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Warsaw is planning a big military build-up along its border with Belarus to counter what the government sees as an increasing security threat from Russia’s ally and host of Wagner paramilitary fighters.
Poland’s defence minister Mariusz Błaszczak said on Thursday that about 10,000 soldiers would eventually be stationed on the Belarus border or nearby. The goal was to move troops “closer to the border with Belarus to scare the aggressor so that they do not dare to attack us”, the minister told Polish national radio.
He did not give a timeframe for the project and the defence ministry later clarified that most of these new troops would probably be training rather than carrying out military operations near the border.
The rightwing government in Warsaw, which is preparing for re-election, had already announced this week that it would double an existing contingent of soldiers at the border to 4,000.
The reinforcements coincide with Belarusian military exercises close to the Polish border. Minsk said the drills were designed to draw on experiences from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, including the use of drones.
Last month’s relocation to Belarus of Wagner fighters and an increase in migrants attempting to cross the border illegally add to Warsaw’s security concerns. Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki last week warned that Wagner was potentially preparing “sabotage” actions against Poland and Lithuania.
But Błaszczak’s planned military ramp-up also comes two days after president Andrzej Duda kicked off the official election campaign by fixing October 15 as the date for the parliamentary vote. The ruling Law and Justice party, or PiS, has turned national security and sovereignty into battle cries to convince voters to grant it an unprecedented third consecutive term in office.
“There is a real threat from Russia or Belarus, but you have to remember that the election campaign is under way,” said Maciej Milczanowski, a political scientist with the University of Rzeszów, a city close to Ukraine. “Rightwing parties always gain when there are threats, so pumping up threats may seem to benefit the ruling party.”
Poland’s mounting concerns about Belarus are shared by the Baltic states, in particular Lithuania, which is also sending more border guards and has been discussing with Poland whether to close their borders with Belarus completely.
Poland faced 4,000 attempted illegal border crossings last month — about one-quarter of the total for all of 2022 — which represented “another stage of the hybrid war”, said Polish commander of the border guards Tomasz Praga on Monday.
The increase comes after Poland built a steel fence along almost half its border with Belarus to avoid a repeat of the migrant crisis of 2021, when Minsk lured tens of thousands of migrants from African and Middle Eastern countries to Belarus and sent them across its borders with EU members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Polish officials have also talked about Wagner possibly using its African operations to help bring more refugees to Belarus’s border with Poland.
“Many Poles are afraid, especially after the recent statements of prime minister Morawiecki who presents the Wagner group as a great threat to Poland,” said Milczanowski. “Such words must be followed by a reaction.”
Morawiecki estimated last week that there were at least 4,000 Wagner troops in Belarus, but their most recent whereabouts are unclear. Minsk has published pictures showing Wagner fighters training Belarusian forces and warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin has posted videos showing him in a tent resembling those set up for his fighters. But he has also travelled back to Russia since, including to meet African leaders, raising speculation on social media that his militia will not stay long in Belarus.
The Polish opposition, meanwhile, is seeking to capitalise on any perceived government blunders. After two Belarusian military helicopters briefly entered Polish air space last week, opposition leader Donald Tusk said it was unacceptable that the authorities acknowledged the incident only after locals posted videos on social media.
“Our problem is also the government that failed to cope with the situation,” Tusk said.