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EU Officials Threaten Increased Sanctions as Migrant Crisis in Belarus Escalates

A migrant crisis on the border of Belarus is threatening to become more volatile as fall creeps into winter, exposing thousands of people to even harsher conditions as they attempt to enter the European Union.

Approximately 2,000 migrants—mostly Kurds—are on the border of Belarus to cross into Poland. EU and U.S. delegations to the United Nations Security Council say the migrants were “lured” into Belarus to cross into Poland in revenge for EU sanctions on Belarus. 

“Western leaders have accused Alexsandr G. Lukashenko, Belarus’s autocratic leader, of engineering the crisis—creating a path into the European Union countries for migrants from the Middle East,” the New York Times reports. “His aim, they say, is to punish Poland and Lithuania for harboring dissidents and other opponents of his government and to pressure the EU into lifting sanctions. Western members of the United Nations Security Council condemned Belarus’s actions on Thursday.” 

The migrants are living in a tent camp on the border. It is estimated that eight people have died in the camp, including a 14-year-old boy after being exposed to freezing conditions, The Independent reports. Poland, meanwhile, has sent hundreds of troops and established a state of emergency in the region to keep them out. Western delegations at the United Nations Security Council said Belarus created this dynamic with the “objective of destabilizing neighboring countries and the European Union’s external border and diverting attention away from its own increasing human rights violations,” according to The Guardian.

Lukashenko also has support from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who demonstrated his commitment to supporting Belarus by sending two nuclear-capable strategic bombers on a training mission over Belarus on Wednesday and Thursday. Lukashenko has also threatened to cut off natural gas supply to Europe in retaliation for more sanctions.

“The Foreign Ministry must warn everyone in Europe: If they impose additional sanctions on us, that would be indigestible and unacceptable for us. We must answer,” Lukashenko said in comments as reported by a state news agency. 

The threats for more sanctions come after the EU has banned the Belarus state-owned airline, Belavia, from flying in EU airspace and airports after Belarus forced a Ryanair flight to land so an opposition journalist onboard could be arrested. 

“Since October 2020, the EU has progressively imposed restrictive measures against Belarus,” the European Commission said in a press release in June 2021 after the Ryanair flight grounding. “The measures have been adopted in response to the fraudulent nature of the August 2020 presidential elections in the country, and the intimidation and violent repression of peaceful protestors, opposition members, and journalists. A total of 166 persons and 15 entities are currently subject to restrictive measures, which comprise an asset freeze applicable to both individuals and entities, and a travel ban on individuals.”

The latest proposed round of sanctions would expand the sanctions to include almost 200 people—including Lukashenko and his sons—as well as institutions and companies, Reuters reports.

Lukashenko has been in power in Belarus since 1994. He was re-elected to power in 2020, but Western leaders and others considered the election process fraudulent. The current crisis also appears to be an escalation of his conflict with Europe, said Nigel Gould-Davies, a Belaurs analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former British ambassador to Belarus, in an interview with The Washington Post.

“We’re in new territory now, and I think that’s one point that emerges from this whole crisis,” Gould-Davies said, explaining that Lukashenko does not appear interested in restoring relations with Europe. “On the contrary, he’s burning more and more bridges all the time. He’s now making himself a threat to the outside world, so it’s very hard to judge what he might do now, based on his record in the past, because he’s becoming so much more unpredictable and volatile.”