Moscow and Minsk are openly suggesting that mercenaries belonging to the Wagner Private Military Company, stationed in Belarus, might endeavor to breach European Union territory by using the pretext of establishing the Suwalki Corridor towards Kaliningrad. Despite the unlikelihood of such a venture succeeding, Poland and Lithuania are treating this potential threat with utmost seriousness. Just as many initially doubted the possibility of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the two countries are keen on avoiding a repetition of such an oversight.
The Road to Kaliningrad
What would happen in case of conflict
Recently, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda revealed the presence of the Wagner group near the republic's borders and conceded the possibility of Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland sealing off their borders with Belarus due to potential provocations by these mercenaries. Polish authorities had previously conveyed their readiness for such a measure. According to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, there are approximately 100 Wagner members in the region. He estimates that the Wagner PMC has a total strength of over 4,000 mercenaries within Belarus. Presently, Lithuania intends to close down two border crossings along its Belarusian border. Furthermore, Vilnius and Warsaw are deliberating on strategies to safeguard the Suwalki Corridor, a vital passage running along the shared borders of Poland and Lithuania, acting as a buffer between Belarus and the Kaliningrad region.
The Suwalki Corridor
This heightened activity within European Union nations is a response to a series of statements from Moscow and Minsk, as well as pronouncements from the Wagner Group itself. Immediately upon the arrival of Wagner operatives in Belarus, Dmitry Utkin (“Wagner”) told the mercenaries: “This is not the end; it is only the beginning of the world's largest undertaking, which will be carried out very soon.” Considering that Prigozhin, as was soon discovered, not only evaded criminal charges but also continued to work actively for the state (for instance, participating in behind-the-scenes meetings with African leaders at the St. Petersburg summit), it became evident that the Wagner PMC remains within the Kremlin's purview. Later, Andrey Kartapolov, the head of the Defense Committee of the State Duma, stated that Russia greatly values the Suwalki Corridor, and the Kremlin possesses a “ready strike fist” that can secure this vulnerable corridor in a matter of hours. Alexander Lukashenko also suggested that the Wagner operatives based in Belarus have a desire to “take a tour to Warsaw, to Żeszów.” However, he quickly backtracked, stating that he was joking and that the Suwalki Corridor is “not needed for a thousand years.” Russian propagandists often frighten the West with threats of aggression, sometimes even nuclear warfare, yet this time, the European neighbors responded with a stance of “not waiting, but preparing.”
The Road to Kaliningrad
Talk of the Suwalki Corridor first emerged in the mid-1990s, during the Yeltsin era. At that time, discussions revolved around a project to build a road connecting Belarus with Kaliningrad, and there were people in Poland who held a positive view of this initiative, recalls Polish journalist and political analyst Zigmund Dzencholovsky. According to his assessment, the main concerns expressed then were not geopolitical but rather ecological:
“Why do we need this highway? We have pristine lakes, clean air. We don't need those trucks. This was in 1995-1996. However, there was no intense political conflict at that time. Now it's perceived differently, but in my view, it's all part of Moscow's games, an attempt to destabilize the situation in Poland, introducing a touch of real concern into our lives, making us believe they might actually do it. I think that the first statements about the potential use of nuclear weapons sounded much harsher. Back then, everyone was afraid – ordinary people and experts alike. No one knew if they were willing to go that far or not. They suffered defeat near Kyiv – who knows what ideas might have been brewing in their minds. But now, it's simply seen as verbal maneuvers.”
Few believe in a full-scale attack, especially since the several thousand mercenaries currently present in Belarus would hardly suffice. Nonetheless, serious preparations are being made to counter provocations. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki suggested that the Wagnerites might assist migrants in crossing the Polish border and even attempt to cross it themselves, disguising themselves as migrants. Morawiecki speculated that Wagner Group members could don Belarusian border guard uniforms. Journalist Dzencholovsky believes that politicians are deliberately instilling fear in the population: parliamentary elections are scheduled for October in Poland, and the ruling party is actively utilizing the image of an external enemy. Nevertheless, shortly before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, there was also a popular belief that rumors of a Russian attack were a PR strategy by Ukrainian politicians, using it to boost their popularity.
