Written by Jacopo Maria Bosica
Edited by Stef Clement
Supervised by Cansu Macit Karaduman
On 1 August, two Belarusian military helicopters violated Poland’s airspace by shortly flying over Białowieża, a village not far from the border between the two countries (Brzezinski, 2023). The Polish media outlet Onet deemed such incursion a provocation (Chiappa, 2023). The following week, the alert threshold was raised as Minsk held military exercises in the Grodno region, which were simulating real-combat situations, according to the Belarusian Defence Ministry (Teslova, 2023). Based on experiences from Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, they involved the use of drones and close interaction between tanks and motorised rifle units with counterparts from other Belarusian armed forces (The Guardian, 2023). Such exercises build on special training operations led by Russia’s Wagner Group starting in late July (Faulconbridge & Light, 2023). Moreover, they are coherent with Russian President Putin’s accusations against Warsaw of being willing to regain sovereignty over territories seized by Stalin during World War II, including parts of Western Ukraine and modern Belarus (Brzezinski, 2023; Collis, 2023).
These activities met Poland’s firm response, starting from the arrest of two Russian individuals accused of spreading Wagner’s ideology (Scislowska & Karmanau, 2023). It also significantly reinforced border control measures by sending 10,000 troops to the frontier with Belarus (Brzezinski, 2023; Talmazan, 2023). Lithuania and Latvia followed suit, with Riga mobilising its armed forces to cope with illegal crossing attempts (Reuters, 2023). Warsaw’s military build-up can be contextualised within an increase in defence expenditure beyond 2.5 per cent of GDP in 2022, where an over $16 billion investment in Abrams tanks, Patriot missile systems, jet fighters, and other material stands out (Scislowska & Karmanau, 2023).
The Grodno region is adjacent to the Suwałki Gap, a 96-km land corridor stretching along the Polish-Lithuanian border and linking the three Baltic republics to the rest of the NATO territory (The Guardian, 2023). This strip of land separates Belarus from Russia’s heavily militarised enclave of Kaliningrad (Brzezinski, 2023). Western military analysts have identified the Suwałki Gap as a potential flashpoint in NATO-Russia military tensions. There is a concern that Moscow might attempt to seize control of this corridor, isolating the Baltics from the rest of the Alliance’s territory (Scislowska & Karmanau, 2023; Boffey, 2023). Such a move would trigger a chain reaction, as it would put Putin in a position to invade Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and, consequently, push NATO to activate Art V of the Washington Treaty (Noor Haq et al., 2023). To avert nuclear escalation and the scenario of a full-scale conflict, NATO should demonstrate the operational readiness of its maritime, air and land assets by conducting a no-notice exercise in the Suwałki Gap, where the Very High Readiness Joint Task Forces (VJTF) can coordinate the operations due to their multi-domain capabilities (Brzezinski, 2023).
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Brzezinski, I. (2023, August 17). NATO must respond to Russia’s provocations in Belarus. Atlantic Council. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/nato-must-respond-to-russias-provocations-in-belarus/.
Chiappa, C. (2023, August 2). Belarus helicopters entered Poland’s airspace as provocation, report says. Politico. https://www.politico.eu/article/poland-belarus-helicopters-entered-polish-airspace-provocation-onet-report/.
Collis, H. (2023, July 22). Putin warns Poland an attack on Belarus would be an attack on Russia, Politico. https://www.politico.eu/article/vladimir-putin-warns-poland-attack-belarus-russia/.
Faulconbridge, G., & Light, F. (2023, July 20). Wagner mercenaries train Belarus special forces near Polish border. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/belarus-forces-holding-exercises-with-wagner-fighters-border-with-poland-2023-07-20/.
Noor Haq, S., Pennington, J., Kennedy, N., Tarasova, D., Gretener, J., & Kesaieva, Y. (2023, August 3). Tensions high on NATO’s border with Belarus after Wagner troops move closer, CNN World. https://edition.cnn.com/2023/08/02/europe/poland-belarus-wagner-nato-tensions-intl/index.html.
Reuters. (2023, August 15). Latvia sends army to guard border with Belarus as illegal crossing attempts mount. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/latvia-increases-belarus-border-protection-after-96-illegal-crossing-attempts-2023-08-15/.
Scislowska, M., & Karmanau, Y. (2023, August 15). Why tensions have been growing along NATO’s eastern border with Belarus, PBS News Hour. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/why-tensions-have-been-growing-along-natos-eastern-border-with-belarus.
Talmazan, Y. (2023, August 12). Poland moves troops to Belarus border as Wagner fighters fuel NATO tensions, NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/poland-troops-belarus-border-wagner-fighters-nato-tensions-rcna98974.
Teslova, E. (2023, August 8). Belarus holds military drills on border with Lithuania and Poland, Anadolu Ajansı. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/belarus-holds-military-drills-on-border-with-lithuania-and-poland/2963832#. The Guardian. (2023, August 7). Tensions rise as Belarus begins military drills near Poland and Lithuania. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/aug/07/tensions-rise-as-belarus-begins-military-drills-near-poland-and-lithuania