Long stories short
- 1.2 million people in China’s Hebei province spent Thursday night in emergency accommodation because of record rains.
- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and his wife, Sophie Grégoire, said they were splitting up.
- An escaped rodeo goat called Willy was found safe southwest of Houston after three weeks on the run.
Mind the gap
In the past week, Ukraine and Poland have exchanged sharp diplomatic statements, two Belarusian helicopters have violated Polish air space and the 14th convoy of Wagner mercenaries arrived in Belarus, whose president says he can barely stop them setting off on “excursions” into Poland.
So what? If Wagner troops were to cross the Polish border or enter the Suwalki Gap (more below), they would immediately test the strength of Nato’s Article 5 security guarantee for all its members.
The scenario may seem far-fetched but
- so did the idea of an invasion of Ukraine last year;
- Putin would be able to disavow any incursion since Wagner is notionally private …
- … while already benefiting from cooling relations between Ukraine and Poland, which are critically important for getting military aid to Ukraine.
Kernel of discord. Ukrainian-Polish mutual discontent started with Poland’s blocking of overland Ukrainian grain transport for fear of antagonising Polish producers as elections loomed. The relationship cooled again yesterday when a senior aide to Poland’s president said Ukraine wasn’t showing enough gratitude for Poland’s help, and both countries summoned each other’s ambassadors for a dressing down.
Ukraine’s President Zelensky says there shouldn’t be “a single crack” in the two countries’ unity against Russia. He’s right.
- Poland is hosting more than 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees, most of whom work and pay taxes but all of whom would suffer from a deteriorating relationship.
- Poland is the main route for humanitarian as well as military assistance to Ukraine.
- The access it provides for Ukrainian wheat to EU and world markets is doubly important since Russia’s withdrawal last month from the Black Sea export deal. Russia’s continuous attacks on Ukrainian port facilities, and the closure of Hungary’s Ukrainian border, mean Kyiv now relies on Poland’s rail network to get grain to Baltic and Croatian ports.
Hybrid threat. 8,000 Wagner mercenaries are now “resting” in Belarus after their abortive mutiny in Russia in June. That’s not enough for an attack on Ukraine from the North but it’s not inconceivable that some might try a probing incursion into the Suwalki Gap – the narrow land bridge between Belarus and the Russian Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad.
Suwalki what? Sixty miles long and not much wider than the Polish-Lithuanian border, this narrow strip was considered a potential flashpoint by General Ben Hodges, commander of US forces in Europe until 2017. He said Russia and Belarus would be “interested” in it in the event of any potential conflict with Nato, which is what Putin claims is already unfolding in Ukraine.
Nato test? Might Putin use Wagner mercenaries to test Nato’s “red lines”? It would be an appalling risk but his ally in Minsk has shown he’s ready to provoke his western neighbour. Poland’s deputy foreign minister Piotr Wawrzyk confirmed yesterday that helicopters from Belarus violated Polish and therefore Nato airspace. A Pentagon spokesman said Nato forces’ positions had not changed but that they would ensure “every square inch of Nato remains safe”.
Dry run. Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator, tried weaponising east-west migration in 2021 by briefly opening his western border to let refugees out. To note:
- Poland’s border fence proved effective against migrants with shovels but it wouldn’t stop armed mercenaries.
- In any Suwalki Gap conflagration, Putin could support Wagner troops on the ground with regular army units – and nuclear weapons – in Kaliningrad.
- Poland would consider any Wagner mercenaries on its territory as representatives of Russia, as the former Polish ambassador to Ukraine Jan Pieklo told Tortoise.
Any hint of hesitation in a Nato response to such provocations would be seen by Putin as an invitation. As the late US Senator John McCain once said, nothing provokes Putin more than weakness.
And finally… David Brooks’ column in today’s NYT is compulsory reading for anyone still perplexed by Trump’s ability to fire up his base with every new criminal indictment. For those without a subscription, the gist of Brooks’ argument is that Trump voters don’t just feel excluded from contention for capitalism’s glittering prizes by America’s metropolitan elite. They are.
Photograph Attila Husejnow/SOPA/LightRocket via Getty Images
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