Tensions between Russia and NATO member Poland have been cranking up to boiling point in recent days amid Russian claims that it has killed ‘up to 80 Polish mercenaries’ in missile strikes.
The reported losses come on the same day that Russia confirmed it has removed a Polish flag from a memorial commemorating the murder of thousands of Poles by the Soviet Union in 1940.
To the north, Moscow has been furious over Lithuania’s blocking of EU-sanctioned goods from reaching the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between the Baltic state and Poland.
This has prompted Poland to call on NATO to further bolster its security presence in the Suwalki Gap, the narrow corridor of territory that connects the three Baltic states to the rest of their NATO allies and separates Kaliningrad from Russian ally Belarus.
‘We are going to seek the reinforcement of this corridor… in our talks with our partners from NATO,’ Mateusz Morawiecki told a news conference in Brussels after a European Union summit.
Kaliningrad and the Suwalki Gap, on Polish territory, would be ground zero for any military conflict between NATO and Russia, as Vladimir Putin would immediately move to cut the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia off from the rest of NATO and shore up the isolated exclave from inevitable NATO strikes.
The Suwalki Gap – named after the town of Suwalki that sits between the Russian territory of Kaliningrad and the Belarus border – is a strategic choke point that Poland has called on NATO to reinforce in order to strengthen Lithuanian security
The aftermath of a Russian missile strike on a warehouse building in Druzhkivka, just a few miles away from the Megatex zinc factory in Konstantinovka, where Russia has claimed a ‘precision strike’ killed 80 Polish fighters
Freight cars stand on the railroad tracks of the freight station in Kaliningrad on Tuesday after Lithuania enforced a blockade against EU-sanctioned goods crossing its territory from Belarus to Kaliningrad
Estonia’s military said in a statement that the Russian MI-8 helicopter (pictured flying over St Petersburg) entered the country’s airspace in Estonia’s southeastern and simulated missile strikes
This week Moscow warned of ‘very tough actions’ against Lithuania after deliveries of coal, metals, construction materials and advanced technology were stopped passing through its territory on the way to Kaliningrad.
The Lithuanian chargé d’affaires in Moscow was told that unless cargo transit was resumed in the near future, Russia reserves the right to act to protect its national interests.
Such talk has prompted Poland to request additional NATO fortifications around the town of Suwalki in order to safeguard Lithuania’s security from Russian incursions.
Russian claims of wiping out 80 Polish fighters will only add to the tensions.
‘Up to 80 Polish mercenaries, 20 armoured combat vehicles and eight Grad multiple rocket launchers were destroyed in precision strikes on the Megatex zinc factory in Konstantinovka’ in the Donetsk region, the Russian defense ministry said in a statement which could not be independently verified.
It is a common Russian tactic to accuse Western volunteers fighting within the Ukrainian armed forces of being paid mercenaries and thus exempt from the Geneva Convention rules on the treatment of prisoners of war.
The irony is not being lost on those in Ukraine that Russia employs genuine mercenaries of the Wagner Group, which pays a far higher pay packet than its own troops.
Poland fully endorsed Lithuania’s blockade of Russian materials to its Baltic exclave and it has been reported that Russian Railways has temporarily suspended some cargo transit from Belarus to Poland.
Russia is framing this as a routine disruption but the timing of it gives the appearance of a tit-for-tat retaliation.
And Estonia’s military said in a statement Tuesday that a Russian MI-8 helicopter entered the country’s airspace in southeastern Estonia in the Koidula area – not far from the Russian city of Pskov – without permission on Saturday evening and simulated missile attacks.
The helicopter was in Estonia’s airspace for almost two minutes, Estonia’s military said, adding that it hadn’t presented a flight plan, had its transponder switched off and failed to maintain radio contact with Estonian Air Navigation Services.
The alleged intrusion was one of multiple violations of Estonia’s airspace this year and comes less than a week before a scheduled NATO summit in Madrid.
And to escalate tensions between the two historical enemies even further, Russian authorities have removed a Polish flag from a memorial commemorating the murder of thousands of Poles by the Soviet Union.
Russian Prime Minister (at the time) Vladimir Putin takes part in a wreath laying ceremony at the memorial to Polish prisoners of war killed by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s secret police in 1940, in Katyn near Smolensk, some 360 kms (224 miles) southwest of Moscow, Wednesday, April 7, 2010.
The names of the people killed on a wall in the Katyn Memorial near Smolensk, Russia, 02 August 2013. During WWII, more than 4,000 Polish intelligence officers and their relatives were executed in Katyn. In total, about 24,000 Polish people were killed
Members of a Polish Historic Group participate in the Katyn Shadow March reconstruction at the Monument To Those Who Fell or Were Murdered in the East in Warsaw, Poland, 14 April 2013
A Polish girl scout carries a candle she accepted from mourners to lay it outside the Presidential Palace in memory of late Polish President Lech Kaczynski on April 12, 2010 in Warsaw
Pictured: An outpouring of grief at the gate of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw on April 10 2010, after news spread of the tragic crash of the presidential plane near Smolensk airport earlier in the day
Historians and visitors to the Katyn memorial in western Russia’s Smolensk region noted the flag’s disappearance on social media on Friday.
The mayor of Smolensk city confirmed the removal on Friday evening, publishing a photo showing the Russian flag flying alone at the memorial’s entrance.
‘There cannot be Polish flags on Russian monuments. Even less so after the frankly anti-Russian comments by Polish political leaders, ‘Andrei Borisov said on social media platform VKontakte.
‘The culture ministry of the Russian Federation made the right decision by removing the Polish flag. Katyn is a Russian memorial. ‘
The Katyn memorial was erected in memory of the 25,000 Poles, mostly army officers deemed anti-communist, massacred by the Soviet Union’s political police in a forest near Smolensk in 1940 on the orders of Joseph Stalin.
The Soviet Union had long denied responsibility for the killings, accusing the Nazis of the crime, before admitting the truth in 1990.
The episode poisoned already hostile relations between Russia and Poland.
In 2010, a Smolensk-bound plane carrying the Polish president crashed on the way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, killing all its 96 passengers including most of the Polish government.
The investigation into the incident sparked a plethora of conspiracy theories and became another source of tension after the countries tried to improve their ties.