At Risk of Invasion or Lovely to Visit: Two Views of a Polish Border Area

After a day of kayaking last month along Poland’s northeastern border with Belarus, the chief editor of a news portal covering events in a strip of farmland and forest known as the Suwalki Gap watched the news in dismay as the Polish prime minister warned about Russian mercenary fighters advancing on the region from Belarus.

More than three weeks on, there is no sign of the mercenaries from the Wagner paramilitary group moving anywhere, except perhaps back to Russia. And the only real danger that the editor, Wojciech Drazba, sees comes from the “parallel world” of Polish leaders “spewing fear” about the Suwalki Gap as they pose as muscular defenders of Poland’s borders ahead of a critical national election.

“The sun is shining, the scenery is beautiful and absolutely nothing is happening,” Mr. Drazba said last week in Suwalki, the sleepy town that serves as the administrative center of a border area that Polish state television, recycling overwrought foreign media reports, describes as the “most dangerous place on earth.”

A supporter of neighboring Ukraine in its efforts to resist Russian aggression, Poland has taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees and become a vital transit route for Western arms. But its critical role as a linchpin of the West’s military, humanitarian and diplomatic support for Ukraine has coexisted with a government agenda increasingly driven by domestic politics.

With Poland’s nationalist governing party, Law and Justice, facing a tough general election in October, residents of the Suwalki Gap have been bombarded with warnings by the government in Warsaw and the sprawling media apparatus it controls of the imminent danger posed by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and his loyal Belarusian ally, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.

On a visit to Suwalki this month, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki joined the president of neighboring Lithuania, a fellow NATO member, to pore over military maps of the border region — and denounce Poland’s main opposition leader, Donald Tusk, as being soft on national security and for downplaying the threat posed by Wagner fighters. “These threats are real,” Mr. Morawiecki insisted, adding that the “Wagner group is extremely dangerous” and gearing up for a possible attack.

The response of most residents? Enough already.

“We all know that Putin is a sick man who is capable of anything,” said Miroslaw Karolczuk, the mayor of Augustow, a Polish resort town near Suwalki. But, he added, the constant talk of possible conflict “really gets on my nerves” because it frightens away visitors.

“Why is everyone talking about threats all the time? As you can see, there are no tanks on the streets or soldiers with automatic weapons,” he said. The towns and lakeside villages in the Suwalki Gap, he added, are among “the safest places in the world.”

For Karol Przyborowski, the co-owner of a Suwalki real estate company, all the hyperbolic warnings smack of pre-election fear-mongering. But, he lamented, they have had consequences beyond politics, unnerving potential property buyers from outside the region.

He said he tells them not to worry because Poland is part of NATO, which means that “if something happens here, it will be total war. Whether you are in Suwalki or Warsaw or New York will make no difference.”

Presenting itself as the only reliable guardian of national security, the Polish government this month announced it was sending thousands of additional troops into the Suwalki Gap, a 60-mile strip of Polish territory between Belarus and Kaliningrad, a heavily militarized Russian enclave to the northwest disconnected from the rest of Russia.

The gap, straddling Poland’s border with Lithuania, is not defined by natural features like rivers or mountains, but looms large in the fears of military pundits and analysts as a potentially dangerous geopolitical flashpoint.

The term “Suwalki Gap” was first coined in 2015 by Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who was then president of Estonia. He said he came up with it on the fly just before a meeting with the defense minister of Germany, whom he hoped to persuade of the need to station NATO troops in the Baltics.

Eager to impress on Germany the vulnerable position of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, he reimagined a prominent fixture of Cold War fears, the “Fulda Gap” — a tank-friendly lowland corridor between East and West Germany through which Soviet troops could theoretically attack NATO — and transposed it on northeastern Europe as the Suwalki Gap.

The German defense minister at the time was Ursula von der Leyen, who is now president of the European Commission, and, Mr. Ilves recalled, “I don’t think she took me very seriously.”

But the Suwalki Gap took on a life of its own, becoming a fixture of geopolitical punditry and military calculation — a vulnerable choke point that Russia might seize to separate the Baltic States, all members of NATO since 2004, from the rest of the American-led military alliance.

In an essay published last week by the Atlantic Council, a research group in Washington, Ian Brzezinski, a former United States deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO, urged that the military alliance conduct a military exercise in the Suwalki Gap to “demonstrate that NATO does not fear conflict with Russia.”

Mr. Karolczuk, the mayor of Augustow, fears the business impact of all this. One hotel recently received dozens of cancellations, and a fishing store run by a friend of the mayor lost a big client who said he was too afraid to visit.

With election day drawing nearer, the government has been amplifying its warnings. Poland’s most-watched television channel, TVP, which is controlled by the governing party, gives updates most days on threats emanating from Kaliningrad and Belarus, particularly since the arrival there of some Wagner mercenaries.

Several retired Polish generals have questioned insistent claims that Wagner fighters in Belarus pose a serious threat and whether they are anywhere near the Polish border. (Some reports say they have mostly left Belarus.) A senior Lithuanian military official, who asked not to be named so that he could give his views frankly, said: “There is really no such threat, but being politically correct I must remain silent.”

Others question whether the whole concept of the Suwalki Gap has any validity now that there are thousands of British, German and other NATO troops stationed in the Baltic States and the alliance has expanded to include Finland, and should soon also admit Sweden. This northward expansion of the alliance means that Russia can no longer cut off Baltic States from the rest of NATO simply by closing the Suwalki Gap.

“The whole picture has changed,” said Col. Peter Nielsen, the Danish commander of the NATO Forces Integration Unit in Lithuania, which coordinates between NATO, the local military command and some 2,500 German and other alliance troops currently in the country.

“Kaliningrad is now a real problem for Russia, and not as much a pain in the neck for NATO,” he added.

Jacek Niedzwiecki, an opposition candidate for Parliament in the October election and the deputy head of Suwalki’s town council, accused Law and Justice officials of ginning up a fake crisis to shore up support and tar its opponents as weak on defense.

All the talk of danger, he said, “is a political show,” but is having real-life consequences. Mr. Niedzwiecki, helped organize an international badminton competition in Suwalki this summer and was dismayed when foreign teams asked whether it was safe to visit.

“We have a beautiful sports hall, but all people were asking about was the damn Suwalki Gap,” he said. Assured there was no risk of conflict, all the 24 national teams invited to attend decided to compete.

After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, Daniel Domoradzki, a lawyer who heads Active Masuria, a regional residents’ group, worried that “we might be next because we are so close to Kaliningrad,” and asked authorities to provide information about functioning bomb shelters in the Suwalki Gap. He received no answer.

He said his group’s main concern these days is improving bus services, not a coming war with Belarus and or Russia, though “with a madman like Putin in power, you never know what could happen.”

Of one thing, however, he is certain: “I hate election campaigns. Politics used to be about exchanging arguments about real problems. Now it is just about playing on emotions.”

Tomas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania and Anatol Magdziarz in Warsaw contributed reporting.

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