Russian President Vladimir Putin was warned by Emmanuel Macron on Monday that NATO would be prepared to defend the sovereignty of Ukraine, near where NATO says Moscow has been staging a troop buildup, while Western leaders sought to tackle a migrant crisis on the eastern borders of the European Union.
But according to EU expert Wolfgang Munchau, the Communist leader is “holding the reins” over both crises, exposing the EU’s inability to promptly unite behind either a migration policy or a defence strategy.
The Eurointelligence director wrote: “The EU faces a security and migrant crisis at its eastern borders.
“The provocations from Belarus and Russia expose the weaknesses in the EU when it comes to responding to both crises appropriately and credibly.
“The EU is imposing sanctions on those smuggling people to the Belarus borders.
“It intends to halt the migrants coming to Belarus, but this won’t address the problem of the migrants already at the borders.”
The European Union agreed to step up sanctions against Belarus over thousands of migrants stranded in freezing forests on its borders with the EU. Belarus, a close Russian ally, said assertions it had fuelled the crisis were “absurd”.
Speaking by telephone to Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of a flurry of conversations between Western leaders and Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, the French leader spoke of his strong concern over the situation on Ukraine’s borders.
“Our willingness to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity was reiterated by the president,” an adviser to Macron told reporters of the conversation Macron initiated.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov earlier dismissed as “wrong” a US State Department statement that the Belarus border crisis was meant to distract attention from increased Russian military activity close to Ukraine, another former Soviet republic.
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The EU is seeking to stop what it says is a policy by Belarus to push migrants towards it to avenge earlier sanctions over a crackdown on protests last year against veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko’s contested re-election.
Belarus and Russia have both repeatedly denied any role.
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 triggered mass protests by demonstrators accusing Lukashenko of electoral fraud, a charge he denies.
Merkel and Lukashenko agreed to continue their exchange, the spokesperson said, but gave no sign a breakthrough had been made. Merkel has spoken twice to Putin in recent days.
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But Mr Munchau argues talks between the two EU leaders with Belarus and Russia were counterproductive.
He said: “Will Lukashenko play along? Berlin did not reveal much about the phone call, other than that Merkel and Lukashenko discussed humanitarian aid for migrants.
“For Lukashenko, the phone call itself is a success, as it boosts his role as a legitimate negotiating partner.
“What will come out of the two-hour conversation Putin had with Macron is less clear.
“The two phone calls were obviously coordinated. Russia continues to hold the reins.”
Middle East travel agencies working together with operators in Belarus provided tourist visas to thousands of people in recent months, a Reuters investigation showed.
The EU’s executive, the European Commision, said it was looking into whether other airlines should face sanctions after the bloc banned Belarus’ state-owned carrier Belavia from its skies and airports.
Ireland said EU aircraft leasing contracts with Belavia would also end.
Lukashenko said Belarus was trying to persuade migrants to go home but that none of them wanted to return. Minsk would retaliate against any new EU sanctions, he said.
The EU has been stepping up sanctions on Belarus for months.
Curbs already in place include blacklisting of Lukashenko, his son and 165 other Belarusian officials, as well as restrictions on trade in potash, an important export.