Krzysztof Zajaczkowski’s courtyard is just 400 meters from the yellow sign, which says “State Border” in Polish. The village chief Vilkaytse can see this inscription from the window. The spruce forest behind the board already belongs to Russian Kaliningrad. At the end of November 2022 it will still be possible to walk freely along the lawn to the border strip. However, this will no longer be possible in the future, since a fence will be erected on the Polish side of the border from the so-called NATO wire – a special barbed wire with sharp serifs.
Construction of such a barrier has already begun. “If you live so close to Russia, it is good and necessary,” said the village chief Zayachkovsky. He says he still feels safe, because the Polish border guard carefully guards the border area. “But when you see what is happening in Ukraine today, you don’t know what to expect from the Russian side,” he added.
“We want this border to be impenetrable,” Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak announced on November 2, 2022 the construction of a new fence. The decision to build a fence was explained in Warsaw by the expected activation “air communications between the Middle East and Kaliningrad”. According to media reports, the airport of the Russian enclave has plans to increase flights to Syria, Belarus and Turkey.
At the same time, Poland points to the dramatic experience of last year, when thousands of people from the Middle East flew to Minsk through the mediation of the Belarusian side to to the Polish border and through it to enter the EU. Then came violent clashes between migrants and Polish security forces. Then Poland put a barbed wire fence on it border with Belarus. Since then, the number of attempted illegal border crossings in the area has dropped dramatically, from 17,000 in October 2021 to less than 1,500 in October 2022, according to the Polish Border Guard.
Cameras and motion sensors at the Polish border
The fence being erected on the border with the Kaliningrad region is designed to protect Poland from a similar scenario on the northern border. By mid-November 2022, the first five kilometers of the fence had been installed. As a result, its length should be more than 200 kilometers, width – three meters, height – 2.5 meters. Initially, the fencing will only consist of barbed wire. Later it will also be equipped with cameras and underground seismic motion sensors.
Until now, illegal entries into Poland across the border into the Kaliningrad region have been rare: only 11 such cases were recorded from January to the end of September 2022, according to the Polish Border Guard. They were cigarette smugglers rather than illegal migrants. And yet, according to polls, two-thirds of Poles support the idea of building a fence on this part of the border.
Fear of a possible Russian attack
“Migrants are not our main concern,” said DW Urshula, a resident of the city of Goldap, located four kilometers from the border of the Kaliningrad region, with a population of 14,000 people. – Ed.) did not see. But the more protection against Russia, the better. Putin is a bandit.
One of the young people DW spoke to fears that “one day Russia will also attack Poland”.
Urszula has no doubt that Poland needs a fence on its border with Russia. She even thinks about leaving the country. “I lived in the US for 30 years and moved back to Poland after I retired,” she explains. “But now I don’t feel safe here and that’s why I’m thinking about returning to America.”
Criticized for the construction of a fence on the border of Poland and the Russian Federation
But there are also other opinions. “I don’t know if the wire will stop the refugees and if it would be better if Poland, will finally implement a correct migration policy, says Zbigniew Sodol, owner of the oxygen therapy practice in Gołdap, in an interview with DW. “If Russia launches its missiles, they will fly 500 kilometers away from us and above our heads, no fence will protect against this.” Sodol is sure that what Putin is doing in Ukraine is “cruelty”, but in Russia there are also “normal people”. Both Poland and the Kaliningrad region benefited from the small border traffic that existed before 2015, he recalls.
The construction of the fence is also criticized by the Polish opposition. For example, Janina Ochoyska, a human rights activist and MEP from the Civic Platform (PO) party, addressed the Prime Minister of Poland and the government in Warsaw on Twitter with the following words: “Have you lost your mind? You have spent 350 million euros on the barrier on the Polish-Belarusian border, only to have loopholes for further law-breaking and the deportation of migrants, and now you want to build another? Follow laws and procedures. It’s cheaper and more efficient.”
Poland and EU Border Guard
However, such critical statements are rare in Poland. On security issues, the opinions of politicians who support the government and the opposition usually do not differ. This is not surprising, says Paulina Piasecka, head of the Center for the Study of Terrorism at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw: “When we respond to a threat from a state that has provoked a conflict right on our borders, in Ukraine, one can hardly expect resistance.”
At the same time, Poland is also responsible for protecting the EU’s external border, she recalls. “Security at the border with Kaliningrad is invested not only in the interests of the citizens of Poland, but also in the interests of all other countries that are part of Schengen area”, emphasizes the expert in an interview with DW. The border fence also enhances the sense of security of the inhabitants of the border region, she emphasizes.
According to Krzysztof Zajaczkowski, he and his family would feel safer if they could finally see the wire fence from their window. But even now he is not going to sit back and rely on the state. Like many other families in Poland, the Zajaczkowskis have already started gathering supplies and preparing shelter for themselves in case of emergency.
“We have a large cellar under the barn, where we can hide well in case of danger and spend some time there,” says 73-year-old mother Kristina Zayachkovsky. Potatoes, honey and eggs are stored there – all of their own production. “Whether it’s migrant flows or an attack by Russians, I don’t leave my house,” she says.