Polish analyst: Russia fears open war with NATO but may resort to terrorism

Kremlin AFP/Scanpix

A large-scale invasion or attack on Lithuania or Poland by Russian mercenaries of the Wagner group is not to be feared, but terrorist attacks and provocations, and shoot-outs with terrorists are a real threat, Vytautas Bruveris is writing at the lrytas.lt news portal.

This is what Witold Jurasz, a reviewer for Poland’s main news portal onet.pl, told the ELTA Zoom website.

According to him, with such an attack or assault, Russia would seek to sow as much confusion as possible in Poland, already engulfed in an election campaign. However, according to the Polish commentator, such actions are unlikely to be indicative of Russia’s desire or plans to directly involve Poland or the entire NATO alliance in the war. Rather, it is a desire to try to intimidate and blackmail them into “negotiations” and “de-escalation”.

All the more so, according to Mr Jurasz, because Russia does not want to enter into a real and open conflict with either Poland or the West. On the contrary, he said, the Kremlin is beginning to think about how it should “end it all”.

“When we see how their actions are worsening the situation, the atmosphere, the tension, the question is how to interpret it, what it really means. Looking at the overall situation, Russia is not sending very clear signals that it wants to end the war. They are not doing so yet. However, I get the impression that they have already realised that they have to end it somehow. This does not mean that they will not escalate in order to bring it to an end”, the commentator paradoxically defined the situation.

W. Jurasz said that, in his opinion, the West is also trying to “end” the war, whose strategy is still fundamentally different from the plans of Ukraine and its closest allies.

“Most Polish politicians, if asked what their ambition is, would say that it is Ukraine’s victory in the war. But I don’t think that is the goal of the US, the UK or any other major Western power. Their aim is that Ukraine should not lose the war. That is first and foremost. The second is to end the war in such a way that there will not be a third Russian-Ukrainian war.

This means that Ukraine will be given just enough weapons to keep it from losing the war but not enough to win it unconditionally and with complete conviction. This is exactly what is happening,” the Polish commentator told Elta.

How big a topic in Polish media, society and politics is the potential Wagner terrorist threat?

First of all, there is a general consensus that the Wagner group is not a military threat in the conventional sense of the word. You are very right to use the term ‘terrorist’ here. After all, if the Wagner Group is a threat to Poland or Lithuania, it is a terrorist threat, not a military threat. I do not believe that this group has sufficient forces to be a serious military threat in the true sense of the word. And everyone in Poland understands that.

But the problem is that Wagner can resort to provocations. That is certainly possible. I think that some kind of clash, some kind of disturbances on the border involving Wagner mercenaries, is likely. Among them are ex-criminals who would mix with illegal migrants and provoke some kind of shoot-out on the border.

If this were to happen, it would only be with one objective, which would, of course, be Russia’s. After all, Russia, not Belarus, is the main actor here. There is a lot of political confrontation and struggle in Poland right now.

The supporters of the current government and the government in power will tell you that Russia wants the elections to be won and the opposition to come to power. The opposition supporters will tell you that the current government benefits Russia the most. However, I believe that Russia is not interested in either. What it really wants is chaos and political confrontation. And that is guaranteed to happen if there is such a skirmish. Or, for example, if one of the migrants is shot in such a shoot-out.

Well, sometimes I get the impression that governments overreact. From the dallies, this is probably due to the election campaign, to the desire to show themselves as the most important actors. On the other hand, it is logical to hedge one’s bets. Because Russia’s actions are logically unpredictable, it would not have attacked Ukraine if Russia had acted logically.

So I understand that you do not rule out the possibility that Russia might resort not only to pushing illegal migrants across the border, to trying to break down barriers but also to using weapons to attack border guards or even military personnel. In your opinion, is this the most likely scenario if it were decided to resort to terrorist attacks?

You said ‘weapons’, and I would say more specifically ‘one weapon’. One automatic weapon is enough. So we are not talking about a major, fatal escalation but about an attempt to provoke internal disagreements.

Unfortunately, there is no consensus in Poland on how to respond to the border crisis. It is a subject of great tension. There are some people on the extreme left who say that we should open the border altogether because migrants are poor people.

Yes, of course, they are, and I feel sorry for them too, but Belarus does not have a border with Syria, Iraq, Chad and Niger. But there are people from those countries in Belarus. So it is obvious that this is a provocation by the KGB there. But there is another aspect of the matter which, in my opinion, needs to be taken into account. I do not think that Alexander Lukashenko is interested in the kind of provocation that we are talking about.

