Krzysztof Zajaczkowski’s farm is less than 400 meters from the yellow sign that says “state border” in Polish. The mayor of the village of Wilkajcie can see the writing from his window. The spruce forest behind it already belongs to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
At the end of November 2022 you can still walk across the meadow to the border strip without any problems. In the future, this will no longer be possible because a barbed wire fence made of nato or razor wire is being built on the Polish side of the border.
A few miles to the east, work has already begun on the razor-sharp wire barrier. “That’s good and necessary when you live so close to Russia,” explains village mayor Zajaczkowski.
Even without a fence, he doesn’t feel threatened because the Polish border guards are closely guarding the area. “But when you see what’s happening in Ukraine today, you don’t know what else can come from the Russian side.”
“We want this border to be watertight” – with these words Poland’s Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak announced the construction of the new fence on November 2, 2022. The decision has to do “with air traffic between the Middle East and Kaliningrad”. According to media reports, the exclave airport has signed contracts with Syria, Belarus and Turkey.
In 2021, thousands of people flew to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to cross the Polish border and cross into the EU. There were violent clashes with Polish security forces.
Then Poland erected a barbed wire fence on the border with Belarus. According to Polish border guards, the number of attempts to cross the border illegally there has fallen sharply since then: from 17,000 in October 2021 to almost 1,500 in October 2022.
Now the fence to the Kaliningrad region is designed to save the country from a similar scenario on the northern border. The first five kilometers were completed by mid-November 2022, and the barrier should be over 200 kilometers long, three meters wide and 2.5 meters high. Initially, it will consist only of blade wire, but later cameras, tripwires and underground seismic motion detectors will also be installed.
So far, illegal entries across the border to Kaliningrad have been a rarity: according to Polish border guards, there were just eleven cases from January to the end of September 2022. Most were tobacco smugglers, not migrants. Nevertheless, according to surveys, two-thirds of Poles support the construction of the new border fence.
“Migrants are not our biggest concern,” Urszula, a resident of the 14,000-inhabitant town of Goldap, four kilometers from the border, told DW. “So far at least none have been seen here. But the more protection from Russia, the better. Putin is a bandit.” And a young man fears: “At some point Russia will also attack Poland.”
Urszula also has no doubts that Poland needs the border fence. She’s even considering leaving the country. “After 30 years in the US, I returned to Poland when I reached retirement age,” she explains.
“But now I feel so unsafe here that I’m thinking about going back to America.”
There are other voices too. “I don’t know if wires will stop refugees – or if it wouldn’t be better if Poland finally had a proper migration policy,” Zbigniew Sodol, who runs an oxygen therapy practice in Goldap, told DW.
“When Russia fires its rockets, they fly 500 kilometers above our heads, and no fence helps against that.” What Putin is doing in Ukraine is “bestial” – but there are also “normal people” in Russia. Poland and the Kaliningrad region benefited from the small border traffic that prevailed until 2015.
Criticism also comes from the Polish opposition. Human rights activist and MEP Janina Ochojska from the Civic Platform (PO) party tweeted to Poland’s prime minister and government in Warsaw: “Have you been robbed of your sanity? You spent 350 million euros on a ‘dam’ on the Polish-Belarusian border just to have loopholes for further violations of the law and for pushbacks, and now you want to build another one? Follow the laws and procedures. It’s cheaper and more efficient.”
But such critical voices are rare in Poland. On security issues, the positions of government and opposition politicians hardly differ. No wonder, says Paulina Piasecka, director of the Center for Terrorism Studies at Warsaw’s Collegium Civitas. “When we respond to a threat from the state that is causing the conflict just across our border with Ukraine, little resistance can be expected.”
In addition, Poland is also responsible for protecting an EU external border. “Investments in security at the border with Kaliningrad are not only made for the sake of Poland’s citizens, but also for the sake of all other countries that belong to the Schengen area,” the expert told DW. And the border fence also strengthens the sense of security of the residents of the border region.
Krzysztof Zajaczkowski and his family would feel safer if they could finally see the razor wire fence from their window, says the village mayor. But one should not just sit back and wait for the state. Like many families in Poland at the moment, the Zajaczkowskis have also started gathering supplies and preparing a hiding place.
“We have a big basement under the barn where we can hide and spend some time in case of danger,” says Zajaczkowski’s 73-year-old mother, Krystyna. Potatoes, honey and eggs are stored there – all from our own production. “Regardless of the threat of migrant flows or Russian attacks – I will not leave my house.”
Author: Monika Sieradzka
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The original for this post “NATO wire with razor-sharp blades: How Poland closes its border with Russia” comes from Deutsche Welle.