Russia dispatched paratroopers to Belarus Friday amid growing tension between the Minsk government and Poland over increasing numbers of migrants along their border — and fears in the West that Vladimir Putin could soon launch an invasion of Ukraine.
The Kremlin’s Defense Ministry said that forces will parachute from heavylift Il-76 transport planes in Belarus’ Grodno region — which borders Poland — as part of joint war games involving Belarusian air defense assets, helicopter gunships and other forces.
Russian officials added that the troops will practice targeting enemy scouts and illegal armed formations, among other tasks.
Belarus said the maneuvers are meant to test the readiness of the two nations’ rapid response forces due to an “increase of military activities near the Belarusian border.”
The European Union has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — a staunch ally of Putin — of encouraging illegal crossings into Poland by migrants, many of them from the Middle East, in retaliation for EU sanctions over Lukashenko’s crackdown on dissidents. Belarus has denied the allegations, but has said it is not going to stop any migrants from crossing into the 27-member bloc.
Meanwhile, Poland’s defense minister said Friday that British military engineers had arrived to assist Warsaw’s troops in bolstering their defenses at the Belarus border. The UK’s Daily Telegraph reported that Mariusz Blaszczak described the effort as a “reconnaissance” mission and said he would provide more details once the effort was complete.
On Thursday, Belarus accused Poland of an “unprecedented” military buildup on the border, saying that migration control did not warrant the concentration of 15,000 troops backed by tanks, air defense assets and other weapons.
The flare-up has caused concerns in Washington, London and Brussels, with EU foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano telling reporters Friday: “We continue to watch the situation and the information we gathered so far is rather worrying.”
Stano added that the EU is “open to look at further steps as necessary.”
In a statement, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance “strongly condemns the continued instrumentalisation of irregular migration artificially created by Belarus as part of hybrid actions targeted against Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia for political purposes.”
“These callous actions endanger the lives of vulnerable people,” added Stoltenberg, who vowed that NATO would “remain vigilant against the risk of further escalation and provocation by Belarus at its borders with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, and will continue to monitor the implications for the security of the Alliance.
“NATO Allies call on Belarus to cease these actions, to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to abide by international law.”
Speaking in Paris, Vice President Kamala Harris said Friday that she believed Lukashenko is “engaged in very troubling activity” and said the US was “very concerned” about the crisis.
“The eyes of the world and its leaders are watching what is happening there,” she added.
Meanwhile, the US has warned its European allies that Russia may be weighing an invasion of Ukraine as Washington monitors a troop buildup on the frontier between the two nations. Bloomberg reported Thursday, citing a White House official, that American concerns about the situation are based on evidence and trends that carry echoes of Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US is “monitoring the region very closely” and would “continue to consult closely as well with allies and partners on this issue.”
“As we’ve made clear, any escalatory or aggressive actions would be of great concern to the United States,” said Blinken, who spoke alongside his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba.
Russia has denied any nefarious intention.
“We have repeatedly said that the movement of our armed forces on our territory should not be a cause for concern,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, per the Telegraph. “Russia does not pose a threat to anyone.”
With Post wires