Poland has made bold pronouncements about bolstering its forces by the thousands on the border with Belarus in recent days, as tensions run high between the NATO member and one of Russia’s main allies.
Poland shares a sizable border with Belarus, a country that Russia used as a staging ground for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The government in Warsaw has staunchly supported Ukraine throughout the 18-month war — while regularly warning of potential threats from Belarus. It also is facing a critical national election in two months.
Here’s a look at what has caused the latest escalation of tensions in the area.
Why are tensions rising again?
Last week, two Belarusian helicopters breached Polish airspace, heightening jitters in the region. Two days later, Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, warned against “provocations” and “sabotage actions” from Belarus by the relocated Wagner fighters, who he said numbered at least 4,000. At the same time, Poland’s Border Guard sent a request to the Defense Ministry for an additional 1,000 soldiers to reinforce the border.
On Wednesday, the ministry approved double that number, saying 2,000 soldiers would be deployed and bringing the total number of troops there on active duty to 4,000.
Poland’s defense minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, went further on Thursday. He told the public broadcaster Polskie Radio that an additional 6,000 troops would be “in reserve” beyond the 4,000 on active duty. The reserve troops “will improve their skills in the garrisons recreated in the east of our country,” the minister said.
Is this just about the war in Ukraine?
Polish authorities have said that the troop deployments are aimed at deterring both a threat from Wagner and from migration — a hot-button issue for the far-right government. Critics of Poland’s government suggest that politics could be at play ahead of upcoming elections.
Opponents of Poland’s governing Law and Justice party, PiS, have long accused the government of fear-mongering over the Belarus border for domestic political gain.
In November 2021, Polish and European authorities accused the longtime autocratic ruler of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, of luring migrants from the Middle East and Africa with flights and visas and then pushing them into Poland to try to destabilize the country and gain diplomatic leverage.
In order to burnish its image as a stalwart defender of Polish sovereignty, the authorities described the migrants as part of a “hybrid war,” sent 15,000 troops to the border and built an 18-foot razor-wire-topped wall along 115 miles of the border. Rights groups accused the authorities of beating and pushing migrants back into Belarus.
Now, facing a tough general election in October, the governing party has revived the border issue in recent weeks, citing the presence of Wagner mercenary fighters in Belarus as a grave threat to Poland, in what the opposition and some independent analysts view as a pre-election stunt to rally the party’s nationalist base.
“It seems that Law and Justice is looking for help from the Wagnerites out of fear of the elections,” Donald Tusk, the leader of the main opposition party, Civic Platform, said late last month.
On Thursday, Mr. Blaszczak, the Polish defense minister, said that the continued rule of his party, Law and Justice, was the “only guarantee” if the country wants to have Europe’s strongest land army.
What is Belarus saying?
On Thursday, a senior Belarusian official accused the country’s “Western neighbor” of “trying to whip up tension” with “provocative statements” about “imaginary threats from the east.”
“These far-fetched pretexts are used to step up the militarization of Poland and the Baltic states,” the official, Aleksandr Volfovich, said, according to Belta, Belarus’s state news agency.
Russian officials have not directly responded to the latest developments on the border. However, Russia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, said on Wednesday that existing threats to Russia’s security were “related to the militarization of Poland.”
Andrew Higgins, Anatol Magdziarz and Cassandra Vinograd contributed reporting.