Migrant crisis sparks new fears of Russian aggression in Poland’s frozen north-east

The breach of the border between Belarus and Poland and Russia’s military build-up in Ukraine have sparked concerns in Nato’s top ranks

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko shakes the hand of a migrant child at the Belarus-Poland border. AP
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In his lifetime, Kazimierz, 67, has seen the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He says he has learnt one major lesson from life in this frozen corner of Poland: “You should never trust the Russians.”

In Suwalki, the nearest large town to the border in the country’s north-east, Kazimierz is far from alone in harbouring suspicions about the aggressive instincts of Russia and its junior partner Belarus. But, he shrugs, there is nothing much he can do about it.

After a 300-year history of shifting borders, invasions and occupation by Russia and Germany, the town's population of 70,000 sees the diplomatic battle over migrants crossing from nearby Belarus as just the latest chapter in troubles sparked by outsiders in this sensitive region.

Migrants who have failed to breach the border between Belarus and Poland have told The National that they felt like pawns in a greater geopolitical game, in which they have lost everything.

In Poland, the epicentre of that game is in Suwalki, known as the “North Pole of Poland” because of its harsh winters, which has endured its fair share of trouble from the powers at its borders.

Some analysts see the hidden hand of Russia behind Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s decision to allow thousands of mainly Middle Eastern migrants into his country before directing them towards Poland’s borders and the gateway to the European Union.

But Warsaw’s tough response is not just a sign of its government’s anti-migrant policies but a desire to show Russia that it will not tolerate any attempts to meddle in its affairs, or to drive a wedge between Poland and its allies.

“In this case, he [Lukashenko] hasn’t succeeded,” a Minsk-based diplomat told The National. “He wanted to separate us — or de-unite us — but he has made the wrong calculation.”

The potential threat to Suwalki stems from its position close to the border of Lithuania, one of three Baltic states, with Latvia and Estonia, that reclaimed their independence in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet empire.

The three states — all Nato members — share a 1,400-kilometre border with Belarus and Russia. But they are only linked to the rest of the alliance through a 90-kilometre wide gap to Poland that has been called the “Suwalki corridor” in a nod to the Polish town at its southern end.

The corridor separates the strategically-important and well-armed Russian seaport territory of Kaliningrad from Belarus, a Moscow ally. The fear for Nato and its Baltic members is that a swift Russian-led operation from Belarus across the corridor to reunite territories under the sway of Moscow would cut the three nations off from the alliance.

.The Sulwaki Gap links Poland - and its Nato allies - from Europe to the Baltic States through a 90km-long frontier.

With only two roads and a rail line linking Poland and the Baltic states, military planners have long worried that Nato would struggle to react in time. Russia could potentially also move into north-east Poland towards Suwalki to create a further buffer in the forested region between Russia and Nato forces, said local historian Krzystof Sklowdowski.

He has charted the history of the town that was once part of the Russian Empire in the 19th century, when a major garrison was based there.

Poland won its independence in 1918 but Soviets invaded the town at the start of the Second World War and promptly handed it over to Adolf Hitler’s Germany, which wiped out its significant Jewish population.

“There is no strong resentment or racist attitude towards these migrants from the people here,” said Mr Sklowdowski. “They are aware that these migrants don’t want to stay in Poland.

“But the reason why the Polish leadership is so focused on defending the border is because it sends a very strong signal to the Russians if they want to test our resolve. They want to send a strong signal to the aggressor that, even in the case of conflict, there will be a reaction.”

The prospect of a Russian-led operation against a Nato-led member is considered unlikely by some analysts but Moscow's annexation of Crimea from non-Nato member Ukraine in 2014 changed the rules of the game.

President Vladimir Putin was buoyed by popular support from within Russia for the campaign. He is seen as a “far greater Soviet patriot than a Russian one”, who seeks to reunite former territories of the communist era and expose Nato as a “paper tiger,” wrote Leon Aron, a director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, in Politico in March.

“That criteria would be met by a fast and victorious poke at Nato’s eastern flank, the member states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Could there be a more satisfying coda to Putin’s desire to recover past glory … a feat that even the mighty Soviet Union could not pull off?”

The threat to the Suwalki Gap has been recognised by the US, which signed a deal in 2020 with Warsaw to increase the number of its troops in Poland to strengthen defences on the alliance’s eastern flanks.

A 2018 paper co-authored by a former commander of US forces in Europe warned that if the Russians closed the gap it would give Moscow a frontier running all the way between the Baltic Sea and Ukraine. It would allow Russia to “consolidate its political stranglehold over Belarus, and more directly threaten Poland’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Eugene Chausovsky, a non-resident fellow at Newlines Institute, a Washington DC-based foreign policy think tank, said it was unlikely to be in Russia’s interests to launch provocative military action against a Nato member.

“The US has raise this spectre of Russian military build-ups and potential actions like Ukraine in the Suwalki Gap,” said Mr Chausovsky. “But this would be an extremely confrontational step for Russia. I don’t think it’s up for taking Nato territory.”

Given the painful history of the town, the Russians — shown to be adept at the use of disinformation and influence peddling to back its military strength — could seek to inflame ethnic divisions to pursue its goals, the Atlantic Council think tank said.

EU and Nato leaders at the weekend vowed to step up co-operation against “hybrid threats” — attempts to undermine the alliance using military and other forms of destabilisation, such as disinformation and meddling in elections.

Nato foreign ministers are meeting from Tuesday in Latvia for talks that are set to be dominated by concern about the security threat posed by the migrant crisis and Russia's military build-up near the border with Ukraine. Russia has denied any prospect of an invasion.

Witold Rodkiewicz, of the Russian department at the Centre for Eastern Studies, said an attack on the Suwałki corridor was less likely than on Ukraine but said that the Moscow leadership “sees the use of military force as a normal tool of Russian foreign policy making.”

“Any scenario that would require Nato to defend the Baltic states includes using the Suwałki corridor as an essential military backup for the Alliance," he said. "If Nato fails to deter or defend effectively its Baltic members against Russian aggression, the costs for the Polish security would be horrendous.”

The potential of more Russian-led aggression is of concern in Suwalki, said Katarzyna Burba, a tour guide at the local museum.

“People are concerned about what’s happening at the border. I think that people know that the migrants are not the problem, but what Russia is going to do next. It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen.”

Updated: November 29, 2021, 5:33 PM