Border conflict: Belarus crisis: New sanctions are coming – Lukashenko threatens to boycott gas

Brussels The helpers come secretly, they bring water and hot soup, pillows and blankets for the people in the Polish-Belarusian border area. Several thousand refugees are staying here in the forest, some of them for four weeks.

Now winter is coming. In the night from Wednesday to Thursday, the temperature dropped to minus four degrees Celsius. For the coming week minus ten degrees are predicted. The situation is life-threatening.

The majority of the refugees are young men, but there are also many children, even babies, and the elderly. A helper who, out of fear, wants to remain anonymous, tells the Handelsblatt that she fetched a refugee from the forest and brought him home. Then she took him to Warsaw so that he could come to Germany from there, as Poland refused to accept the asylum procedure.

The Polish government has declared a state of emergency and declared the border area a restricted zone. Journalists and aid organizations do not get through. Not even the European border protection agency Frontex has access, Poland refuses to cooperate – probably because human rights monitors come to the border area with the EU staff. All images that come to the public from the Polish side are controlled by the state.

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How long can the EU watch the dramatic situation on its eastern border? No other question is currently so preoccupying for the Brussels institutions. Europe is facing a “hybrid attack”, said Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen after a meeting with US President Joe Biden in Washington on Wednesday. The Europeans want to demonstrate determination and punish the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko for his inhumane actions. “This is not a refugee crisis, this is an attempt by an authoritarian regime to destabilize its democratic neighbors,” von der Leyen clarifies.

In fact, there is no doubt who is responsible for the suffering of the refugees. Lukashenko had refugees from the Near and Middle East flown into the Belarusian capital Minsk for weeks. Iraqis, Kurds, Syrians and Afghans, lured with the promise of being able to get to Germany via Belarus and Poland.

First the refugees gathered in Minsk. Now the regime is driving them to the limit, into a no man’s land from which there is practically no way out. Only a few refugees manage to break through the Polish barbed wire.

Foreign ministers decide on sanctions on Monday

Europe is in a dilemma. Of course, Europeans could just take in people. But that would only motivate Lukashenko to organize even more smuggling flights and to further increase the pressure. A number of EU states are warning of precisely this pull effect, and the outgoing Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) has also spoken in this direction. The EU is deeply divided on refugee policy, Lukashenko knows that and exploits this weakness in a perfidious way.

So far, the EU states only agree that there must be new sanctions against Belarus – and that as soon as possible. As early as next Monday, the foreign ministers want to expand the existing sanctions list by around two dozen people and organizations, the Handelsblatt learned from EU circles. In total, the EU will then have approximately 200 supporters of the regime of ruler Alexander Lukashenko with entry and property bans.

The Belarusian state airline Belavia should also find itself on the new sanctions list. European companies would then be prohibited from leasing aircraft to the company.

At the same time, the EU foreign ministers’ meeting is to lay the legal foundations for targeting other airlines that take part in Belarusian smuggling activities. To this end, the sanctions regime is to be supplemented by aiding and abetting people smuggling.

For the first time, not only Belarusians could be sanctioned for supporting the Lukashenko regime, but also members of third countries. For example travel companies and organizers of charter flights. To thwart the dictator’s plans, the EU is also threatening international airlines such as Emirates and Turkish Airlines, which offer scheduled flights from Dubai and Istanbul to Minsk. Sanctions against the Russian airline Aeroflot are also not ruled out in Brussels. In view of the dramatic situation in the Polish-Belarusian border area, Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) has also announced consequences for Lukashenko.

Lukashenko, on the other hand, has already threatened the EU with retaliatory measures for new sanctions – specifically by turning off the gas for Europeans. Part of the Russian-European Yamal-Europe pipeline runs through Belarus. However, only a small part of the gas is transported from Russia to Europe via the pipeline. The main volumes flow through Ukraine and the Nord Stream 1 Baltic Sea pipeline.

Lukashenko is covered by Russia during his provocations. The outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel has therefore called the Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin again. But there is currently nothing to suggest that Moscow will abandon its support for Lukashenko.

Dispute over money for Polish border fences

The EU is trying to demonstrate unity in order to get the dictator to give in. The Belarusian ruler “should know that he will never be able to blackmail the EU,” says von der Leyen. But whether she is right is anything but clear.

Behind the façade of determination, the EU’s internal turmoil is becoming more and more apparent. Poland is demanding European financial aid to further strengthen the border. Von der Leyen rejected it, but it is coming under increasing pressure. EU Council President Charles Michel, who represents the interests of the member states, has not explicitly ruled out a European contribution to fortifying borders.

The dispute between the EU Commission and Poland over the rule of law increases the tension. Brussels is holding back the money for Poland from the reconstruction fund. There is great outrage about this in Warsaw, and the mood is irritable. That also makes it more difficult to resolve the crisis.

There is therefore no sign of rapid help for the refugees. A humanitarian catastrophe looms. And with growing desperation, clashes between refugees and Polish border guards.

There is great fear among those who make it across the border that they will be sent back to the Belarusian side. Some Polish residents call the police when they see refugees. The east of Poland in particular is shaped by nationalism and supports the course of the Polish government.

How dramatic the situation is can only be guessed at. In the border area it is said that Belarusian soldiers are driving refugees into border rivers – even when people protest that they cannot swim. 100 refugees are said to have drowned in the process, but no one has yet been able to verify these numbers.

But for the Polish aid worker, who does not want to be named in order to protect her, one thing is clear: If the government did not lift the state of emergency to allow aid workers and Frontex to enter the border area, the people in the forest would die.

More: Comment: The Belarus crisis is the final dress rehearsal for a serious EU foreign policy

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