Anxious but not scared: Wagner presence near Belarus border weighs on Poles

Anxious but not scared: Wagner presence near Belarus border weighs on Poles

Wagner mercenaries shifted to Belarus after late June mutiny in Russia are reportedly in areas just miles from the Polish border

By Jo Harper

TERESPOL, Poland (AA) – Poles living along the border with Belarus – a mere two-and-a-half-hour drive east of the Polish capital Warsaw – are playing down the arrival of Wagner Group mercenaries on their doorstep.

“Life is still normal here. We are not scared of these people,” said Urszula Zuk, a 50-year-old farmer from Zuki, a village about 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of the town of Terespol.

Her home is literally a stone’s throw across a field to the Bug River and the border with Belarus.

Reports indicate that units of the Belarusian Special Operations Forces are training with the Wagner Group at the Brest military range, near the village of Pryluki, a couple of miles over the river from Zuki.

After the Wagner mutiny in Russia in late June, a deal was struck to move the mercenaries to Belarus in return for charges against them being dropped by Moscow.

The independent Belarusian Hajun project estimates that 2,500 Wagner mercenaries have arrived in the country from bases in Ukraine, saying that 11 convoys of Wagner troops have entered Belarus in the last two weeks.

Some residents of Terespol have reportedly complained of hearing sporadic gunfire and helicopters overhead since Wagner forces showed up in Brest, about 3 miles over the border.

Zuk, however, told Anadolu that people in her village “haven’t heard anything unusual.”

“We have heard such noises since as far as we can remember,” said 37-year-old Marta Nowaczka, who runs a tourism business with her husband near the border.

“The Belarusians are our friends and colleagues,” she told Anadolu, stressing that the government is using “fear … for its own purposes.”

Poland is also moving over 1,000 troops to the towns of Biala Podlaska and Kolno in the east, along with 500 police personnel to beef up security at the border.

Last Saturday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said a group of about 100 soldiers from the Wagner Group had moved close to the Belarusian city of Grodno, near the Polish border.

He warned that Wagner troops could disguise themselves as Belarusian border guards and help migrants enter Poland, or impersonate people illegally crossing the border.

“We are all a bit anxious. These maniacs will use whatever they can to continue their hybrid warfare,” said Jacek Danieluk, the mayor of Terespol.

“But we support what the government is doing and we have Polish and NATO troops here.”

Anna Maria Dyner, an analyst from the Polish Institute of International Affairs, recently told local news outlet Onet that Wagner troops have been taking photographs of road junctions and power plants, alluding to their modus operandi of attacking critical infrastructure facilities and carrying out acts of diversion or sabotage.

- ‘Springboard’ for Russian operations

While Russia denies Wagner involvement in its official military operations, the group was reportedly in Crimea when it was annexed in 2014, fought the Daesh/ISIS terror group in Syria, operated in the Central African Republic and Mali, and took the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut this year.

In a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, Belarusian leader Aleksander Lukashenko joked that the Wagner mercenaries “want to go west” and visit Warsaw, according to multiple reports.

Some say the Wagner Group could even try and take the Suwalki Gap to link Belarus with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad – and isolate the three Baltic States, all EU and NATO members.

“Belarus has become a springboard for Russian special operations,” Ales Zarembiuk, head of the Belarusian House in Warsaw, told Anadolu.

“Now we are witnessing a performance organized by Lukashenko at the request of Putin, with yet another intimidation against Poland. Minsk is very dependent on the Kremlin economically and politically, and Lukashenko wants to show Putin that he is the most pro-Russian politician in Belarus.”

Since the summer of 2021, Minsk has been accused of organizing the migration of thousands of refugees from Africa and the Middle East into the EU across the Polish border, allegations that Minsk denies.

This year Polish border forces have recorded over 16,000 attempts to cross the border illegally, with the figure over 3,400 since the beginning of July, according to official data.

​​​​​​​Russia has also recently moved some of its short-range nuclear weapons to Belarus, but neither side has given specific numbers.

The decision has drawn condemnation from Western powers, while opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya warned it would “turn Belarus into a target.”

“The crisis with illegal migrants … on the eastern borders of the EU, nuclear weapons delivered to Belarus, and the killers of the Wagner group are all links in the same chain,” said Zarembiuk.

- Wagner factor in Polish politics

Donald Tusk, leader of Poland’s main opposition party Civic Platform, has suggested that Prime Minister Morawiecki’s comments about the threat posed by Wagner troops on the border could be exploited to delay parliamentary elections set for September.

In a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, he said Morawiecki and the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) were worried about their election chances and could “scare us with the possibility of an armed conflict.”

He said the PiS could “use security issues and threats to block democratic procedures in Poland.”

The Polish premier, however, hit back in his own post: “Just as the leader of the Party of Cheaters did not see his colleague (Vladimir Putin) attacking and occupying Crimea and Donbass, he does not see a real threat to Poland now.”

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