‘I don’t live in fear’: Poles defiant as Wagner operates near border

Many in Poland feel the Russian armed group has few options at its disposal to realistically endanger their security.

Aleksander, 30, in central Warsaw, Poland
Aleksander, 30, in central Warsaw, Poland, says there is 'nothing to be concerned about' since Wagner has lost equipment and manpower [Michal Kranz/Al Jazeera]

Warsaw, Poland – “Extremely dangerous” – that is how Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki described the Russian private mercenary group Wagner on Thursday at a meeting with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda in northeastern Poland.

Since last week, Poland’s leaders have taken significant steps to focus NATO’s attention on the apparent threat Wagner poses to Poland after the group relocated to bases in Belarus and trained right next to the Polish border.

Morawiecki has said that more than 100 Wagner fighters have moved close to the strategic Suwalki Gap area of Poland and Lithuania and claimed that they could secretly enter the European Union disguised as migrants.

At the Thursday meeting, Morawiecki said that Wagner’s presence would lead to increased provocations against Poland, several days after two Belarusian helicopters breached Poland’s air space.

A sign is seen near the Bug River at the Poland-Belarus border, near Kostomloty, Poland July 20, 2023. The sign reads: "State border. Crossing prohibited". REUTERS/Kuba Stezycki
A sign is seen near the Bug River at the Poland-Belarus border, near Kostomloty, Poland July 20, 2023. The sign reads: ‘State border. Crossing prohibited’ [Kuba Stezycki/Reuters]

In response to these events, Poland has beefed up its military defences along its border with Belarus, moving more than 1,000 troops to the area.

Yet, in Bialystok, a northeastern Polish city about 50 km (31 miles) from the Belarusian border, some locals remained unfazed by the alleged threats.

“Poles don’t feel endangered,” marketing manager Dorota J,47, told Al Jazeera over the phone.

“On Sunday, I was in Bialowieza [a forest area on the Belarusian border], [and] there were plenty of people. All of this is near the border, but we feel safe here. I don’t live in fear.”

Although many people across the country have said they do see Wagner as a threat according to recent surveys, Poles remain divided on the issue, and Dorota is certainly not alone.

In urban areas in particular, most people have responded to Wagner’s presence with apparent indifference, and many told Al Jazeera that, despite statements from Polish leaders, they felt the group has very few options at its disposal to realistically endanger Poland’s security.

Coloured by elections

According to Polish analysts, although limited provocations have been taking place from the Belarusian side and could potentially escalate, the main risk Wagner poses is as a tool of information warfare. The analysts say the Polish government’s response is likely coloured by the upcoming elections later this year.

“I wouldn’t describe them as a grave danger,” said Michal Piekarski, an adjunct at the security studies department at the University of Wroclaw’s Institute for International Studies.

“They’re a problem, they’re a threat, but they’re not the largest potential threat when it comes to our security. Russia as a state is for us a bigger problem.”

Piekarski said there exists the possibility that Wagner could engage in provocations near the border related to the migrant crisis, or even covertly on Polish territory.

Nevertheless, he dismissed the possibility of any kind of open conflict and said the most significant issue right now is that Wagner is being used as a means to spread propaganda by the Belarusian regime.

Wagner, which for years had operated in Syria, across Africa, and potentially even further afield, gained a reputation for brutality during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, before embarking on a short-lived insurrection attempt in Russia against the Russian defence ministry in June.

Daniela, 65, a psychology consultant, was not entirely certain if everything that the Polish state has claimed about Wagner’s activities along the border is entirely true.

However, she said there remains a very real possibility that Wagner could act against Poland moving forward in the context of heightened tensions between Poland and Belarus.

“I fear that it could happen, they could pose a threat,” she told Al Jazeera in Warsaw, Poland’s capital. “We are under threat because we don’t have the right equipment, we don’t have the military that we truly need.”

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Polish leaders have been working towards dramatically expanding Poland’s military arsenal, purchasing tanks, helicopters, artillery systems and more, while pledging to grow Poland’s armed forces to 300,000 soldiers.

According to a survey published on Tuesday by Rzeczpospolita, a Polish newspaper, a little more than 50 percent of Poles agreed that Wagner poses some sort of threat to Poland.

However, for many young people in the country, frequent public narratives about the threats Poland faces from Belarus and Russia over the years have made them look at these recent claims more sceptically.

“This is more news about an alleged threat, and I maybe I’ve just become immune to it now,” said Monika, 24, a student in Warsaw.

Aleksander, 30, a software programmer in Warsaw, said he is equally unworried about Wagner.

“There’s nothing to be concerned about, mainly because they’ve lost all the equipment they had, and they don’t have as many people as they had in Ukraine,” he said. “Realistically they can’t do anything.”

This, however, has not stopped Belarusian leader Aleksander Lukashenko from using Wagner to try to intimidate Poland. He claimed that Wagner wanted to go on an “excursion” to Warsaw and Rzeszow, a southeastern Polish city that has served as a conduit for Western weapons to Ukraine. He later said Poland should “thank” him for holding Wagner back.

“If there really was a planned attack on Poland, it wouldn’t be spoken about in this way,” said Marek Swierczynski, the head of the security desk at Polityka Insight, a Polish research institution, adding that the recent incursion of Belarusian helicopters into Poland represented a much clearer increase in tensions than anything Wagner has done so far.

According to Swierczynski, the choice to hold exercises on the Polish border was clearly done to send a signal to Poland.

Wagner’s presence at the border has also already been used to perpetuate the spread of disinformation online – a widely-circulated photo allegedly showing a Wagner soldier standing over the Polish border was proven to be fake.

However, the presence of Wagner also presents an opportunity for ruling Polish politicians to project a public image as guarantors of security ahead of elections this year.

“We are in a period of omnipresent electoral campaigns in Poland that do not leave any topic untouched,” Swierczynski said. “Here, unfortunately, purely political intentions are getting mixed up with matters of Poland’s security.”

Viktoriia, 27, who lives in Bielsko-Biała, in central Warsaw
Viktoriia, a Ukrainian who lives in Poland, says Wagner is seeking to provoke Poland [Michal Kranz/Al Jazeera]

Many Ukrainians in Poland like Viktoriia, 27, a textile industry employee, who is originally from Kyiv, but now lives in Bielsko-Biala in southern Poland, have a unique perspective on the current crisis, having seen the ruthlessness with which Wagner and Russia fought against their own country.

“We’ve already lived through what happened in Irpin, Mariupol, and Bucha, and now, there’s this feeling that this is a theatre,” she said. “They provoke us, so that we will be afraid, but we shouldn’t be afraid, we should only prepare ourselves and show that we are ready for anything.”

Much remains unclear about Wagner or Lukashenko’s end game along the Polish border. But back in Bialystok, despite the rhetoric, Dorota sees few reasons why Wagner would benefit from attacking her country.

“Wagner has plenty of work, in Africa, or in Putin’s war, and so on,” she said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. “What would it need Poland for?”

Source: Al Jazeera