Russian Aggression Brings High Anxiety to Polish Border Towns
SUWARKI, Poland — The idyllic landscape around the Polish-Lithuanian border has long been known for its rolling farmland, tranquil lakes and historic cities.
For NATO strategists, it’s also now known as the danger point.
Suwaki is a city of nearly 70,000 people located on a 45-mile corridor of NATO territory between two Russian military strongholds. To the southeast is Belarus, a close ally of Russia that served as a base for its invasion of Ukraine. To the northwest is Kaliningrad, a chunk of Russia that was disconnected from the rest of the country by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Western military strategists call it Suwalki Gap. Their concern is that Russia, after occupying the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and invading Ukraine this year, may resort to force in an attempt to take over the border area linking Kaliningrad to Belarus.
Threatening rhetoric from the Russian and Belarusian governments has added to anxiety in the region, with Russia’s parliament recently introducing a bill to revoke Moscow’s 1991 recognition of Lithuania’s independence from the Soviet Union.
Ukrainian incursions have sparked similar unease in other countries around Russia that have either been allied with Moscow for decades or have faced little threat of attack. Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO, while Kazakhstan and some other ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia that have remained in Russia’s orbit have gradually moved away from Moscow, in part because of wariness about their reliability.
The Suwalki Gap area has a long history of conflict. Napoleon’s army crossed it as they invaded and retreated from Russia. During both world wars, it experienced fierce battles. After World War II, it fell under Soviet control and Kaliningrad was designated as a Russian territory.
Today, although military and intelligence officials see no direct military threat from Russia, they fear its aggressive and unpredictable behavior.
Ewa Sidorek, the former deputy mayor of Suwalki, said many locals were terrified and some were still shocked when Russia attacked Ukraine. She said a friend packed a suitcase and filled her gas tank for a rainy day. More disturbingly, people in other parts of Poland believe the region has been attacked.
“People are calling to ask about the war here,” Ms Sidorek said. Despite being affordable for tourists in the area, tourist numbers have dropped significantly this year, she said, and “tourists think it’s dangerous,” she said.
Suwalki Mayor Czeslaw Renkiewicz predicts that tourists will eventually return, but he worries that rhetoric about Russian aggression will deter investors. When Polish President Andrzej Duda recently met Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda near Suwaki, the mayor told Mr Duda that local timber, furniture and manufacturing companies may eventually need state support.
In nearby Goldap, a town less than 3 miles from the Kaliningrad border with a 19th-century Prussian building, hotels are facing cancellations, and the Wellness Center of Springs has responded, said Zuzanna Rozmyslowska-Wasilewska, manager of the region’s tourism board. questions about restrictions. central. “A lot of apartments are for sale right now,” she said.
On the Lithuanian border, Sandra Kvietinskaite, who manages a municipal office that supports start-ups, has an evacuation plan ready. After Russia attacked Ukraine, she said she checked her parents’ passports for validity and packed her bags, which she was still prepared for.
In an emergency, she said, she would take her parents to Germany to live with relatives, and she would go to Norway, where she used to work. “I want us to be safe,” she said. “I cross my fingers.”
Kazimierz Kuczynski, a retired Polish army colonel who lives in Suwalki, is not so worried. Russia has consumed so much ammunition in Ukraine that it lacks the resources to attack, he said. “We can sleep soundly,” he said.
Andrzej Sek, Lecturer in Internal Security at PUZ National Vocational University in Suwaki, moderates an annual conference on Suwaki Gorge. The meeting discussed issues such as hybrid warfare involving cyberattacks, sabotage and other unconventional tactics.
“Today, I don’t see a major threat to Poland, Lithuania or the Suwaki Gorge,” he said. “What will happen in the near future, who can say?”
Anxiety in the region intensified in June when Russia and Lithuania sparred over a Lithuanian train line connecting Kaliningrad to mainland Russia.
For decades, the rails were in the Soviet Union, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Lithuania’s independence in 1991, the rails became international routes. When the Baltic states joined the EU in 2004, Russia and Lithuania agreed to the terms of the train’s operation. According to Lithuanian Railways, about 250 Russian trains crossed Lithuania every month last year.
EU sanctions on Moscow since February have complicated the arrangement. In June, Lithuanian authorities began enforcing EU restrictions that prohibit the transport of some banned products on train lines. The resulting standoff temporarily halted all Russian rail traffic to Kaliningrad.
Moscow has accused Lithuania of imposing a blockade on Kaliningrad and threatened an unspecified response. As tensions rose in July, Lithuania said it was simply enforcing EU rules, while Germany and some other member states urged it not to escalate the situation. In late July, Lithuania and EU allies agreed to an approach aimed at avoiding conflict, but citizens were uneasy.
“There’s a Russian train going through Lithuania. Obviously, we’re nervous,” said 19-year-old Pilvskiai resident Migle Onaityte, who was near the train line.
Many Russian trains are escorted by Lithuanian helicopters to make sure they don’t stop and nothing is put on or taken off the train. Lithuanian border guards now conduct four times as many patrols as they did in 2020, and other helicopters have also participated in military exercises, according to a spokesman for the interior ministry.
“People think the helicopter is Russian,” Ms Ornett said. “very scary.”
“People are also afraid of Belarus,” said Davydas Jasaitis, a friend of Ms. Onaityte, who recently spent a day with her and other friends at Lake Vistytis, which forms the border between Lithuania and Kaliningrad.
Behind the visitor center, a path leads to a marina where families frolic in the water. Not far away, behind a tall fence topped with barbed wire, is a guard tower marked Russian territory.
Tadeusz Szturgulewski, 88, of Suwaki, was 5 years old when Soviet troops invaded Poland in 1939, days after Nazi Germany invaded from the West. Two years later, the Germans stormed the Soviet Union, and three years later, Soviet troops returned to Berlin.
Mr Szturgulewski, an activist in Poland’s anti-communist solidarity movement in the 1980s, said he would take up a rifle and fight if Moscow’s troops returned.
“The Germans are far more civilized than the Russians,” he said. “The Nazis will just shoot you, but the Russians will torture you and then kill you.”
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The Russian attack on Ukraine has focused the attention of Suwakis on civil defense preparations, even those not afraid of an invasion. Former deputy mayor Ms. Sidorek said there was a written agreement for the area, but plans were not announced. “Most people know nothing about alerts or procedures,” she said.
Mayor Renkiewicz said earlier this year he ordered an investigation into basements and parking facilities that could be used as shelters, but he did not release the results to avoid increasing anxiety. He said residents should be educated on the importance of the different alerts from the city’s 19 civil defense sirens.
He said NATO forces from the United States and Europe visit a base about 55 miles away every six months, which offsets some of the anxiety. Troops attended summer picnics and Christmas celebrations, bringing singing groups and introducing themselves.
“People see that we’re not just saying NATO is here, but they’re really here,” Mr Lenkiewicz said.
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