With Tomasz Piotrowski, on how the uniformed services are handling the non-military crisis situation brought about by Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, talks Magdalena Kowalska-Sendek.
What is the division of competences related to the protection of the Polish borders among services during peacetime, crisis and war?
The division of competences during peacetime is clearly determined and included in the Act on State Border Protection. The Border Guard, on behalf of the Minister of Internal Affairs and Administration, is responsible for the protection of the land and sea borders, and the Operational Commander, on behalf of the Minister of National Defense, is responsible for the inviolability of Polish airspace borders. This situation will remain unchanged until the legal dimension of the state’s functioning is altered, i.e. martial law or state of war is announced.
What kind of instruments or institutions help you to control the integrity of airspace borders?
I can’t discuss it in detail, for obvious reasons. It is worth mentioning, though, that we base our work on, among other things, radar reconnaissance and observation posts, which are responsible for identification of threats in the airspace. Information collected by all sensors is analyzed at the Air Operations Center, subordinate to the Armed Forces Operational Command. The Air Operations Center provides a 24/7 service to ensure that there are no unauthorized violations of airspace.
The Armed Forces Operational Command is also responsible for commanding forces deployed to support government and self-government administration in the event of non-military crisis situations. In what circumstances would it be justified to talk about such a situation? Does the pandemic, or the migrant crisis, fall under this definition?
It’s hard to define a crisis situation, let alone determine its beginning and end. In this context, I would rather speak of a threat to the state’s security, and in such cases, the minister of internal affairs and administration can turn to the minister of national defense for the support of the armed forces. The decision of the minister of national defense is later authorized by the president of Poland.
This was the case in the spring of 2020, when the army acted within Operation Shield. We supported the Border Guard in tightening the state borders due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We handled this new challenge very well. Was it a non-military crisis situation? I am not sure. I am certain, however, that the current situation on our eastern border is in fact a non-military crisis situation. If we asked Poles – in reference to the migrant crisis inspired by Lukashenko’s regime – whether they feel as safe in Poland as they felt, let’s say, 2 years ago, most of them would certainly say no. There’s no point in denying it: the security situation has worsened and we can definitely speak of an increasing crisis.
Lukashenko’s regime is employing more and more instruments that threaten our security and sovereignty – and we can clearly see that the situation is escalating. Nowadays, the adversary – and I don’t mean only the Russian-Belarusian actions, but the general tendency – tries to find various legal loopholes or sensitive spots where it can strike. In such a situation, we talk about the so-called new generation warfare, or hybrid warfare, which occurs below the traditional threshold of war.
Just like in the case of Operation Shield, the army is currently also supporting the Border Guard in protecting the Polish border. Who is in charge of border protection in this situation?
No one has taken the responsibility to protect the inviolability of our borders off the Polish Border Guard, so the army is only assisting them. The main coordinator of the activities is the General Commander of the Polish Border Guard, and I am commanding the military elements during this operation, through, for instance, the Land Forces Operations Center – Land Component Command, in cooperation with the air forces and naval operations centers.
Border guards, police officers and soldiers have been deployed on the Polish-Belarusian border due to the migrant crisis. What are the proportions of the engaged uniformed services?
This data changes every day. There are a lot of soldiers – several thousand of them. Keep in mind, however, that this data can’t be juxtaposed, as the Border Guard is a less numerous formation. Let me remind you of a situation that took place near Kuźnica in Podlasie at the beginning of November. There was a forcible attempt to cross the border, to which representatives of all the services reacted together, performing their duties shoulder to shoulder. I am glad the army – apart from executing their statutory activities, such as trainings or missions – is able to support the Border Guard to such a considerable extent.
When were the first soldiers sent to the Polish-Belarusian border?
Our soldiers have been working to prepare an engineering barrier since July. Their presence has been gradually increased, and they have been given new tasks. Currently, the soldiers deployed on the border execute observational, patrolling and reconnaissance activities. They support the Border Guard in preventing the spread of illegal immigration. All this is a part of Operation Griffin executed by the Armed Forces Operational Command. The Territorial Defense Forces soldiers are also engaged within the frame of Operation Strong Support. They have been helping local authorities and people living in the vicinity of the border. They have been executing tasks such as patrolling the river Bug or conducting air reconnaissance with UAVs. The army tactics is changing according to the number of migrants or the behavior of Belarusians.
The way the migrants behave is also changing. The Border Guard have informed recently that there are less individual attempts to cross the border, but more forcible attempts undertaken by bigger groups.
The changeable tactics of the migrants is also the result of the changing weather conditions. The swamps, which had earlier been inaccessible, are now possible to cross. There are a lot of services watching the border, so it is hard for the migrants to cross one by one. Therefore, they throw wooden logs, beams at the fencing and try to force through the barrier in big groups of several dozen people.
What else should we prepare for? Is the worst part of the migrant crisis yet to come?
It’s hard to say. The worst variants we had been considering came true at the beginning of November in Kuźnica, where a mass of people tried to force their way across the border. We are expecting to witness more such attempts, as we know this mass is made up of people manipulated by the Belarusian special services.
Manipulated, but also intimidated, I suppose…
Yes, unfortunately. The Belarusians are exerting emotional, but also economic pressure – since the migrants have paid to be transferred to Europe, they don’t want to lose their money or their opportunities.
We are surrounded by informational chaos, we are constantly being manipulated. How will the society handle the situation?
Finding a solution to this problem is not the responsibility of the army. We, soldiers, do what we are supposed to do: we guard our homeland. I assure you that the soldiers who serve in the east believe they are doing the right thing to protect our country’s security. I think the problem lies elsewhere – in the judgments of irresponsible people who undermine the values represented by the uniformed services. I feel really aggrieved by the fact that various pseudo-experts and celebrities question the legitimacy of what we are doing. The society should support us, and each Polish citizen should trust that we are doing everything we can to keep them safe by protecting the integrity of our border. As a soldier with a white-and-red flag on my shoulder, I will choose the security of my compatriots in any case. If Poles fail to understand that, it will always put us at a disadvantage. We need to keep in mind there is no perfect solution that will satisfy everyone. What is good for Polish citizens will not always be good for the migrants.
This is not only informational warfare, but also a war of nerves. It seems that the adversary is only waiting for us to make a mistake…
I’m certain Polish soldiers are determined to protect our country. I truly believe that they will keep their cool. We are doing everything we can to support them. If we notice any PTSD symptoms, decide that the surrounding conditions exceed someone’s emotional capacity, there are psychologists at the site who are always ready to help. We also regularly change rotations. Polish soldiers know the consequences of shooting in the direction of the border, they know what they are allowed and not allowed to do. Our mission experience is also very helpful in this situation.
Will this migrant crisis ever end? And if yes, when?
In order to answer this question, we need to consider the underlying aim of these actions and their main author. I am afraid we are facing long months of crisis, as neither Lukashenka’s nor his animator’s goals have yet been achieved.
At the beginning of this conversation, I asked you about the division of competences when protecting the borders during peacetime and crisis. What will it be during wartime?
Above all, I want to calm everyone down: there is no war on the horizon. If, however, war began, the army would take control over the Polish borders according to legal regulations. On the strength of Article 26 of the Constitution of Poland, the Armed Forces of the Republic of Poland safeguard the independence and territorial integrity of the state and ensure the security and inviolability of its borders.
LtGen Tomasz Piotrowski - Since 2018, he has been the Operational Commander of the Branches of the Armed Forces. Earlier, he served in the structures of, e.g, the 12th Mechanized Division. In the years 2012–2013 he was the Deputy Commander of the Polish Military Contingent in Afghanistan.
autor zdjęć: DORSZ