Two Russian Tu-22M3 strategic bombers flew over Belarus on Wednesday, in a signal of support for Minsk as tensions on the Poland-Belarus border continue to grow over a migrant crisis.
The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that the two bombers helped test Belarus’ regional integrated air defense system, as well as building interoperability between the ground command posts of the Russian and Belarusian military. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense released a photograph and video of one of the Tu-22M3s (better known as the Backfire, its NATO reporting name) flying alongside a Belarusian Su-30SM, saying that similar flights will now be conducted on a “regular basis” going forwards. According to the Ministry, the presence of the Russian Backfires was a response to the “emerging situation” in the air and on the ground.
While neither Moscow nor Minsk referred to the migrant crisis by name in their statements about the overflight, the statement follows accusations by the Kremlin that the European Union was attempting to “strangle” Minsk by allowing Poland to close down border crossings. In a joint press conference with Dmitry Peskov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said that the two countries were providing mutual support to each other “including in terms of a joint response to unfriendly activity against our countries”.
During a Wednesday appearance on radio, Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said that attempts to break through the border fence had been made at several points along the border, after being initially centered around a major border crossing near the village of Kuznica. The border crossing had been sealed after Polish authorities said that a camp of around 1,000 migrants had been set up near the crossing, on the Belarusian side of the border. Polish authorities accuse Belarusian soldiers of supplying migrants with tools to destroy the fencing, following previous incidents where Belarusian soldiers attempted to break down fencing themselves.
The European Commission has described Minsk as employing an “inhuman and really gangster style approach” by “deceiving” migrants from the Middle East and North Africa into coming to Belarus with promises of easy entry into the European Union. The EC has since moved to partially suspend the EU-Belarus visa facilitation agreement for Belarusian government officials, and has indicated that it is exploring further sanctions, including sanctioning airlines “active in human trafficking”.