Poland’s Ministry of Defense said that two Belarusian helicopters training near the border violated Polish airspace in the eastern Bialowieza region. The U.S. Department of Defense characterized the incident as an “incursion into Polish airspace by Belarusian aircraft” in a statement Friday.
Polish troops are getting redeployed from the west to the eastern border, Poland’s Defense Minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, said. Helicopters from the 1st Aviation Brigade of the Land Forces and the 25th Air Cavalry Brigade are now headed towards the border with Belarus, according to Gen. Marek Sokolowski, a training inspector at the Armed Forces General Command. And they won’t hesitate to respond with arms.
“The helicopters are armed and ready for combat. There are some very experienced pilots with full flight authorizations, there are pilots here who used onboard armament and missiles in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Sokolowski said, according to TVP. “If there is anything of concern, they will not hesitate to use armaments.”
The flare up and rapid buildup on the border is the latest sign that Russia’s war in Ukraine and its cascading geopolitical consequences are creating yet another possible military flashpoint.
Polish officials have been warning against possible aggression since Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko made a deal with the Wagner Group to call off a rebellion in Russia and relocate to Belarus. Wagner mercenaries have since been filtering into Belarus, according to a recent White House National Security Council assessment. The Russian mercenaries have been training with Belarusian troops six miles from the border with Poland for several weeks now.
Approximately 100 Wagner mercenaries moved closer to Poland, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned Saturday. The fighters were approaching the Suwalki Gap—a strategic swath of territory between Belarus and Kaliningrad, a Russian territory—fueling concern that “extremely dangerous” Wagner fighters are preparing for a “hybrid attack on Polish territory,” Morawiecki said.
As the thinking goes, Wagner fighters, with either Lukashenko’s or Russian President Vladimir Putin’s blessing or urging, may seek to lash out against neighboring Poland, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Poland has served as a major hub for channeling Western military aid for Kyiv since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, making it a prime target.
Lukashenko himself has suggested that the Wagner mercenaries are itching for their next conflict. “The Wagner guys have started to stress us. They want to go west. ‘Let’s go on a trip to Warsaw and Rzeszow,’” Lukashenko said just last week.
“Keep a close eye all of the time.”
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with Poland’s defense minister Blaszczak over the phone on Friday to discuss how the Biden administration and Poland can work together to prevent broader conflict given the recent incidents, according to a readout from Poland’s defense ministry.
“Our commitments and allied tasks are clear—together we take care of our security. We are allies,” Blaszczak said.
Austin expressed support for Poland’s response, adding that he and Blaszczak are “mutually committed to continue monitoring the situation closely,” according to a Department of Defense readout.
It’s not just Poland eyeing Belarus with increased consternation about possible confrontation—Lithuania and Latvia are on edge as well.
Poland and Lithuania held an urgent meeting Thursday to discuss the growing threat from Wagner mercenaries. Lithuania’s President, Gitanas Nauseda, warned that the Suwalki Gap, which also runs along Lithuania’s border, could be a first objective for Belarus and Russia if they sought to expand the war in Ukraine to more direct confrontation with NATO, of which Lithuania is also a member.
“The Suwalki Corridor remains a potential target of provocation by both Russia and Belarus,” Nauseda said. Wagner Group is “an additional security risk factor for Lithuania, Poland and NATO allies… We remain vigilant and prepared for any possible scenario.”
Lithuania has started taking action against Belarusians looking to live in the country in recent days. The government has identified 254 Belarusian citizens as threats to national security, and is revoking hundreds of Belarusians’ temporary residence permits this week, local outlet LRT reported.
Lithuania has also revoked some Belarusians’ permanent residency permits, while others have been denied new permits. Hundreds of Belarusians and Russians have been banned from entering Lithuania as part of the action.
Poland’s interior minister and Lithuania’s interior minister were in talks Friday about how to close all border crossings to people in Belarus.
“In a telephone conversation with the Minister of the Interior of Lithuania [Agne Bilotaite] we agreed on the schemes of joint reactions and to emerging threats from [Belarus], up to the possible closure of all border crossings and complete isolation of the Lukashenko regime,” Kaminski said Friday.
Latvia is also carefully watching Belarusian military actions, since Belarus no longer has just “regular” Belarusian guards stationed at the border, according to the Latvian Border Guard. Latvia has been using drones, helicopters, and satellite data to collect intelligence on what the Belarusians are up to. Based on observations of Latvia’s border with Belarus, there are signs of “possible aggression,” Guntis Pujats, the commander of the Latvian Border Guard, said Thursday.
Latvia’s border guards have begun trainings for a special task force as a result, Pujats said.
Poland’s foreign ministry has worked to calm tensions with Belarus in recent hours. The ministry summoned the chargé d’affaires of the Belarusian embassy to issue a “firm protest” to the alleged violation of Polish airspace, the ministry said in a statement. “Poland expects Belarus to refrain from such activities,” the ministry said.
Belarus’ defense ministry has remained steadfast, denying the accusations, according to Belta.
Polish officials have been calling on Belarus to fess up amid repeated denials. The foreign ministry called on Belarus again Friday to “urgently clarify this incident” and to “stop all provocations along the Polish-Belarusian border.”
Other government agencies in Poland are springing into action to try to tamp down on threats from Belarus and Russia. On Friday, the Internal Security Agency (ABW) of Poland detained a Belarusian suspected of conducting espionage activities in Poland and working as part of a spy network, making him the 16th member of the alleged network to get nabbed, according to Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski. He allegedly conducted reconnaissance against military facilities and ports and worked on Russian propaganda.
ABW “detained another… suspected of participation in a Russian spy network,” Kaminski said Friday. “He was taken into custody.”
The U.S. Department of Defense is working in close communication with Polish officials to keep a careful watch on possible threats from Belarus, according to the Pentagon. But the Pentagon is not, for the time being, changing its force posture regarding possible threats from Belarus, Pentagon Press Secretary Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters in a briefing Thursday.
“I’m not aware of any imminent risk right now, as it relates to cross-border operations,” Ryder said. “But again, you know, when it comes to the Wagner Group, I think we all keep a close eye all of the time.”