanctions levelled at the country over human rights abuses following a widely contested election last summer.
Lukashenko’s policy is believed to have the backing of his ally Vladimir Putin and in recent days, Russia has increased its meddling in the crisis.
Many of the estimated 4,000 migrants by the border are children
Mr Lavrov on Tuesday blamed military interventions by Western democracy in the Middle East and North Africa for the arrival of so many migrants.
"The legs grow out of the policy that Western countries, including NATO and the EU countries, have been pursuing for many years in relation to the Middle East and North Africa, trying to impose on them a better life according to Western models, democracy in the form in which the West interpreted it," he said.
Moscow has urged Poland to let the migrants cross, citing concern for their wellbeing.
"In this situation, the most important thing is the life and health of a large number of people who have gathered at the border, require a pass across the border, require asylum in Poland, for example," the Russian president’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday.
"The Kremlin hopes that the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border will not develop in a way that poses threat to Russia’s security. Of course, it is tense, alarming. This requires a very responsible behaviour of all parties involved in this," Mr Peskov added.
“We see that Belarusian specialists are working very responsibly."
Stanislaw Zaryn, a senior Polish security official, accused Moscow of using the crisis to its own advantage.
"Since the beginning we have foreseen that Putin – accepting and supporting Lukashenko’s actions – will try to capitalise politically on the migration crisis, requesting consent for his demands in return for ‘calming the situation.’ An international political game has just begun." Mr Zaryn wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.
He warned that the number of migrants now in Belarus could total 15,000, saying there are up to 4,000 on the Polish border.
A Polish official said that if the tension increases in the coming days, additional international help may be needed. But Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski has told private Radio Zet that for now, Poland does not need assistance from the EU border guard Frontex.
The issue of EU help has so far proved a thorny one, with border policies seen as a strictly national issue. EU ambassadors at the United Nations are expected to meet to discuss the crisis later on Tuesday.
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s president, has previously ruled out spending EU funds on “barbed wire” fences across Poland’s border with Belarus.
But Horst Seehofer, Germany’s interior minister, on Tuesday backed Poland’s plans to build a border wall and urged the EU to “take action” to curb the number of migrants entering the bloc from Belarus, amid fears many are heading for Germany.
Migrants are seen on the Belarusian-Polish border
Credit: Leonid Shcheglov
“Poland or Germany can’t handle this alone,” he told the Bild daily. “We must help the Polish government secure their external border. This would actually be the task of the European Commission. I’m now appealing to them to take action.”
“We cannot criticise them for protecting the EU’s external borders," he added. “Not through the use of firearms, of course, but with other means that are available.”
Migrants gathering on the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region spent a feezing night outside
A senior official in the Lithuanian government has also said the EU needed to do more, telling Politico that extremists were infiltrating the flows of migrants.
“Since July 2021 at least two dozen irregular crossers of the EU eastern border have been identified as members of radical terrorist groups," the official said.
The terror threat means the EU should "take resilience more seriously," he added.
The EU has agreed to partially suspend a visa agreement with Belarus, which makes it easier for officials from Minsk to come to the bloc.
“The actions taken by Belarus breach the fundamental principles on which the Facilitation Agreement was concluded and go against the interests of the Union and its Member States,” according to an official EU document.
“In particular, those actions do not demonstrate respect for human rights or democratic principles, and provoke irregular migration from the territory of Belarus into the territory of the Union.”