Wagner Presence in Belarus Threatens NATO’s ‘Eastern Flank,’ Polish PM Asserts
Wagner Presence in Belarus Threatens NATO’s ‘Eastern Flank,’ Polish PM Asserts

By Adam Morrow

The presence of Wagner Group fighters in Belarus constitutes a threat to Poland and NATO’s “eastern flank,” Poland’s prime minister said on Aug. 3 amid mounting tension between Warsaw and Minsk.

“The Wagner Group is extremely dangerous, and they are being moved to the eastern flank of the NATO alliance to destabilize it,” Mateusz Morawiecki said.

The Polish leader made the assertion after meeting with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda in Poland’s eastern Suwalki Gap region.

After staging a short-lived mutiny in June, fighters from Russia’s Wagner Group began arriving in Belarus, a key Russian ally. They currently are training units of the Belarusian army at facilities near Poland’s border.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko walks to a news conference in Minsk, Belarus, on July 6, 2023. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

Some NATO members fear that the Wagner presence only miles from NATO-aligned territory could serve to destabilize an already tense region.

Mr. Nauseda, meanwhile, floated the possibility of closing Lithuania’s border with Belarus in the event of perceived escalations.

Steps such as that should be “coordinated between Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia,” he said.

Poland and Lithuania have been NATO members since 1999 and 2004, respectively. They both staunchly support Ukraine in its war effort and both share lengthy borders with Belarus.

Minsk Denies Violation

Mr. Morawiecki’s remarks follow Poland’s accusation that Belarus violated its airspace on Aug. 1 with two military helicopters near the Polish border village of Bialowieza.

“If such incidents continue—and there is an escalation of tensions—our actions will respond to the threat,” Polish Deputy Defense Minister Wojciech Skurkiewicz said.

Speaking to Polish media on Aug. 2, he went on to describe the alleged breach as a “provocation aimed at NATO’s eastern flank and the Republic of Poland.”

U.S.-made Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems are pictured near Zamosc, Poland, on Feb. 18, 2023. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)

However, Minsk accuses Poland of having fabricated the story in order to justify an ongoing troop buildup near the Belarusian border.

Belarusian officials say they have provided their Polish counterparts with “detailed air-situation data concerning flights … in the border area on Aug. 1.”

“The data confirms that there are no grounds for accusing [Belarusian aircraft] of having violated the border,” the Belarusian Defense Ministry said on Aug. 2.

Yet despite the denials, Warsaw this week announced plans to send “additional forces and resources” to the border, including combat helicopters.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has urged Warsaw to “refrain from escalating the situation and using it as a pretext to militarize border areas.”

Border Buildup

Over the past month, Poland has steadily reinforced its military presence along its roughly 250-mile border with Belarus.

In early July, Warsaw dispatched 500 police officers to the border region. A week later, it sent 1,000 more troops to the country’s east.

Polish officials cite the recent arrival of Wagner Group fighters in Belarus as justification for the deployments.

Last month, Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said reinforcing the border showed his country’s readiness “to respond to attempts at destabilization.”

Belarusian and Russian officials, meanwhile, say the eastward troop movements suggest preparations by Poland for “larger-scale aggressive actions.”

On July 22, Boris Gryzlov, Moscow’s envoy in Minsk, warned that Russia and Belarus—which are bound by their own defense treaty—were prepared to “repel any threat” to their collective security.

One day earlier, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius stressed Berlin’s readiness to support Poland’s defense of NATO’s eastern flank.

Poland’s President Andrzej Duda (L) welcomes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as they meet at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, Poland, on April 5, 2023. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP Photo)

Ukraine–Poland Friction

Meanwhile, recent days have seen unusual friction between Ukraine and Poland after a Polish official suggested that Kyiv should show more appreciation for his country’s support of Ukraine’s war effort.

“It would be worthwhile for Kyiv to start appreciating what role Poland has played for Ukraine over past months and years,” Marcin Przydacz, a Polish presidential adviser, was recently quoted as saying by the Polish media.

On Aug. 1, Ukraine’s foreign ministry said it had informed the Polish ambassador in Kyiv that such statements were “untrue and unacceptable.”

Mr. Przydacz also raised hackles in Kyiv when he said Warsaw should defend the interests of Polish farmers, referring to a Polish ban on Ukrainian agricultural imports.

In May, the European Union allowed Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia to prohibit the domestic sale of Ukrainian wheat and other commodities.

Mr. Przydacz reportedly supports extending the ban, which is set to expire on Sept. 15.

“What is most important today is to defend the interest of the Polish farmer,” he was cited as saying.

In an apparent bid at reconciliation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently underlined Kyiv’s appreciation for Poland’s “historical support.”

“We will not allow any political instants to spoil relations between the Ukrainian and Polish peoples,” Mr. Zelenskyy asserted on social media.

Remarking on the spat, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov predicted more “discord” between Kyiv and Warsaw.

“The Poles have many claims to Ukraine,” he told reporters on Aug. 2. “A wide range of historical events … have left a deep imprint on the state of their relations.”

“Polish farmers aren’t fond of Ukrainian grain, and Polish citizens aren’t fond of supporting Ukrainian refugees,” Mr. Peskov said, adding that Moscow is following Kyiv–Warsaw relations “very closely.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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