Two Russian warplanes patrolled Belarusian airspace in a show of support on Wednesday as Minsk turned to its ally Moscow for backing in its border stand-off with the EU.
The two countries hit back at accusations they are behind the chaotic scenes unfolding at Poland’s border with Belarus. Several migrants were arrested on Wednesday for trying to force their way into Poland as the months-long dispute escalates, with hundreds of people stranded at the border.
Soldiers and barbed-wire fences have blocked the path into the bloc for most of the migrants, some of whom are camping in freezing temperatures at the border.
Polish border guards reported 599 illegal crossing attempts on Tuesday, with nine people detained and 48 sent back across the frontier.
Young children and babies were among those stranded — with Poland suspecting Belarus of selecting vulnerable migrants and coaching them to look bedraggled.
Russia has been drawn into the tension as EU leaders await a possible intervention from Moscow, the main ally and security guarantor of Belarus.
Both ex-Soviet countries are under sanctions by the bloc linked to domestic political repression. Belarus is suspected of ferrying migrants to the EU’s eastern border in retaliation.
On a visit to Russia on Wednesday, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said his country was hoping for “mutual support” from the Kremlin.
This could include a “joint response regarding unfriendly actions against our country”, he said.
The two Tu-22M3 bombers that Russia sent to fly over Belarus are capable of carrying nuclear missiles, including hypersonic ones of the kind designed to evade sophisticated Western air defences.
Mr Makei’s Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov said the two countries had “closely coordinated our approaches”.
He accused the West of waging an anti-Belarusian campaign led by the EU, US and organisations such as the UN and Council of Europe.
Russia responded with anger to suggestions from Poland that it was responsible for the developing crisis at the border.
At the White House meanwhile, US President Joe Biden hosted the head of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen for talks.
She said the US and the EU view the crisis as an attack by the Lukashenko regime.
”We absolutely share the assessment that this is the hybrid attack of an authoritarian regime to try to destabilise democratic neighbours," she said.
“This will not succeed."
Ms der Leyen said she anticipated additional US and EU sanctions on Belarus. The US in August imposed broad sanctions on Belarus, with some targeting its security, energy, potassium chloride (potash) and transportation sectors not going into effect until December 8.
The EU will be broadening its sanctions at the beginning of next week. Additional US-EU sanctions could target the airlines transporting migrants into Minsk, she said.
“We will look into the possibility of sanctioning airlines who facilitate human trafficking towards Minsk, and then [onto] the EU-Belarus border.”
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Wednesday described Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, as the mastermind of the situation.
“Claims from the Polish prime minister that Russia is responsible for the situation are completely irresponsible and unacceptable,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Poland also blamed Belarus for trying to stir up emotions with images of vulnerable migrants stranded at the border.
Humanitarian agencies have raised concerns about the welfare of the migrants as a cold winter looms.
The migrants often report being forced to cross the border by Belarusian officials, then being pushed back into Belarusian territory by Polish authorities.
'Look dirty and tired'
Belarus is thought to routinely transport families including pregnant women or children to the border, said Stanislaw Zaryn, a Polish government spokesman.
“Take the kids, hug them, look dirty and tired,” he quoted an alleged text from Belarusian security services as saying.
“This serves to stir up guilt and other mixed emotions among the Polish troops, but also to use these most vulnerable migrants for the purposes of extremely suggestive propaganda efforts,” he said.
“The migrants who arrive in Belarus end up as weapons in the hybrid war waged by [Belarus President Alexander] Lukashenko. They are duped and used by the dictator.”
These public relations efforts “fit squarely within the long-term goals of the Russian propaganda”, he said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel took a more diplomatic approach with Moscow, urging Mr Putin to put pressure on the Belarusian regime.
“She underlined that the instrumentalisation of migrants by the Belarusian regime is inhumane and unacceptable,” her spokesman said.
Mr Putin responded by telling European leaders to deal with Belarus directly, according to the Kremlin’s readout of the call.
“Concern was expressed about the humanitarian consequences of the migration crisis,” Mr Putin’s office said.
Elsewhere, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken cautioned Russia against "any escalatory or aggressive actions" in neighbouring Ukraine at the conclusion of a US-Ukraine strategic dialogue meeting in Washington.