Belarus’s authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko said that he wanted Russia’s Iskander missile system stationed in his country, amid mounting tensions over the migrant crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border.
The EU has accused Lukashenko’s regime of orchestrating the crisis by funnelling thousands of migrants from the Middle East to Belarus’s borders with the EU and encouraging them to enter the bloc illegally. The EU is preparing to respond with a new round of sanctions on Minsk.
Lukashenko has already threatened to retaliate against any sanctions that are “unacceptable” for Minsk, raising the prospect earlier this week of cutting the transit of gas and goods through Belarus to Europe.
In an interview with a Russian magazine published on Saturday, he continued in his bellicose vein, saying that he wanted Russia’s Iskander missile system, which has a range of 500km and can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads, to be deployed to Belarus.
“At the moment, I am bothering your president [Vladimir Putin], that I need these . . . rocket launchers here ,” he told National Defence. “I need several divisions in the west, in the south, let them stand there.”
“I say to Putin: ‘the main thing is that you don’t flinch. So that I know that if it gets difficult, I have an older brother at my back, who will not allow his younger [brother] to be hurt’,” Lukashenko added, when asked by the magazine how Russia could support his regime.
Russia’s defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Lukashenko’s remarks. A former defence ministry official, Yevgeny Buzhinsky, told Russia’s Interfax news agency that he thought it was unlikely that Russia would accede.
“It is not in our interests to escalate the situation now,” he said. “If we start deploying now, then what prevents the Americans from deploying their missiles somewhere in Poland or in the Baltic states?”
The Kremlin has long been Lukashenko’s closest international ally, and as tension over the migrant crisis rose this week, it twice sent nuclear-capable bombers on patrols in Belarusian airspace. On Friday, Russian and Belarusian paratroopers carried out joint drills near the Polish border.
However, Putin has distanced himself from Lukashenko’s threats to cut off Russian gas supplies through Belarus to Europe, saying in an interview on Saturday with Russian TV that Lukashenko had not mentioned the idea to him, and that he hoped it would not happen.
“There is nothing good in this, and I of course will talk to [Lukashenko] about it,” Putin said. “Perhaps he said it in anger.”
The migrant crisis has left thousands of people, from countries including Iraq, Syria and Yemen, stranded between Belarusian and Polish forces on the countries’ border as the freezing eastern European winter approaches.
Polish officials said on Saturday that the body of a young Syrian man had been found the previous day near Wolka Terechowska, bringing the official number of migrants who have died in Poland, since the crisis erupted, to seven.
Polish officials said earlier this week that between 3,000 and 4,000 migrants were estimated to be at the border.