France warns Russia as EU prepares sanctions against Belarus

  • EU targets airlines and travel agents in Middle East
  • Belarus says claims it caused crisis are absurd
  • Poland says up to 4,000 people stranded at Belarusian border
  • EU urges Kremlin to put pressure on Minsk; Moscow offers mediation

BRUSSELS / WARSAW / MOSCOW, Nov. 15 (Reuters) – France told Russia on Monday that NATO would be ready to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty, near where NATO said Moscow had organized an accumulation of troops, as Western leaders sought to cope with a migrant crisis on the European Union’s eastern borders.

The European Union has agreed to strengthen sanctions against Belarus over thousands of migrants stranded in frozen forests on its borders with the EU. Belarus, a close ally of Russia, said claims it fueled the crisis were “absurd.”

Speaking by phone to Russian President Vladimir Putin amid a flurry of conversations between Western leaders and Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, the French leader expressed deep concern over the border situation from Ukraine.

“Our desire to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine has been reiterated by the president,” an adviser to Macron told reporters about the conversation initiated by Macron.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously called a statement by the US State Department that the border crisis in Belarus was aimed at distracting from increased Russian military activity near Ukraine, another former Soviet republic.

The EU seeks to end what it says is Belarusian policy aimed at pushing migrants towards it in revenge for earlier sanctions following crackdown on last year’s protests against the contested re-election of the veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko.

Belarus and Russia have both repeatedly denied any role.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said earlier Monday that NATO does not want to speculate on Russia’s intentions towards Ukraine, while adding: to take aggressive actions against the Ukraine.

UNITED STATES CONCERN

The US Department of Defense said it continued to see Russia concentrate its forces as well as unusual military activity near its border with Ukraine. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the build-up was concerning and that US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin would meet with his Ukrainian counterpart on Thursday.

Russia-backed separatists took control of Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region in 2014 in a raging conflict. Moscow also annexed Crimea to Ukraine earlier that year after the former Soviet republic sought to strengthen ties with the EU.

Moscow claims the Black Sea waters around Crimea, although most countries consider the peninsula to be still Ukrainian.

In the Kremlin’s reading of the appeal with Macron, Putin said the large-scale military exercises organized by the United States and its allies in the hinterland were a “provocation.”

“This increases the tensions in relations between Russia and NATO,” said the Kremlin.

The two leaders also spoke about the migrant crisis. Macron’s adviser said they agreed on the need for de-escalation while the Kremlin reiterated Russia’s insistence that the EU discuss it directly with Minsk.

Migrants gather around a fire at a makeshift camp on the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region of Belarus on November 14, 2021. Photo taken on November 14, 2021. Oksana Manchuk / BelTA / Handout via REUTERS

Migrants – mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan – started appearing at Belarus’ land borders with the EU this year, trying to cross Lithuania, Latvia and Poland on roads never used before.

EU top diplomat Josep Borrell said a fifth package of sanctions had been approved by EU foreign ministers and would be finalized in the coming days. They would target airlines, travel agencies and individuals involved in “this illegal surge of migrants,” he said. Read more

Latvia said Monday it has deployed 3,000 troops for a previously unannounced military exercise near the border. She, Lithuania and Poland make up the eastern flank of the EU and NATO, while Ukraine is not a member of either of the two western groups.

Several hundred migrants, some throwing stones, made another attempt on Monday to cross the border near the Polish village of Starzyna, but were turned back, Polish police said on Twitter. Read more

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Lukashenko discussed humanitarian aid for refugees and migrants by telephone, a German government spokesperson said.

The talks are the first known contact between the Belarusian president and a Western leader since last year’s presidential election in Belarus sparked mass protests by protesters accusing Lukashenko of electoral fraud, a charge he denies.

Merkel and Lukashenko agreed to continue their exchange, the spokesperson said, but gave no sign that a breakthrough had been made. Merkel has spoken to Putin twice in recent days.

AIRLINES COMPANIES

Middle Eastern travel agencies working with operators in Belarus have provided tourist visas to thousands of people in recent months, according to a Reuters survey.

The EU executive, the European Commission, said it was investigating whether other airlines should face sanctions after the bloc banned Belarusian public carrier Belavia from its skies and airports . Ireland has said EU aircraft leases with Belavia will also end. Read more

Lukashenko said Belarus was trying to persuade migrants to return home but none of them wanted to return. Minsk would retaliate against any further EU sanctions, he said.

The EU has been tightening sanctions against Belarus for months. Restrictions already in place include the blacklisting of Lukashenko, his son and 165 other Belarusian officials, as well as restrictions on the trade in potash, a major export.

In Washington, the White House said it was in close contact with EU allies to hold the Belarusian government to account.

The Kremlin, which sent strategic bombers to patrol Belarus, said Putin held talks with Lukashenko on Sunday and that Moscow did not intend to divert gas flows from Belarus despite the threat. from Minsk to cut off transit to Europe through the Yamal gas pipeline.

At least eight people have died along the 200 km (124 mile) land border between Poland and Belarus, including from cold and exhaustion. The sparsely populated area of ​​lakes, swamps and forests becomes even more hostile to people trying to warm up around bonfires on cold November nights.

Borrell of the EU urged Warsaw to allow humanitarian aid at the border, where Poland has deployed some 20,000 police, border guards and soldiers.

Reporting by Robin Emmott, Sabine Siebold, Philip Blenkinsop, Maria Kiselyova, Dmitry Antonov, Tom Balmforth, Vladimir Soldatkin, Olzhas Auyov, Gabriela Baczynska, Alexander Ratz, Thomas Escritt, Pawel Florkiewicz and Andrius Sytas; written by Gabriela Baczynska and Philippa Fletcher; edited by Catherine Evans, Andrew Heavens and Howard Goller

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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