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Threatened with invasion or nice to visit: Two views of a Polish border area

After a day of kayaking along Poland's northeastern border with Belarus last month, the editor-in-chief of a news portal Covering events in a strip of farmland and forest known as the Suwalki Gap, the rapporteur followed the news with dismay as the Polish prime minister warned of Russian mercenaries moving into the region from Belarus.

More than three weeks later, there is no sign that the mercenaries of the Wagner paramilitary group would move anywhere, except perhaps back to Russia. And the only real danger editor Wojciech Drazba sees comes from the “parallel world” of Polish leaders spreading “fear” over the Suwalki Gap while posing as muscular defenders of Poland's borders ahead of a crucial 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 where Polish state television recycled over-the-top foreign media reports. is called the “most dangerous place in the world”.

Supporting neighboring Ukraine in its efforts to resist Russian aggression, Poland has hosted millions of Ukrainian refugees and has become a major transit route for Western arms. But its critical role as the linchpin of Western military, humanitarian and diplomatic support to Ukraine coincides with a government agenda increasingly dominated by domestic politics.

As Poland's ruling nationalist Law and Justice party faces difficult parliamentary elections in October, residents of the Suwalki Gap are being bombarded with warnings of the impending threat from President Vladimir V by the government in Warsaw and the sprawling media apparatus it controls. Putin of Russia and his staunch Belarusian ally, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.

During a visit to Suwalki this month, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki pored over military maps of the border region alongside the president of neighboring Lithuania, a NATO member – and condemned Poland's main opposition leader, Donald Tusk, for being too soft on national security and for downplaying the Threat from Wagner fighters. “These threats are real,” Mr. Morawiecki stressed, adding that the “Wagner group was extremely dangerous” and preparing for a possible attack.

The reaction of most residents? That's enough.

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

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

To Karol Przyborowski, co-owner of a real estate company in Suwalki, all the overblown warnings smack of pre-election scaremongering. However, he lamented that they had consequences that went beyond politics and unsettled potential property buyers from outside the region.

He said to tell them not to worry because Poland is part of NATO, which meant “if something happens here, there will be all-out war.” Whether you're in Suwalki, Warsaw or New York, does not make a difference.”

Presenting itself as the only reliable guardian of national security, Poland's government announced this month that it is deploying thousands of additional troops to the Suwalki Gap, a 60-mile strip of Polish territory between Belarus and Kaliningrad, a heavily militarized Russian enclave northwest of Belarus Rest of Russia disconnected.

The chasm on Poland's border with Lithuania is not defined by natural features like rivers or mountains, but is a potentially dangerous geopolitical hotspot in the fears of military experts and analysts.

The term “Suwalki Gap” was first coined in 2015 by Toomas Hendrik Ilves, then President of Estonia. He said it came to him spontaneously, just before a meeting with the German defense minister, whom he wanted to convince of the need to station NATO troops in the Baltics.

To make Germany aware of the vulnerability of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, he envisioned a prominent component 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 transferred it to NE 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 Ilves recalled: “I don't think she took me very seriously.”

But the Suwalki Gap took on a life of its own, becoming a staple of geopolitical pundits and military calculus — a vulnerable bottleneck that Russia could seize to isolate the Baltic states, all members of NATO since 2004, from the rest of the US to separate. led military alliance.

in a (n Essay published by the Atlantic Council last week, A research group in Washington, Ian Brzezinski, a former US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO, called on the military alliance to conduct a military exercise in the Suwalki Gap to “show that NATO fears no conflict with Russia.”

Mr. Karolczuk, the mayor of Augustow, fears the business implications of all of this. A hotel recently received dozens of cancellations and a fishing shop run by a friend of the mayor lost a large customer who said he was too scared to visit.

As Election Day approaches, the government has stepped up its warnings. Poland's most-watched TV station, TVP, controlled by the ruling party, covers threats from Kaliningrad and Belarus most days, especially since the arrival of some Wagner mercenaries there.

Several retired Polish generals have questioned persistent claims that Wagner fighters posed a serious threat in Belarus and whether they were anywhere near the Polish border. (Some reports state that they have mostly left Belarus.) A senior Lithuanian military official, who asked not to be named in order to be able to express his views, said: “There really is no such threat, but as I am politically correct, I have to be silent.” .”

Others wonder if the whole Suwalki Gap concept has any validity now that thousands of British, German and other NATO troops are stationed in the Baltics and the alliance has expanded to include Finland and is expected to soon include Sweden. This northward expansion of the alliance means that Russia can no longer cut the Baltic states off from the rest of NATO simply by closing the Suwalki Gap.

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

“Kaliningrad is now a real problem for Russia and not so much a nuisance for NATO,” he added.

Jacek Niedzwiecki, an opposition candidate for parliament in October's elections and deputy leader of Suwalki City Council, accused Justice and Justice Ministry officials of fomenting a fake crisis to bolster support and their opponents as weak on defence to represent.

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

“We have a beautiful gymnasium, but people were just asking about the damn Suwalki Gap,” he said. With no risk of conflict, all 24 invited national teams opted for the competition.

After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, Daniel Domoradzki, a lawyer and leader of the regional residents' group Active Masuria, feared that “because we're so close to Kaliningrad, we might be next,” and asked the authorities to help Providing information on functioning air raid shelters in the Suwalki Gap. He received no answer.

He said his group's main concern these days is improving bus services rather than an impending war with Belarus and/or Russia, although “you never know what might happen when a madman like Putin is in power.”

But he is certain of one thing: “I hate election campaigns. Politics used to be about exchanging views on real problems. Now it's all about playing with emotions.”

Tomas Dapkus contributed to reporting from Vilnius, Lithuania Anatol Magdziarz from Warsaw.

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