After the Yevgeny Prigozhin rebellion – assuming it was his rebellion and not that of anyone in the Kremlin elite – Mr Putin is weakened. And perhaps even more weakened than Lukashenko. And this, in my opinion, creates a completely new dynamic between Lukashenko and Putin. I think that Aliaksandr Grigoryevich may think that he has a chance – at least in the last two years – to outlast Putin politically.

However, in order to outlive him, he cannot provoke the West. So I think he can try to be much more cautious than he has been in recent months.

But has he not long since become nothing more than a mere puppet of Putin and the Kremlin? Does he have his own will and subjectivity?

Well, that is the million-dollar question to which many Polish analysts are giving a negative answer. However, I do not agree with this.

I think that Lukashenko, even if he were dead, would negotiate what his coffin should look like. Mr Lukashenko, I would say, is a model dictator. He trusts no one. He is always trying to hold on to even a small piece of power. And there is one huge psychological difference between Mr Lukashenko and Mr Putin. It reminds me of a little story that one of our ambassadors who worked in the Caucasus told me.

He told me about a meeting between the Presidents of Georgia and Azerbaijan, Mikheil Saakashvili and Ilham Aliyev. That meeting was not very good. Relations between the two were quite strained. The reason was simple. For Mr Aliyev, power and authority were given to him, given to him after the death of his predecessor, his father. Mr Saakashvili took power and won power. He thought it was his trophy.

At least in 1994, Lukashenko won the elections against the elites of the time. Mr Putin, on the other hand, is Aliyev in this respect. He has been given power, handed power. There is another psychological nuance. Mr Lukashenko has been subjected to many pressures, crises and upheavals over the years. This is in contrast to Mr Putin, for whom this situation is now completely new.

So, even if I were to accept that Lukashenko is much weaker here and now than he was ten years ago, for example, I would not be too quick to say that he is just a puppet. Moreover, he has already received several signals from Ukraine that the Ukrainians do not regard him as a puppet. Yes, he is a bad guy. He took part in the invasion of Ukraine, albeit without using the Belarusian army. However, he is a better option than Mr Putin.

In any case, as I understand it, you, like many in Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic countries, consider the terrorist threat to be serious, real. Is what we are talking about part of the bigger picture? Or is it indicative of some larger trend in the whole geopolitical conflict and war in Ukraine? Do you not think this threat reflects the Kremlin’s intention to expand the war zone, to spill the war over the Ukrainian lands in the direction of the NATO countries – and, above all, Poland?

No, I do not think they want the war to spill over the borders of Ukraine. In fact, if they were going to do that, they would probably start with Latvia or Lithuania, not with Poland. They would do so for one simple reason: our army is stronger. Yes, your countries spend a lot on the army, but our budget is bigger.

Yes, of course. Poland is moving towards becoming one of the strongest, if not the strongest, military power in Europe.

That will take some time. In any case, the Russians are absolutely incapable of going to war with NATO. If they were to attack my country or yours, that would mean war with NATO.

Yes, and that is understandable. However, when I speak of ‘spilling over the edge’, I am precisely referring not to direct, open, ‘conventional’ and full-scale military aggression but to terrorist provocations. And not only provocations on the borders but also, for example, terrorist acts targeting critical civilian infrastructure, perhaps some military installations, and state institutions inside the country. I am referring simply to terrorism.

Yes, it is possible. However, that still does not mean that they really want escalation. That is the problem with the Russians. They escalate both to de-escalate and to really escalate. When we see their actions worsening the situation, the atmosphere and the tension, the question is how to interpret it, what it really means.

Looking at the overall situation, Russia is not sending very clear signals that it wants to end the war. They are not doing so yet. However, I get the impression that they have already realised that they have to end it somehow. That does not mean, however, that they will not escalate in order to end it.

Yes, there is a risk and a danger of such an escalation, but it is not very great for us. Of course, we have to monitor and protect our infrastructure and our borders, and we have to monitor migrants. Counter-intelligence must be taken extremely seriously. All this is really important.

Are you confident and calm about your country’s preparedness for such an escalation, even though you call it not critically large? After all, you yourself mentioned that this subject is the subject of an internal political struggle. Indeed, the highest ruling officials, including the Prime Minister himself, are sounding the alarm bells, and the opposition is accusing them of cynically using this subject for the election campaign. So, are you reassured about the preparedness of the state and its institutions, given this domestic political situation?