Lithuanian political analyst and professor at Vytautas Magnus University, Lauras Bielinis, believes that at this stage, it is premature to speculate on the potential outcomes of these provocations:
“Yes, of course, we have already noticed that two Belarusian helicopters illegally crossed the Polish border, but this is a traditional Russian tactic – to provoke without venturing too far. To discuss the possibility of a serious provocation, we need to assess the resources available to Russia and Belarus. The Wagner Group, although numbering tens of thousands, is dispersed and lacks heavy weaponry. For now, it is best to view the situation as attempts by the Belarusian and Russian sides to keep Western countries on edge. For Belarus, the Wagnerites might appear as a force that could attempt to infiltrate Poland. However, their ability to create a real military threat is out of the question, of course. Rather, it might resemble the provocations with migrants who attempted to cross the Polish, Lithuanian, and Latvian borders in large numbers. These kinds of disinformation campaigns seek to divert Western attention away from Ukraine, camouflaging setbacks on the front.”
This sentiment is echoed by former Polish diplomat and ex-director of the NATO Information Bureau in Russia, Robert Pszczel:
“This is more of a psychiatric question than a political one. I believe no one pays attention to the utterances of some foolish deputies anymore, when we hear complete nonsense even from the top – from Putin. He demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the real world. And what about the things Medvedev writes and says? There are certain scenarios tied to the fact that the regimes of Putin and Lukashenko have no restraints. There is, of course, the question of nuclear weapons. Yet, I don't think it's wise to consider the Putin and Lukashenko regimes as suicidal. These individuals are cowards; one can expect all kinds of actions from them. But even they understand that an overt confrontation with NATO would end tragically for them.”
Nevertheless, Pszczel notes that measures for the defense of NATO and EU countries still need to be prepared.
What would happen in case of conflict
In March of last year, Poland decided to increase its military personnel to 300,000. When issues with migrants at the Belarusian border arose, several thousand soldiers were redeployed there to assist with border security. Additionally, there are 4-5 thousand U.S. troops in the country, and their numbers will increase (these troops, for instance, are responsible for securing Żeszów – a city and airport crucial for Ukraine's military supply chain). Furthermore, Poland is currently engaged in negotiations for substantial arms procurement from South Korea. Driven by the unfolding situation, Warsaw is taking proactive steps to enhance its weaponry and military readiness. Military units are also being strategically deployed eastward.
In Poland, there exists little doubt that in the event that the Wagnerites opt to breach the Suwalki Corridor, the nation will promptly receive tangible support from its allied partners. Dzencholovsky notes, “This is not 1939, when Poland was left without tangible assistance from England and France. The present-day adversary is Putin and Russia. It is universally recognized that certain boundaries must not be transgressed. An authentic endeavor to intrude within Polish territory will undoubtedly provoke a resolute response.”
Both Lithuania and Latvia are concentrating their available forces on the Suwalki Corridor, adequately prepared for various conceivable provocations, as outlined by Lauras Bielinis. However, he concurs that these nations will not find themselves isolated in their defense efforts.
“The collective strength of NATO member states will be mobilized. They will not stand alone, as this understanding has been established for some time, and it is widely acknowledged. This understanding also extends to Putin and Lukashenko. Presently, it appears to be a war of words. Undertaking a significant military venture, especially along the western frontiers of the Russian-Belarusian alliance, would carry substantial risks. Particularly considering Russia's waning success on the Ukrainian front.”
Robert Pszczel also discusses the involvement of NATO's collective defense forces in the event of the Suwalki Corridor issue. He contends that preparations must be made for the plausible scenario in which there's a genuine threat of attempted invasion of the territory of a NATO member state. Defensive plans and contingents in bordering countries are in place for such cases. Comprehensive defense strategies and deployment of units along bordering countries have been established for such contingencies. The responsibility for defense is not solely shouldered by Poland; it remains a shared commitment within NATO, an assertion the expert emphasizes. He holds no reservations in asserting that Russia, which has struggled to subdue Ukraine, lacks the capacity to effectively counter NATO. Nevertheless, the recent helicopter incursion within Polish territory highlights a potential “misunderstanding of the situation by certain figures in Minsk”. Consequently, meticulous preparations are imperative.