Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Poland of having territorial ambitions in the former Soviet Union and said any aggression against its neighbour and ally Belarus would be considered an attack on Russia itself.
In televised remarks on Friday, Putin warned that Moscow would use any means at its disposal to protect Belarus, which forms a loose Union State with Russia, against possible attacks.
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Putin said there were reports of plans for a Polish-Lithuanian unit to be used for operations in western Ukraine – parts of which in the past belonged to Poland – and ultimately to occupy territory there.
“But as far as Belarus is concerned, it is part of the Union State. Unleashing aggression against Belarus will mean aggression against the Russian Federation,” Putin said at a meeting of the Kremlin’s Security Council.
“We will respond to this with all the means at our disposal.”
“It is well known that they also dream of the Belarusian lands,” he said, also without providing any evidence.
‘Pathetic bore from the Kremlin’
Poland, a NATO member and one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies in its fight against Russia’s invasion, denied any territorial ambitions in Ukraine or Belarus.
“The pathetic bore from the Kremlin is once again repeating lies about Poland and also trying to falsify the truth about the war against Ukraine,” Poland’s deputy minister coordinator of special services, Stanislaw Zaryn, told the state-owned PAP news agency.
“Vladimir Putin is also using historical revisionism again to spread false accusations against Poland.”
In his remarks, Putin argued Poland’s western territories were a “gift” from former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
“It was thanks to the Soviet Union, thanks to steps taken by Stalin, that Poland got substantial territories in the West – German land. This is a fact,” Putin said. “Western Polish territories are Stalin’s gift to Poland. Have our friends in Warsaw forgotten about it? We’ll give them a reminder.”
Putin’s comments are a message that “Poland has to be grateful to the Soviet Union, to Russia, and instead they are becoming more of an enemy to Russia,” said Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at the New School and great-granddaughter of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
“Also this is a message to the Ukrainians: ‘Please remember that for many years Ukraine and Poland were not great friends, and so now you’re being duped.’ So this is a multilayered propaganda message on the Kremlin’s part,” she told Al Jazeera from Moscow.
Poland has reinforced its defences at the border with Belarus, where fighters from the Wagner mercenary force moved after an aborted mutiny in Russia last month.
Warsaw’s Security Committee decided on Wednesday to move military units to eastern Poland after Wagner fighters arrived in Belarus, PAP quoted its secretary as saying on Friday.
On Wednesday, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was shown in a video welcoming his fighters to Belarus, telling them they would take no further part for now in the war in Ukraine but ordering them to gather strength for Wagner’s operations in Africa while they trained the Belarusian army.
Prigozhin’s short-lived insurrection four weeks ago ended with an agreement that Wagner fighters – many recruited from prison – could move to Belarus if they wished.
On Thursday, Minsk said Wagner mercenaries had started to train Belarusian special forces at a military range close to the Polish border.
Poland responded by deploying troops near its eastern border.
“These are hardened war criminals, so of course, any Polish government would be concerned,” Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland’s former defence minister, told Al Jazeera. “The first duty of any government is to protect its external and international border and the people on our side.”
Poland has provided Kyiv with arms and welcomed refugees since Russia’s invasion in February 2022.
It has, however, shown no interest in sending troops to Ukraine.
Putin accused its leaders of trying to “directly intervene in the conflict” to occupy Ukrainian land.
Belarus – which borders Ukraine, the European Union and NATO members Poland and Lithuania – served as a launch pad for Russia’s Ukraine invasion.
“With Belarus and the Wagner Group being there and Poland bringing troops to the border with Belarus and Poland also saying it would potentially like to carry a NATO nuclear arsenal to some degree – that’s why I think Poland has become a piece of rhetoric in the Kremlin,” Khrushcheva said.