Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka held crisis talks with outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel on November 15, official media reported, as the European Union and the United States said they would slap fresh sanctions on Minsk for perpetuating a migrant crisis at the bloc's border with Belarus.
Poland, meanwhile, warned that more migrants were moving toward its border with Belarus amid the escalating diplomatic row.
Thousands of people, mainly from the Middle East, are stuck in makeshift camps in dire conditions on the Belarusian side of the border, trying to illegally enter the EU, which accuses Lukashenka of flying in migrants and funneling them to the bloc's borders to retaliate against Brussels for sanctions imposed following last year's disputed presidential election.
On November 15, the EU's 27 foreign ministers updated their Belarus sanctions package to include airlines, travel agents, and individuals allegedly involved in the standoff at Belarus’s borders with Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, which form the eastern flank of both the EU and NATO.
The bloc's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, told journalists after the ministers met in Brussels that agreement was reached on what will be a fifth round of sanctions to be announced in the coming days and target "quite an important number" of individuals and entities for "facilitating illegal border crossings into the EU."
The measures are expected to involve asset freezes and travel bans.
The United States said it was preparing new sanctions targeting the Belarusian regime in coordination with the EU over the "inhumane facilitation" of migrants.
State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that the sanctions would "continue to hold the Lukashenka regime accountable for its ongoing attacks on democracy and human rights and international norms."
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki also weighed in on the crisis, saying the United States is working with European Union allies and other partners on the issue.
"We are still calling on Russia and encouraging them directly to use its influence to press the Lukashenka regime to cease its callous exploitation and coercion of vulnerable people," Psaki said.
Belarusian state news agency Belta said Lukashenka and Merkel spoke for around an hour -- the Belarusian strongman's first phone call with a Western leader since he suppressed mass anti-government protests against the results of presidential elections last year.
According to Belarusian state media, the pair discussed ways to solve the crisis, and Merkel raised the issue of bringing humanitarian aid to the thousands stuck at the border.
In was not immediately clear who initiated the call, but last week Russian President Vladimir Putin had called on EU leaders to talk directly to Lukashenka and said Merkel was ready to do so.
Also on November 15, Putin discussed the crisis with French President Emmanuel Macron, with both sides saying the standoff should be de-escalated.
"The goal of this call was to put an end to this crisis," an adviser to Macron told reporters after the one-hour-and-45-minute call initiated by the French leader.
Lukashenka's government, which is backed by Russia, has denied the EU charges and accuses the bloc of violating human rights by refusing to allow the migrants to apply for asylum.
In response to the migrant crisis, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania have been reinforcing their borders with Belarus. Polish border guards on November 15 warned migrants on the other side of the frontier over loudspeakers that force could be used against them if they disobey orders, after Poland and Lithuania reported they stopped more than 100 people each attempting to enter the previous day.
The presidents of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia said in a joint statement after meeting with Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda via videolink on November 15 that Lukashenka and his government must be held accountable for human trafficking.
"We ... condemn the actions taken by the Lukashenka regime instrumentalizing migrants for political purposes," the three leaders said.
In a Twitter post earlier in the day, the Polish Defense Ministry said that "more and more groups of migrants are being brought to the Kuznica border crossing by Belarusian forces." A video attached to the post showed a big crowd behind a razor wire fence at the border.
The EU has already slapped four rounds of sanctions on Belarus over what the opposition and the West says were fraudulent presidential elections in August 2020 that handed Lukashenka power for a sixth consecutive term, and a security crackdown on the opposition and peaceful protesters that followed the vote.