The EU on Monday moved to crack down on a border crisis with Belarus amid fears that Russia may use the cloak of chaos to send troops across its own border.
In a Monday meeting, EU foreign affairs ministers agreed to expand the bloc’s existing sanctions on Belarus so they can punish any airlines or officials involved in bringing migrants from their home country to the Belarus-EU border — a ploy the EU calls a “hybrid attack” on the bloc. There are currently several thousand migrants stranded at the Belarus border with Poland, camping in freezing temperatures without consistent access to food and water.
Arriving at Monday’s meeting, Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, said the process of stopping the flights carrying migrants to Minsk “is almost done” and that “the inflow of human beings is becoming under control.”
Yet that hasn’t abated the anxiety among some EU allies, who appear increasingly unsettled over an interwoven development — a significant Russian military buildup along its Ukrainian border. The surge in troop presence has left officials speculating that Russia may be plotting another Ukrainian invasion, or perhaps even a Belarus intervention or annexation.
“Both options are available,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis warned during a briefing Monday.
In a sign that EU officials have a wary eye on the Kremlin’s behavior, foreign ministers on Monday agreed to start preparing sanctions against the Russian private military contractor Wagner. The company, said French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, carries out “destabilization actions. Notably, Wagner mercenaries previously fought alongside Russian and separatist forces in Ukraine, where Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, as well as in Syria.
While the step targets Wagner’s current activities in Africa, it is designed to potentially go farther down the road. And to speed up the process, the sanctions will be based on existing legal frameworks. According to one of the diplomats, the proposal came from France and others quickly endorsed it.
The approach underscores how intertwined the Belarus situation has become with Russia’s plans. Some countries, including Poland and Ukraine, have directly accused the Kremlin of pulling the strings on the Belarus migrant scheme. Russia both politically supports and borders Belarus.
“Russia is clearly using Belarus to achieve its strategic goals, one of which is to destroy the security environment in Europe,” said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Ukraine’s defense minister from 2019 to 2020. “Russia has been doing this in various ways for a long time, and this is one of their methods: The use of Belarus as a battering ram.”
EU officials on Monday sought to at least quell the Belarus border tensions, advancing its fifth package of sanctions against the country. Diplomats said the new names and entities should be agreed to in the coming days, and even indicated a sixth round of penalties was already under consideration.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas threatened “severe economic sanctions” against any airline that does not stop migrant flights to Minsk. In addition to the Belarus-owned airline Belavia, several Russian carriers, as well as Turkish Airlines and FlyDubai, fly into Minsk.
“The situation is so dramatic that even the denial of overflight rights or landing permits in the European Union can no longer be ruled out,” Maas told reporters. “We will now continue down this path of severity because there is no alternative.”
Meanwhile, Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday directly called Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko to address the situation. The two discussed the “difficult situation on the border,” with a specific focus on delivering “humanitarian assistance” to those stranded there, according to the German government.
Still, some officials were critical of the EU’s reaction time: “Too slow, too little, too late,” was the reaction of one senior EU diplomat.
With sanctions looming, Belarus on Monday sent its first signals of de-escalation. The country’s authoritarian-inclined leader, Alexander Lukashenko, said he was working to repatriate the stranded migrants and Belavia said it would stop accepting passengers from many Middle Eastern countries. But diplomats were deeply skeptical of the pledges.
Indeed, the border standoff touches on more than simply the number of migrants trying to enter the EU — a change from the 2015 Syrian migration surge, which focused on the 1 million-plus people who came to Europe. This time, Russia’s goals loom over everything.
In addition to the Moscow troop build-up, the Kremlin last week sent 250 paratroopers to Belarus in a show of support for its ally. Some Western allies are also fearful that Moscow is orchestrating a repeat of its 2014 Ukraine invasion, during which it annexed Crimea.
The actions have grabbed attention not just at the EU, but also across town at NATO headquarters. On Monday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met with Ukraine Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba to discuss the issue.
“NATO remains vigilant,” Stoltenberg said in a press conference. “Any further provocation or aggressive actions by Russia would be of serious concern,” he added, pressing Russia “to be transparent about its military activities.”
There are fears, however, that getting any Kremlin aid could come at an unacceptable price: The formal annexation of Belarus. The anxiety is especially profound in Eastern Europe, where officials note that Russia absorbing Belarus would make the country a more direct neighbor to two new EU countries, Lithuania and Poland. Russia currently borders EU members Finland, Estonia, Latvia.
Landsbergis, the Lithuanian foreign minister, argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin is part of the problem, not the solution. He noted that his country is “seeing increased pressure on our border, as well.” And he evoked fears of a Belarus annexation.
“We have to take into account and not forget the fact that there’s also a possibility that Belarus could be attacked,” he said. It might not be a traditional attack, but it could come more gradually, with an “increased military cooperation between Belarus and Russia” that ultimately masks “a permanent military presence.”
Sergei Kuznetsov contributed reporting.
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