You have basically asked me two questions. One is whether we are ready. When I talk to Vytautas Bruveris, a prominent journalist, I assume that the Russians are also watching the programme. So my answer is: ‘Yes, we are ready’.

But on a more serious note, I would say that I am not entirely convinced because we have been quite relaxed for the last three decades. In the last two or three years, we have been trying to take more care of our security. I am not an expert on the Baltic States, but I have been to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia many times, and I have always had the impression that you take security issues more seriously than we do.

I would argue with you about that, but that is all.

Well, at least that is how it looked from a Polish perspective.

The other aspect of your question is whether we are prepared, psychologically or by some provocation, not to cause political turmoil in Poland.

Let me put it this way: when you look at the internal political struggle in Poland, where hatred permeates and distorts the whole debate, you are tempted to say that, no, we are not prepared. On the other hand, however, we Poles do unite when we are threatened. And that is what can save us.

So if I were a Russian military or civilian intelligence analyst, I would think again before I suggested provoking Poland. We do indeed do not do very sensible things, but only up to a point. A direct attack – not even a military attack, but a terrorist attack – would still probably unite the Poles.

Be that as it may, the main things are now happening on the battlefields of Ukraine, where its counter-offensive is taking place. What are the main trends – not so much purely military, but primarily geopolitical – that you see from today’s perspective? I am thinking, for example, of the actions of the West. What is the most likely scenario unfolding in front of our eyes as we look towards the end of this summer, the autumn, and the second half of the year in general?

I can recall what I wrote a year and a half ago when the full-scale war began. There were many people in Poland at that time who said that we could not trust the West, that it would betray and leave Ukraine, and that the West no longer existed at all and was rotten.

I have always been suspicious of those who say these things because they are actually echoing Russian propaganda.

Obviously, that has not happened. The West is not rotten. It exists. It is not weak, but it is strong. The West stood up to Russia. That is the positive side of things.

However, there is also the so-called ‘realpolitik’. Most Polish politicians, if asked what their ambition is, would say that it is the victory of Ukraine in the war. But I do not think this is the aim of the US, the UK or any other major Western power.

Their aim is that Ukraine should not lose the war. That is first and foremost. The second is to end the war in such a way that there will not be a third Russian-Ukrainian war. This means that Ukraine will be given just enough weapons to keep it from losing the war but not enough to win it unconditionally and with complete conviction. That is exactly what is happening.

My country thinks it is already a world power, but it is not. And if the world powers had really wanted to give Ukraine F-16s or Tornados or anything else at that level, Ukraine would have already received them. But they have not. So, obviously, there is no political will to do that.

Is this bad, wrong behaviour? Morally, yes. But can US President Joe Biden ignore the risk of nuclear war? No, I do not think he can dismiss it out of hand. As I understand it, he is trying to minimise that threat and that risk.

Well, the way the war is going at the moment, you could say that it is moving towards a situation where neither side can win. It is hoped that this situation will, however, become an opportunity to end this war. And this war, in my opinion, could end in the same way as the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union.

I recently wrote an article in which I argued that Finland had won this war. I was criticised for this – that Finland did not win but rather lost because it lost part of its territory. But, after all, Finland managed to remain an independent and democratic state. And it is in this sense, in my opinion, that it won the war. However, it has paid a price for that.

Is this, in my opinion, the best scenario now in Ukraine? No, I do not think so. However, politics is not a matter of enthusiasm but of realism.

As I understand it, you are talking about a scenario that the main Western powers want and are striving for?


A kind of “freezing” of the war?

No, I don’t think they want to “freeze” the war. They want to end the war. The reality is that only Washington and London, plus Berlin and Paris, will negotiate this, with very little consultation with Warsaw and Vilnius. It is these major capitals that will take the decisions.

Of course, we must try to push them as close to Kyiv as possible. But, to be honest, I do not think that we can change the rules of world politics. I wish we could. Even with Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and perhaps the Czech Republic and Romania, Poland is not more powerful than the United Kingdom. Let alone the United States.

So, we can only hope that the only factors that can change these rules are the warring people of Ukraine and the madness of the Russian regime itself?

I am not sure about that. I have great respect for Ukraine and the Ukrainians, but the reality is that they will only go as far as the Americans and the British will allow them to go.

We, Poland, have helped them a lot. We gave 370 tanks to Ukraine. However, the equipment, the weapons, and the ammunition that we can give to Ukraine are running out. In the current period, we are not the main players, even in terms of military aid.

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