The EU has agreed on new sanctions against Belarus targeting “everyone involved” in facilitating the transport of people to Belarus’s border with Poland, where thousands are stuck in makeshift camps in freezing weather.
The EU accuses Alexander Lukashenko’s regime of waging a “hybrid attack” against the bloc by allowing people from the Middle East who are desperate to reach the EU to fly into Minsk then head for the Polish border.
Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, said the decision by 27 EU foreign ministers reflected “the determination by the European Union to stand up to the instrumentalisation of migrants for political purposes”.
A list of people and entities to be hit by asset freezes and travel bans is expected to be finalised in the coming weeks. It will include “people, airlines, travel agencies and everyone involved in this illegal push of migrants against our borders”, Borrell said.
Lukashenko has vowed to retaliate. “They’re scaring us with sanctions,” he told officials on Monday. “We will defend ourselves. We can not retreat.” He did not announce specific measures.
Lukashenko had previously threatened to cut gas supplies to Europe via a pipeline from Russia. A Kremlin spokesperson on Monday said Vladimir Putin had expressed “confidence that this won’t affect the transport of gas”.
The EU decision was announced as a column of people converged on the Polish border for the second week running.
Video footage showed people walking out of a forest where they were encamped and making for the Kuźnica border crossing. The group was accompanied by Belarusian police in riot gear. When they reached the border, they were met by Polish riot police standing behind razor wire fencing. The standoff has continued into the evening with Poland deploying reinforcements to the border area.
The EU has already imposed four rounds of sanctions on the Belarusian authorities and senior officials over last year’s disputed election and the brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters that followed.
EU officials want to ensure the new sanctions list is legally watertight, to minimise the risk of being sued in the European court of justice. “We are all pushing to have this done yesterday, but the reality is that yesterday will probably come in two weeks,” said one diplomat ahead of the meeting.
Diplomats are also discussing tightening economic sanctions against Belarus by extending restrictions that already target the tobacco and potash industries – both vital sources of revenue for Lukashenko.
“We are far from the end of the spiral of sanctions,” said Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas. The Belarus flag carrier, Belavia, is among the airlines likely to be targeted and Maas called on other companies to follow the example of Turkish Airlines by restricting flights to Belarus’s capital.
“Those that don’t must expect tough sanctions. The situation is so dramatic that I can no longer rule out the denial of overflight rights or landing permission in the European area,” he said.
The sanctions list is thought unlikely to feature the Russian airline Aeroflot, although Poland and Lithuania have said they hold the Russian president responsible for the border crisis. “He [Putin] is driving this crisis together with Mr Lukashenko politically, that’s for certain,” Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, told reporters.
“Russia is using this crisis to destabilise the EU,” he added, describing migration as one of the most sensitive topics for the EU. “It’s an excellent weapon against us. And if we are unable to make a decision, then you can probably say ‘look, the EU is ineffective’ and that builds up new fires inside the EU.”
With reports of Russian troops massing near Russia’s border with Ukraine, Landsbergis suggested the Kremlin could be preparing an attack. “It is very likely that Ukraine could be attacked while we are dealing with the situation on the Polish, Lithuanian and Belarusian border,” he said. Belarus could also be attacked and Belarusian border guards replaced with Russian FSB agents, under a pretext of deeper cooperation between the two countries, Landsbergis claimed.
Landsbergis said Lithuania would be ready to help with any UN-organised repatriation of people to the Middle East, but ruled out return flights from his country.
An Iraqi official on Sunday announced that the country would organise its first repatriation flight for people trapped on the border between Belarus and Poland. The flight would leave on Thursday from Minsk.
The official did not say how many people the flight would transport to Iraq. According to an Iraqi government tally, 571 of its citizens have requested “voluntary” repatriation, the official said.
The number of Iraqis on the Belarus-Poland border is believed to be far higher. One Iraqi Kurdish official last week estimated that there were as many as 8,000 people from just that region at the border.
On Monday, Lukashenko said many of those camped out on the border with Poland would be unwilling to return to Iraq.
“We’re ready … to put them on planes that will carry them back home,” said Lukashenko in televised remarks to government officials. “But these are people who, it must be said, are very stubborn: Nobody wants to go back. And it’s clear why: they have nowhere to go back to.”
EU officials have held talks with countries in the Middle East to slow the flow of people, many from Iraq and Syria, to the border with Europe. But that will not solve the question of what to do with the thousands already trapped, in many cases denied entry to both Poland and back into Belarus.
Diplomats estimate between 10,000 and 20,000 people face increasingly harsh conditions in the border area as temperatures plummet.
In a highly unlikely scenario, Lukashenko also suggested that Belarus would be ready to transport people directly to Germany. “If the Poles don’t give us a humanitarian corridor, then we can take them to Munich on Belavia,” he said.