The leaders of NATO members Poland and Lithuania warned on Thursday against “provocations” and “sabotage actions” from neighboring Belarus by relocated members of Russia’s Wagner mercenary force, a warning that comes just days after two Belarusian helicopters breached Polish airspace and heightened jitters in the region.
“Our response to the provocation is to increase the size of the Polish Army on the eastern border of the country by redeploying troops from the west,” Poland’s defense minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, said on Thursday at a televised meeting with troop commanders in Bialystok, a regional capital near the Belarusian border. “In accordance with the applicable law, soldiers in a specific situation can use weapons. They are not defenseless.”
Belarus, a staunch Russian ally, shares sizable borders with both Poland and Lithuania, which support Ukraine.
There are at least 4,000 members of the Wagner mercenary group in Belarus, Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said separately on Thursday, at a news conference with President Gitanas Nauseda of Lithuania at Przesmyk Suwalski, a strategic strip of land in Poland near both the Belarusian and Lithuanian borders as well as that of Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea.
The Wagner group is “extremely dangerous,” Mr. Morawiecki said, and it is “being redeployed to NATO’s eastern flank to destabilize it.”
On Tuesday, local media reported that two helicopters marked with Belarusian flags were seen in the area of Bialowieza, just across the border from Belarus. Although the Polish government at first said it had not detected any intrusion, the Defense Ministry later confirmed that “there was a violation of Polish airspace by two Belarusian helicopters that were carrying out training near the border,” adding that Belarus had informed Poland about the exercises.
Following the incident, Polish authorities alerted NATO and announced that they were deploying extra troops and helicopters to the border.
At the news conference with Mr. Morawiecki, the Lithuanian president warned that the presence of Wagner mercenaries in Belarus was “an additional security risk factor for Lithuania, Poland and NATO allies.” Mr. Nauseda added: “We remain vigilant and prepared for any possible scenario.”
Poland and Lithuania fortified their borders with Belarus starting in late 2021 as Polish and European authorities accused the longtime autocratic ruler of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, of luring migrants from the Middle East and Africa with flights and visas and then pushing them into Poland in order to destabilize the country and gain diplomatic leverage. Poland built an 18-foot razor-wire-topped wall along 115 miles of the border.