Poland is deploying troops from the 18th Division of the First Warsaw Armoured Brigade near to the Belarusian border, reports Belarus Security Blog, as Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko cracks down on the ethnic Polish minority in the country.
Belarusian Poles have been suffering from growing repression after they actively supported the opposition movement, and threaten to drag the Polish authorities, already deeply opposed to the ruling regime, deeper into the conflict. Now Poland is strengthening its defences on its eastern border.
“The formation of a mechanised battalion, which will be deployed in Biala Podlaska, is nearing completion,” bsblog.info reports. “On the site of the former military airfield, a container camp is already under construction, which will be handed over to the battalion. The battalion will become subordinate to the 1st Warsaw Armoured Brigade of the 18th Division.”
The new base will only make relations with Belarus worse. Lukashenko has been justifying his crackdown on the mass street protests by playing the “enemy at the gate” card, pioneered by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2014, and warning that NATO forces have been massing at the Belarusian border ready to invade. Last year he put Belarus’ military on full alert on the western border at the height of the protests as a means to distract attention from domestic turmoil.
Poland says the military deployments have nothing to do with the ongoing dispute inside Belarus, but with Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian border the movements will increase the pressure on Lukashenko.
Lukashenko warned that given the friction in bilateral political relations, the move risks a local “arms race”, with each side escalating and reciprocating in response to the other’s actions.
Given the disparity in financial resources between Warsaw and Minsk, the danger is of Kremlin “assistance” in the form of an expanding Russian military presence in Belarus, warn analysts, and some have argued that Russia is looking for an excuse to move most of its forces into the republic in preparation for an invasion of Ukraine via its northern border with Belarus.
In the latest move against the Polish minority, last week the Belarusian authorities accused the local Poles of “glorifying war criminals” from WWII.
The Prosecutor General of Belarus, Andrei Shved, has equated the Polish Home Army with the Nazis and accused some activists from the Polish national minority in Belarus of neo-Nazi tendencies.
The Belarusian-Polish relations crisis provoked by the Belarusian regime since August 2020 threatens to escalate into a local “cold war”, with both sides brandishing their military capabilities. That creates a threat of Belarus becoming entangled in confrontations between Russia and Ukraine in the name of “alliance”.
In recent weeks the Belarusian authorities have arrested five members of the local Polish community, including the head of the Union of Poles in Belarus, Andzelika Borys, who is accused of “inciting ethnic and religious hatred” as well as participating in “illegal mass events.”
The arrests have been accompanied by anti-Polish propaganda on state TV, as well as pressure on Polish language schools, which in recent weeks have received demands from prosecutors to provide details about their teachers and pupils, including minors, reports the Financial Times.
“We don’t want to fight anyone, but if they treat us like they did at the end of last year and like now, they will get a smack in the face – and very hard,” Lukashenko said of Polish criticism of his continued rule and its backing of EU sanctions against the country.
Belarus’s Polish minority makes up some 300,000-400,000 of the country’s 9.5mn population and the two countries have maintained close cultural ties partly due to Poland’s mobile borders over the last century that stranded many Poles inside what is now Belarus. In the interwar period, the western part of what is now Belarus, including cities such as Grodno and Brest, were Polish.
Relations with the Polish minority have always been tense, with Lukashenko calling it a “fifth column” bent on destabilising his regime in a speech in 2005.
Warsaw has been actively supporting the opposition through providing fast-track visas and has become one of several centres for opposition leaders fleeing into exile.
The Polish capital is also home to Nexta, the Telegram channel that has played a leading role in co-ordinating the crowds at weekend mass rallies last summer, as well as being an unblockable forum for the citizens to plan and co-ordinate their resistance to the authorities’ crackdown.