How Prigozhin's Presence Is Feeding Tensions At Belarus-Poland Border
Described as everything from a "migrant invasion" to a "hybrid attack", the crisis along Poland's border with Belarus has been heating up for the past two months. But the conflict has now been made worse by the arrival of the Wagner mercenary grouop in Belarus. This leaves migrants, many fleeing conflict elsewhere, stuck between the two borders.
This article has been updated on July 3, 2023 at 12:00
BIAŁYSTOK — Polish authorities had already been arming themselves for months in preparation for provocations and hybrid attacks from across the Belarusian border. But for the past week,tensions have multiplied since the Russian owner of the Wagner group — Yevgeny Prigozhin — arrived in Belarus after his aborted coup attempt.
On Sunday, Poland decided to send 500 more police from its counter-terrorism and riot control divisions to the border, citing the increased level of border crossing attempts, as well as the relocation of Wagner Group members.
Prigozhin's presence in Belarus followed negotiations with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, which provided that he would be exiled from Russia, rather than prosecuted for his attempted armed rebellion last week. Other members of the Wagner group are also reportedly settling in Belarus, though none have appeared in public for the past 10 days.
The increased geopolitical tensions in Belarus “could mark a new phase of hybrid warfare, a phase much more difficult than the one we have faced so far,” Poland's deputy prime minister and longtime ruling party leader Jarosław Kaczyński told audiences at a press conference last week. "Decisions have been made to strengthen our defense on the eastern border.”
Kaczyński's sentiments were echoed by Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak, who told Polish state broadcaster TVP that Poland "can expect hybrid attacks with the participation of these people", leading him and other senior government officials to reinforce security along the Polish border.
Polish inhabitants along the border fear that the zone may be closed once again, as it was when the crisis began, and Poland declared a state of emergency. Meanwhile, refugees, many from the war-torn areas of the Middle East, are stuck between two armies, fighting to survive.
From the beginning of last week, activists from various aid groups have noted greater numbers of troops, checkpoints, and air patrols, especially in the area surrounding the Białowieża forest, a national park located between the two countries.
Two weeks ago, Piotr Czaban, a journalist and activist from Podlaskie Volunteer Humanitarian Rescue, told Gazeta Wyborcza about the route. Only 15 kilometers ahead of Hajnówka, a Polish border town, the police are stopping and checking every vehicle, whether they are entering or leaving the area, searching the insides and the trunks.
He said he didn’t remember such strict controls since a state of emergency was declared in September 2021, excluding journalists, humanitarian workers, and non-residents from entering the area.
Pressure along the border
A 5.5 meter fence, topped with razor wire, has stood at the border with Belarus for a year now. The total cost of the project was around 1.7 million PLN (over €380,000). On June 15th, the project also received approval to install electronic security devices along the border. But, in spite of the danger it presents, the border fence was unsuccessful, and migrants and refugees continue to cross into Poland.
“Today we see even more pressure along the border than we did two or three months ago,” said the deputy head of the Ministry of Interior and Administration, Maciej Wąsik, during a session last month of the parliamentary subcommittee on citizens’ affairs, foreigners, and migration.
Lukashenko threatened to “flood” the European Union with “drugs and migrants.”
At the same time, he criticized activists who had been providing humanitarian assistance to refugees and migrants along the border since the crisis began in 2021: “We cannot allow (Vladimir) Putin and the Belarusian regime to impose this on us.”
The crisis, which has been ongoing for almost two years, began when Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko declared that he would “flood” the European Union with “drugs and migrants” if the EU imposed sanctions on Belarus. When his demands were not met, the Belarusian government proceeded to provide visas to migrants seeking to enter Europe, and actively funneled them into border zones with EU countries.
It has been described as everything from hybrid warfare to human trafficking by each of the affected governments, which include Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. But beneath the political debates, migrants have been stuck in the dangerous border zone and prevented from seeking asylum. For some, this has been fatal.
Attacks on border patrol
Colonel Arkadiusz Tywoniuk, deputy director of the border management board of the General Headquarters of the Border Guard, who was present at the meeting, reported that the Belarusian side is trying to open additional crossing points for migrants. According to his calculations, "there have been nearly 12,300 illegal attempts to cross the border" since the beginning of this year, and there is an "escalation of aggressive behavior by those who make such attempts".
In a video released on Twitter, the Polish border patrol shows instances of migrants throwing rocks and tree branches from behind the border fence, which they say are targeted towards guards.
“These foreigners are not only throwing branches, but also pieces of brick and cobblestones brought to them by the Belarusians,” the border patrol wrote in a tweet. “Several vehicles have already been damaged this year alone as a result of such attacks”.
