The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has asked Vladimir Putin to intervene in the crisis on the Belarus-Poland border in an appeal to Minsk’s key foreign sponsor.
In a phone call, Merkel told Putin that the “use of migrants by the Belarusian regime was inhuman and unacceptable and asked [Putin] to influence the regime in Minsk”, said the chancellor’s spokesperson, Steffen Seibert.
The conversation came hours after Poland’s prime minister accused Putin of “masterminding” the crisis on Belarus’s border with the EU.
The escalating rhetoric, including claims from the Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, that Russia could join a potential conflict at the border, has underlined the role that regional alliances are playing in the standoff and ensuing humanitarian crisis.
Russia has denied any involvement and blamed Europe. The Kremlin readout of the phone call with Merkel said Putin “proposed to establish a discussion of the [current] problems in direct contacts between representatives of the EU member states and Minsk”.
It did not mention Merkel’s request that Putin intervene, or promise any action from Russia to end the crisis.
Poland and Lithuania have declared a state of emergency on their borders with Belarus, where Lukashenko has been accused of ferrying asylum seekers from the Middle East to the EU’s borders as revenge for the bloc’s criticism of his crackdown on opposition.
The arrival of more than 1,000 people, many from Iraqi Kurdistan, at the Polish border on Monday brought the crisis to a head. Polish border guards said on Wednesday that two groups of several dozen people had breached the borders overnight. They were arrested and expelled, they said. Lithuanian border guards said they had prevented 281 attempts to cross the border illegally on Tuesday.
At an extraordinary session of parliament on Tuesday evening, the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, pointed the finger of blame for the crisis at Moscow and Putin, calling the Russian leader an “enabler” of Lukashenko.
“This attack which Lukashenko is conducting has its mastermind in Moscow. The mastermind is President Putin,” Morawiecki said in the Sejm, Poland’s lower house of parliament, which is dominated by the rightwing Law and Justice party.
Morawiecki said Putin was determined to “rebuild the Russian empire” and called the crisis at the border “a new kind of war, in which people are used as living shields”.
The remarks are the most direct accusations against Russia yet in a crisis where the Kremlin has not played an overt role. Belarusian travel agencies have issued visas and brought hundreds of people from Iraq, Syria and other countries to Minsk, from where they then travel west to try to cross the border and from Poland pass on to Germany. Many of the airlines carrying them are Belarusian or based in the Middle East.
Moscow has been an increasingly crucial ally for Belarus in the past year, backing Lukashenko after his brutal crackdown on protests and after his grounding of a Ryanair flight in May that set off a fresh round of sanctions and pushed Minsk further into isolation.
EU countries have threatened new sanctions and accused Lukashenko of “human trafficking” and “gangster-style” tactics.
On Tuesday, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said western countries including EU member states, and Nato, were the “root” of the crisis.
“They were pushing for a western-style better life and democracy the way it is interpreted by the west,” he said, referring to US-led interventions and alleged western backing for the Arab spring.
Lukashenko and Putin held a phone call to discuss the border crisis on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a military alliance of ex-Soviet states, said it was following the crisis “very closely and with concern”.
“The migrant crisis may evolve into a great disaster for thousands of civilians, including numerous women and children,” the CSTO secretariat said in a statement. Dominated by Moscow, the group is seen as the Kremlin’s answer to Nato.
Earlier, western media reported remarks from a Nato spokesperson that the military alliance “stands ready” to provide help to end the crisis.
Reuters reported on Wednesday that the EU was close to imposing more sanctions on Belarus, targeting 30 individuals and entities including the foreign minister and the Belarusian airline Belavia, with approval likely as early as next week.
A German foreign ministry spokesperson said EU foreign ministers planned to expand sanctions at a meeting on Monday, including against third-country states providing assistance to Belarus’s trafficking plans. A “great bandwidth of measures” is being considered.
Asked whether Germany would take in migrants unilaterally, Merkel’s spokesman said the question was “irrelevant”.
A spokesperson for the German interior ministry said if Belarus did not provide humanitarian aid, then the European Union needed to do so, not just one member state.
Additional reporting by Philip Oltermann