As tensions mount, Poland plans to deploy troops to its border with Belarus
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Tensions are rising between Poland and a Russian ally on its border, Belarus.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Leaders in Warsaw plan to send another 10,000 Polish troops to that border. Poland is a NATO ally and a vital friend of neighboring Ukraine. Supplies and weapons pass through Poland to support Ukraine's defense against Russia. Now Polish officials think Russia could be sending trouble their way. Fighters from Russia's Wagner group are stationed in Belarus, and Poland is worried they could destabilize NATO's eastern flank.
MCCAMMON: NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us now from Berlin to talk about it. Hi, Rob.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Morning, Sarah.
MCCAMMON: This seems like a dangerous military escalation in a region very close, of course, to Russia's war in Ukraine. What's going on here?
SCHMITZ: Yeah, this latest flare-up began last month when Wagner soldiers were relocated to Belarus. Poland's government said Wagner might send its soldiers into Poland and neighboring Lithuania. Then a little over a week ago, Poland accused Belarus of violating its airspace by sending military helicopters across the border. And now we've got this.
MCCAMMON: Poland has been deploying troops to the border for some time, hasn't it?
SCHMITZ: Yeah, that's right. This 250-mile border between Belarus and Poland has been tense for a couple of years. In 2021, the government of Belarus began handing out visas to migrants from mostly the Middle East and Africa. And soldiers in Belarus were assisting these migrants across the border into Poland, as well as into neighboring Latvia and Lithuania. All of these are EU member states. And that prompted Poland to mobilize troops and build a steel border fence. This was all part of an effort by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko to destabilize Europe. And it appears his efforts are ongoing. Lukashenko, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said this week that he has had to, quote, "restrain Wagner fighters" who want to attack Poland.
MCCAMMON: So the big question, Rob, I mean, based on your reporting, what can you say about the likelihood of an escalation between Poland and Belarus?
SCHMITZ: Well, more troops certainly makes it likelier. I mean, when he announced this troop buildup, Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said Poland is preparing for different scenarios. Here's what he said.
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MARIUSZ BLASZCZAK: (Non-English language spoken).
SCHMITZ: And, Sarah, he's saying here that this troop buildup is meant to scare away what he calls the aggressor, or Belarus, and to ensure that Belarus does not attack Poland. It's worth noting here that the military of Belarus issued a warning to Poland this week telling Polish citizens that they should stop their government from starting a new war. So there's a lot of rhetoric on both sides of the border.
MCCAMMON: Is there any truth to that claim?
SCHMITZ: You know, well, this troop buildup comes two days after Poland's president kicked off the official election campaign for the ruling party, which is up for reelection in mid-October. And critics point out that while the threat from Belarus and Russia is very real, the ruling right-wing party of Poland is going into an election here, and it needs all the votes it can get. And many observers say this party is not above pumping up threats like this border escalation to accomplish that. So between the election season in Poland and efforts from Belarus and Russia to sow chaos in Poland, what's real and what's bluster has sort of become difficult to parse out. But what is clear is that with more troops along this already fraught border, the potential for danger is going up.
MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz, joining us from Berlin. Thank you, Rob.
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