Russia dispatched two Tu-22M3 strategic bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace and practice interoperability with armed forces of command posts from the two economic and politically partnered nations, Russia’s ministry of defense announced on Wednesday.
“During the flight, the aircraft practiced interoperability with the ground command posts of the armed forces of Russia and the Republic of Belarus,” the ministry said in a statement, Russian news agency TASS reported.
“The Russian planes participated in a check of operations by the combat teams on air defense combat alert in the Union State’s integrated regional air defense system,” it added.
The ministry noted that after all the assigned tasks were completed, the long-range bombers returned to their home airfield in Russia.
Tupolev Tu-22M3 bombers are capable of carrying nuclear missiles, including hypersonic ones of the kind designed to evade sophisticated Western air defenses.
Moscow flying the two bombers over Belarus comes as the European Union considered sanctions on Wednesday to punish Minsk for what it calls an artificially created crisis in relation to illegal immigration. The Kremlin said that deploying the two aircraft was not connected with the border crisis and was to help test Belarus’s joint air defense system.
On Wednesday, Russia blamed the European Union for the crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border, accusing it of failing to live up to its own humanitarian ideals and of trying to “strangle” Belarus with plans to close part of the frontier.
Tensions at the border have continued to escalate and have been simmering for months. Polish authorities have already deployed more than 15,000 soldiers at the border.
The EU accuses Belarus of encouraging illegal immigrants to attempt crossing the frontier illegally in revenge for earlier sanctions imposed on Minsk over human rights abuses, something Belarus denies.
Ambassadors of the 27-member bloc are set to agree on Nov. 10 that the growing numbers of illegal immigrants flying to Belarus to reach the EU border amount to “hybrid warfare” by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko—a legal basis for new sanctions.
Earlier this week, a large group attempted to illegally cross the border, with some cutting razor wire fences and using tree branches and small trees to try and climb over barriers set up by Polish troops. Clashes between Polish troops and illegal immigrants have already led to injuries on both sides.
Humanitarian groups have claimed Poland is violating the international right to asylum by pushing illegal immigrants back into Belarus instead of accepting their applications. Warsaw has said its actions are legal.
In a statement on Monday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that she hoped the additional sanctions will be “finally approved” as she accused Belarus of putting people’s lives at risk.
“I am calling on member states to finally approve the extended sanctions regime on the Belarusian authorities responsible for this hybrid attack,” von der Leyen said. “The EU will, in particular, explore how to sanction, including through blacklisting, third-country airlines that are active in human trafficking.
EU commissioners will travel in the coming days to the main countries where the immigration originates and to those countries traversed by illegal immigrants to ensure that they take actions preventing “their own nationals from falling into the trap set by the Belarusian authorities,” von der Leyen added.
Moreover, the EU will explore options working with the United Nations “to ensure that migrants can be safely returned to their country of origin, with the support of their national authorities,” she said.
Ella Kietlinska and Reuters contributed to this report.