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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Fear Or Fear-Mongering? What's Lurking Behind Poland's "Wagner Panic"

The presence of Russian Wagner paramilitary troops near the Polish border has sent the country's prime minister into a panic, while on the campaign trail. But are worries about the presence of a mere 100 mercenaries justified or is it somehow part of Mateusz Morawiecki's scare tactics, as in 2015?

Photo of Polish border guards watching migrants at the country's border with Belarus

Polish border guards watching migrants at the country's border with Belarus

Bartosz T Wielinski


WARSAW — The presence of an estimated 100 Wagner mercenaries near Belarus’s border with Poland has sent the country's leader into a panic. Though many who watched the Wagner group stage a failed coup in Russia believe that Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is being reasonably cautious, his recent behavior surrounding the Russian mercenaries has been called thoughtless and irresponsible by others.

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Traveling across Poland during his party’s electoral campaign, Morawiecki has made multiple references to the threat represented by the mercenaries sent in recent weeks to the Grodno region of Belarus, near the Polish border, for joint exercises with the Belarusian army.

Apart from Poland, Belarus also shares a western border with Lithuania. Our two countries are connected by the Suwalki gap, an ill-defined 60-100 km strip of land that Morawiecki and others say the Wagnerites want to exploit. However, in neighboring Vilnius, the atmosphere around Wagner has been cautious, but not more than that. The same can be said of nearby Latvia.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner group, and a war criminal who recently tried to overthrow Russian President Vladimir Putin, must be delighted with Morawiecki’s response. Moving 100 mercenaries was enough to send the head of the government in the fifth-largest EU country into a tailspin.

Words v. action​s

What should the authorities do in the face of such a threat to national security? First, they shouldn’t bring the subject up at campaign rallies under the guise of politics. While the issue has appeared along the campaign trail, Poland has not convened its National Security Council to discuss the situation on the border with Belarus. Nor has Poland invoked article 4 of NATO, which allows member states who feel threatened to call for consultations with their allies. Morawiecki’s claims would indicate that the time was right for this, and yet it hasn’t occurred.

Polish authorities speak about a great threat and at the same time ignore it.

Why isn't the prime minister consulting Poland’s neighbors? At the end of 2021, seeking justification for pushing migrants back into the forests of the borderlands, Morawiecki traveled half of Europe. Now, if he wanted to, he would be heard in EU capitals with considerable attention. Among European leaders, Morawiecki knows President Alexander Lukashenko best. The Belarusian dictator received him at an audience in Minsk in October 2016. But the Polish prime minister only talks about Wagnerites at family picnics in smaller towns, as he makes his way closer to upcoming elections in the fall.

And, even if he didn’t want to go so far as NATO, why has Morawiecki not alerted the European Union? If, as he suggests, Russian mercenaries are going to disguise themselves as migrants along the border and cross the border fence built by his own party, which was supposed to be insurmountable, why did we not ask for support through the EU's Frontex agency for our Border Guard?

Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki attends a press conference that marks the end of building of the physical barriers between Poland and Belarus.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki at the Poland-Belarus border

Dominika Zarzycka/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Remember 2015?

In response to the threat, the government has reinforced the border forces with 500 police officers. Is the ruling party truly trying to warn of an impending security crisis, or reverting to its old tricks from its first campaign successes? As a reminder, when Morawiecki's Law and Justice (PiS) party first won the parliamentary majority in 2015, its campaign largely focused on fear-mongering surrounding the then-ongoing EU migrant crisis. Now, the same issue has been given a contemporary twist.

Polish authorities speak about a great threat and at the same time ignore it. They bring it to the campaign trail rather than treating it with the severity they imply it deserves.

This can be treated as a manifestation of classic PiS incompetence, but perhaps we should ask ourselves whether the threat is really as serious as panicked Prime Minister Morawiecki pretends. Or is it a political ploy designed to revive a campaign — or maybe even an excuse to declare a state of emergency and cancel the upcoming elections, as a last-resort way of securing his party's future?

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Photo of ​King Charles III and French President Emmanuel Macron take part in a ceremony of Remembrance and wreath laying at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

King Charles III and French President Emmanuel Macron take part in a ceremony of Remembrance and wreath laying at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Michelle Courtois and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Kwei!*

Welcome to Thursday, where Poland says it will stop supplying Ukraine with weapons, India suspends visas for Canadians as diplomatic row escalates, and Kyrgyz shepherds come to Sicily’s rescue. Meanwhile, Laura Rique Valero of independent Spanish-language media El Toque tells the story of skilled Cuban workers forced by the government to take jobs abroad, and then preventing them from ever coming home.

[*Atikamekw, Quebec, Canada]

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