On June 15, Colonel Tywoniuk stated that, a few days prior, Belarus fired an object in Poland’s direction for the first time. The object landed on a border guards’ vehicle, entering through a side window and exiting through the other end, shattering both. According to Tywoniuk, the projectile had “considerable speed”, when it hit the vehicle, which was transporting two Polish officers. Though the vehicle was damaged considerably, the two officers were not harmed by the event.
In April, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky surveys border region where Ukraine, Poland, and Belarus meet with Border Guard head Major General Serhii Deineko.
Ukrainian Presidents Office/ZUMA
New provocations from Minsk
According to Radio RMF, the Polish border guard is expecting that Belarus may direct larger numbers of migrants to the borders with Poland and Lithuania on July 11 and 12, during the NATO Summit in Vilnius.
We should expect to face propaganda attacks and further hybrid operations against Poland.
Fears among the Polish guard are also being exacerbated by the change in the position of the chairman of the State Border Committee of Belarus. Its former head, Anatol Łapo, has retired. His replacement, Konstantin Mołostow, came into power on May 30.
“The current changes will result in an increase of hostility towards Poland,” Stanisław Żaryn, spokesman for the Minister of Special Services Coordinator, wrote on Twitter. “We should expect to face propaganda attacks and further hybrid operations against Poland.”
He added that Mołostow allowed himself to be known as a participant in media attacks on the West, and has accused NATO of aggression against Belarus — and Poland specifically of militarizing its border with Belarus and treating foreigners inhumanely.
Żaryn states that the promotion of Mołostow has led him to believe that “subsequent attacks involving migrants” are to be expected, as are “a greater number of coordinated efforts with Russia”.
Migrants used for political gain
“The supposed threat that the crisis brings to whiteness, Polishness, and Catholicism was heaven-sent for Poland’s ruling party, and happened right at the time where PiS [Poland's ruling party] was experiencing a campaign crisis and friction in its headquarters,” Kamil Syller, a lawyer living along the border said. “The current leadership is truly lucky. They have specialized in creating public fears and building coalitions to fight against a common enemy.”
Last week, the EU agreed to a migration reform based on mandatory solidarity when it comes to migrant relocation. The measure necessitates that Poland accept a little under 2,000 refugees. In a response given last Thursday, party leader Jarosław Kaczyński expressed that Poland does not agree with the measure, and that it “must be subject to a referendum” in the country. “We will organize such a referendum,” Kaczyński promised. Such a vote would probably take place at the same time as the fall parliamentary elections.
“Many inhabitants of the vicinity of the Białowieża Forest are beginning to take rumors of a state of emergency more seriously,” Syller said. “This Orthodox-majority region is not an electoral El Dorado of the ruling coalition, so it can safely be sacrificed on the altar for political gains,” he said, adding that this could reactivate inflammatory sentiments against “‘parasites’ from Africa and the Middle East, uniting the rest of the country” under the premises of patriotism.
“We are also afraid of provocations and escalations of force between the armed services of Poland and Belarus,” he continued, emphasizing that “fear mongering is used in both countries to manipulate the public”. “The incidents at the border unfortunately serve the rulers of both countries well,” he said, adding, “the more unrest and danger there is at the border, the better for the ruling professionals from Warsaw and Minsk”.
Life or death
As a greater number of migrants continues to reach the Polish border, local aid groups enter into the nearby forest daily, providing humanitarian assistance to men, women and children. One organization, Grupa Granica (border group), reports that between May 25 and 31, a total of 269 migrants came to them for help. Forty-six of these were women, and three were in later stages of pregnancy. Thirty-three of the refugees who came to them were underage, and at least six of them came without being accompanied by an adult.
He had been left for dead, alone in a Polish forest for nine days.
From the beginning of the year, Grupa Granica recorded 625 humanitarian interventions. As a result, 1,660 people were able to receive legal, medical, and material support. These numbers have been increasing as the winter has come to an end: from January to February there were 36 such interventions, and in the month of May alone, there were 220.
On Saturday, activists from the Podlasie Voluntary Humanitarian Rescue found a man who clinging to life, more than a week after he had disappeared in the Białowieża Forest. Tarek, 37, from Aleppo, Syria, was left for dead, alone in a Polish forest for nine days. He was found by Katarzyna Mazurkiewicz-Bylok, Mariusz Kurnyta and Piotr Czaban.
They changed him out of his wet clothes, wrapped him in emergency blankets and a sleeping bag, and decided to transport him towards rescuers themselves when the ambulance’s arrival was delayed. Mauriusz, one of the three rescuers, made a makeshift harness out of his spare tracksuits, strapped it to his sleeping bag, and left the swamp, carrying the ailing Tarek on his back.
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