The European Union agreed new sanctions against Belarus on Monday that will hit Irish aircraft leasing companies, in a bid to stop the regime sending people from the Middle East to try to enter member states in a heightening crisis on the bloc's eastern frontier.
Foreign ministers backed the fresh measures at a Brussels summit held as a crisis worsens on the Polish border with Belarus, where thousands of people flown in from war-torn countries have gathered in the hopes of entering the EU.
"There are about 18,000 migrants that have been flown in, organised by the Belarusian regime from different parts of the world, from Syria, from Iraq, from Afghanistan, on the promise that they're going to be allowed into the European Union. They are bused to the borders of Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia," said Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.
“Of course, they’re not allowed in. And that has created a lot of tension. But it’s deliberately provoked by Lukashenko and his regime, and that’s what the EU is responding to today. And Ireland is very much supporting that.”
At least nine people have died on the border, where there are small children among the large crowds of people attempting to keep warm in sub-zero nighttime temperatures with campfires, tents, and shelters made from tree branches.
Travel agencies and airlines including Belarusian state carrier Belavia are expected to be sanctioned for their role in transporting the people. More than half of Belavia's fleet of planes are leased by Irish companies, and the sanctions will interrupt these agreements, potentially causing financial losses or the stranding of planes abroad.
“There’s about 30 planes in that fleet, and 17 of them are leased through aircraft leasing companies in Ireland,” Mr Coveney said.
“That is a consequence for us, but it’s absolutely the right thing to do,” he added. “The contracts under which they are leased to Belavia will essentially be cut, and those planes will either have to be returned, or I presume legal action will be taken.”
EU officials say that the flights are organised by Belarusian travel agencies with the backing of the Lukashenko regime, selling tickets and tourist visas to people with false promises that they can travel onwards to countries like Germany.
Diplomats have been in talks with Middle Eastern governments and have succeeded in halting flights to Minsk from several origin cities. The Iraqi government announced it would organise an evacuation flight back to Baghdad from Belarus for any of its citizens who wish to return.
But some EU countries called for tougher action, with Lithuania's foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis proposing the imposition of a no-fly zone into Minsk airport and "legal consequences for the people in the regime who participated in bringing all the people to Belarus and producing so much human tragedy on the border".
Estonia, which borders Russia, has warned that the actions of Belarus are not isolated, but may be part of a broader strategy to destabilise eastern Europe and test the resolve of the Nato alliance by Mr Lukashenko along with his most powerful ally, Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The United States warned allies in recent days that Russia was conducting troop movements and could be considering invading Ukraine, as it did in 2014. The EU's chief diplomat Josep Borrell said that EU foreign ministers received a "worrying" update from Ukraine that Russia had left heavy military materials en route to the country in a way that would allow Moscow to mobilise troops "quickly" if it wished.
“This is a crisis that has been artificially created,” Mr Borrell said of the border situation. “I’m not in the secrets of the talks between Putin and Lukashenko . . . but it’s clear Lukashenko is doing what he’s doing because he has the strong support from Russia.”