The movement of Russia’s Wagnerian mercenaries near the Polish border puts the world on edge

More than 100 members of the infamous Wagner group are moving towards Poland’s border with Belarus, setting off alarm bells among NATO leaders and local authorities.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki confirmed Saturday’s reports about the Russian mercenary’s movements, saying his intelligence service put mercenaries near the vulnerable Suwałki Gap in Grodno, about 10 miles from the Polish border. Along with recent exercises near the border, this is the closest Wagner fighters have been to NATO territory since President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

“Now the situation becomes even more dangerous,” Morawiecki told a news conference. “This is definitely a step towards a further hybrid attack on Polish territory.”

Local media in Poland and Belarus have reported sightings of more than 100 Wagner mercenaries moving towards the Suwałki Gap – a thin strip of land that borders NATO members Poland and Lithuania but is flanked by Belarusian and Russian land on every side. The news comes after the Belarusian Defense Ministry confirmed earlier this month that the Russian mercenary group had joined forces with Belarusian troops to share their ruthless tactics, with Wagner bosses declaring a new “beginning” for the group in that country.

A map of Europe with the Suwałki Gap, the 60-mile border between Poland and Lithuania, highlighted in red.

A map highlighting the Suwałki Gap – the strategically important 60-mile border between Poland and Lithuania, flanked by Russian and Belarusian land, which connects NATO’s Baltic members with the rest of its allies by land. The border is highlighted in red.

Wikimedia Commons

Morawiecki has previously said he believes Belarus, a key Russian ally, has been sending migrants to the Polish border en masse to overwhelm his forces there. Now he fears that Russia’s next strategy could be to sneak mercenaries into Poland amid the allegedly orchestrated chaos at the border.

“They will probably be disguised as Belarusian border guards and will help illegal immigrants enter Polish territory, destabilize Poland,” Morawiecki said Saturday, “but they will also probably try to infiltrate Poland and pretend to be illegal immigrants, and this creates additional risks.”

It is unclear what Wagner fighters would do if they managed to breach NATO borders. But given the group’s notorious volatility – like its former leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s recent mutiny against Moscow – and fractured leadership, anything is possible.

Some war-torn Wagner troops, exiled to Belarus as a deal to end Prigozhin’s short-lived mutiny, have said they want to storm Poland, the president of Belarus and friend of Putin. Alexander Lukashenko said last weekend.

“The Wagner guys are starting to stress us out,” Lukashenko said in a meeting with Putin in St. Petersburg. “They want to go west and (said) ‘Let’s go on a trip to Warsaw and Rzeszow’.”

To strengthen the border, Morawiecki says he ordered an influx of Polish troops and 500 officers to the region, where a wall is also being built to limit possible crossing points. The prime minister has repeatedly assured that Poland and its borders are secure.

However, it is clear that many Polish leaders view the recent military exercises near the border as a threat in their own right. Zbigniew Hoffmann, Secretary of Poland’s National Security Committee, recently characterized the exercises as “undoubtedly a provocation.”

Lithuanian soldiers, wearing face paint and blue tape on their helmets, conduct an exercise near Suwałki Gap.

Lithuanian soldiers train near the Suwałki Gap in 2017. The border area separating Poland and Lithuania, flanked by Russian and Belarusian lands, has long been considered one of NATO’s most vulnerable.

Reuters/Ints Kalnins

The destabilization at the Suwałki gap may have consequences on a global stage. If a Russian or Belarusian attack were to take place on Lithuanian or Polish soil, NATO’s Article 5, which binds members to a pact that an attack on one is an attack on allwould be invoked – potentially plunging large parts of Europe, the US and Canada into war with Russia.

The Suwałki Gap has long been considered one of the most vital – and vulnerable – strips of NATO soil. If a conflict were to break out and the 60-mile strip was taken over by enemy forces, NATO would be completely cut off by land from its Baltic members Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

Russian troops training near the Suwałki Gap is not without precedent. In 2019, the Russian and Belarusian armies conducted exercises in western Belarus involving up to 12,000 soldiers and 950 vehicles – a move that put the West on high alert and drew public anger from its leaders.

Article 5 has only been invoked once in its 74-year history – after the 9/11 attacks on New York City and the Pentagon in 2001.

Experts who study Russia, NATO and Eastern European conflicts have long identified the Suwałki Gap as the most likely turning point should Russia go to war with NATO. For Putin, securing the corridor would not just isolate the Baltic states, it would provide long-desired protection against the southern part of Kaliningrad – Russia’s strategic enclave on the Baltic Sea, which is completely surrounded by NATO nations. The port city is also home to Russia’s all-important Baltic Sea Fleet.

While Russian forces would be severely outnumbered in an all-out war against NATO, many of the coalition’s troops are based hundreds—or thousands, in the case of the United States—of miles away. Russia, meanwhile, has recently had as many as 30,000 troops and heavy artillery stationed in and around Kaliningrad, allegedly ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice.

“The Suwałki corridor is where the many weaknesses in NATO’s strategy and force posture meet,” said a report from 2018 for the Center for European Policy in Washington. “…The rift is vulnerable.”

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