Despite signs of a thaw in relations, the Polish government is still on the brink of an unprecedented confrontation with Belarus.
Authorities in Minsk said this week they will expel 10 Polish officials – their foreign minister leading the charge. That followed years of failed attempts by the west to find a diplomatic resolution to the dispute.
The spat has stirred echoes of the conflict in Ukraine, yet Poland is heavily invested in Ukraine’s stability.
Both Poland and Belarus have an open border with Ukraine and both are worried that a pro-Russian regional government could emerge on their eastern flank.
Poland’s President Andrzej Duda said the Polish embassy in Minsk had asked to have 10 Polish officials transferred to other posts.
“This was seen as an unacceptable provocation,” he said. “Some deputies of the [Kazakhstan] parliament made the same demand. Nobody yet has responded positively. Today, we are looking at a clear escalation.”
How did the latest spat start?
Last June, Minsk and Warsaw signed a deal to legalise a customs union and establish a joint railway infrastructure.
Poland and Belarus are both members of the European Union, but Minsk has traditionally been hostile to the Polish government.
Poland and France announced a new joint air and sea security mission in the region this month. Belarusian officials expressed anger and suspicion at the announcement and warned the move would not be tolerated.
So, why do Polish officials care so much about the entire region?
While today a political order in Ukraine is held together by a government with sanctions imposed on Moscow, to many it is anathema. By mobilising the country’s military, Poland is acting as a surrogate force of the Ukrainian state in the most sensitive geopolitical region.
In Belarus, there are many voices that argue that it is better to remain in the EU than to join Russia’s neo-Soviet ally, Belarus. If the area is divided politically – and financially – this would amount to a major degradation of the entire region.
Speaking with The Reporter, Joseph Burakiewicz, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at the National Defence University in Washington DC, said it’s worth keeping in mind that trade opportunities are one of the few mechanisms that work when the two countries are in the same room.
“Russia has virtually zero presence in Belarus and that is why there is no Russia-Ukraine conflict that is supposed to be part of a ‘peaceful solution’. Belarus has a different political affiliation that Poland and most of the EU,” he said.
He added that Poland’s support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is “not only self-evident, but represents a specific threat to Russia”.
Life or death?
Poland has large and well-integrated interests in the region. Poland was forced to defend the Ukraine-Russia border during the Crimea crisis, while neighbouring Belarus has been pushed to the brink of chaos by resurgent nationalists and some pro-Russian separatist movements.
Russia’s ambition in these parts of Central and Eastern Europe is to be the only game in town – and the idea that Poland is actively supporting Ukraine might give Moscow pause for thought.
On Tuesday, Poland said it would hold exercises with Belarusian troops within the rule of law. President Duda also hosted his Belarussian counterpart Aleksandr Lukashenko, but the two made no major announcement.
In return, Lukashenko said Poland should stop its planned exercises – before they had even begun.
“Poland should be prepared to admit it failed the role of a loyal ally and join the family of responsible countries.”
Giorgos Moutafis is special correspondent for the BBC’s Central European Service.