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A 'barbed wire curtain': Poland fortifies border with Russia

November 24, 2022

Poland has begun building a razor wire fence along its 210-km-long border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad to keep out migrants from the Middle East and North Africa and give locals a greater sense of security.

Polish soldiers building a razor-wire border fence on the border between Poland and the Russian exclave Kaliningrad, November 16, 2022
Poland's Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak has said he wants to make the country's border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad "watertight"Image: Monika Sieradzka/DW

Krzysztof Zajaczkowski's farm is just 400 meters (437 yards) from the border separating Poland and Russia. From the window of his home, the mayor of the village of Wilkajcie can see the letters of a yellow sign that reads "National border" in Polish.

The spruce forest beyond the sign is on the territory of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Until the end of November 2022, it will still be possible to walk across the grass right up to the actual borderline. After that, the route will be blocked by a barbed-wire fence made of razor wire on the Polish side of the frontier.

Krzysztof Zajaczkowski, mayor of the village of Wilkajcie, Golap district, Poland
Krzysztof Zajaczkowski, mayor of the village of Wilkajcie, says that the fence is "good and necessary when you live so close to Russia"Image: Monika Sieradzka/DW

Just a few kilometers further east, work on the fence has already begun. "This is good and necessary when you live so close to Russia," Zajaczkowski told DW.

He said that he did not feel at risk without the fence because the area was closely guarded by Polish border guards but was quick to add: "But when you look at what's happening in Ukraine today, you never know what might come from the Russian side."

A 'watertight' border

"We want to make this border watertight," explained Poland's Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak when he announced the construction of a new border fence on November 2, 2022. The decision, he said, was related to "the flights between the Middle East and Kaliningrad." According to media reports, the airport in the Russian exclave has signed contracts with Syria, Belarus and Turkey.

In 2021, thousands of people flew to Minsk, the capital of neighboring Belarus, with a view to traveling from there to the Polish border and crossing into the EU. There were violent clashes between migrants and members of the Polish security forces.

Poland then put up a barbed-wire fence along its eastern border with Belarus. The Polish Border Guard agency says that the number of attempts to illegally cross the border has nosedived since then, dropping from 17,000 in October 2021 to just under 1,500 in October of this year.

Cameras, tripwire and motion detectors

Now the intention is to protect the region bordering Kaliningrad on the country's northern frontier with a similar fence. The first five kilometers (3.1 miles) were finished by mid-November.

When completed, the barrier will be over 200 kilometers long, three meters wide and 2.5 meters high. To begin with, it will just be made of razor wire. Cameras, tripwires and underground seismic sensors will be installed later.

Urszula, resident of the town of Goldap, Poland
Urszula lives in the town of Goldap, close to the border with Kaliningrad, and is in favor of the border fence: "the greater the protection against Russia the better"Image: Monika Sieradzka/DW

To date, not many people have crossed the border from Kaliningrad illegally: The Polish Border Guard agency only registered 11 cases between January and the end of September. Most of the people involved were tobacco smugglers, not migrants. Nevertheless, surveys suggest that two-thirds of Poles are in favor of the new border fence.

Fear of a Russian attack

"Migrants are not our biggest worry," explained Urszula, who lives in the town of Goldap (population 14,000), just four kilometers from the border. "At least, we haven't seen any here so far. But the greater the protection against Russia the better. Putin is a bandit," she said.

Another young man, who also spoke to DW, shared this sentiment, saying "someday, Russia will attack Poland too."

Urszula has absolutely no doubts that Poland needs the border fence. She is even considering leaving the country. "After 30 years in the USA, I came back to Poland when I reached retirement age," she said. "But now I feel so unsafe here that I'm thinking of going back to America."

Criticism of the border fence

But not everyone shares this view. "I don't know whether the barbed wire will stop refugees or whether it would not be better for Poland to finally implement a proper migration policy," said Zbigniew Sodol, who runs an oxygen therapy center in Goldap. "If Russia fires off its missiles, they'll fly a distance of 500 kilometers, right over our heads," he told DW. "There's no fence that can stop that."

Sodol went on to say that what Putin was doing in Ukraine was "savage," but that there were  "normal people" in Russia too. He also pointed out that the people in Poland and Kaliningrad had benefited from the regular border traffic that existed until 2015.

The Polish opposition has also voiced criticism. Human rights activist and MEP Janina Ochojska from theCivic Platform (PO) took to Twitter to berate Poland's prime minister and government: "Have you lost your reason?" she tweeted. "You spent €350 million ($363 million) on a 'wall' on the Polish–Belarusian border, just to have loopholes for further violations of the law and for pushbacks, and now you want to build another one? Follow the laws and procedures. It's cheaper and more effective."

Protecting the EU's external frontier

But critical voices such as these are rare in Poland. When it comes to security, there is hardly any difference between the positions of the government and the opposition.

Dr. Paulina Piasecka
"The investment in security at the border with Kaliningrad is not only for the citizens of Poland, but also for those in all other countries that are part of the Schengen Area," says Dr. Paulina PiaseckaImage: Privat

This is no surprise, said Paulina Piasecka, director of the Terrorism Studies Centre at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw. "When we are reacting to a threat from the state that started the conflict with Ukraine just across our border, opposition is not to be expected."

She pointed out that Poland is also responsible for protecting part of the EU's external border. "The investment in security at the border with Kaliningrad is not only for the citizens of Poland, but also for those in all other countries that are part of the Schengen Area," Piasecka told DW, adding that the border fence also strengthens the sense of security felt by the people living in the region.

Getting ready for what may come

Krzysztof Zajaczkowski said that he and his family would feel safer when they can finally see the razor wire fence from their window. However, he feels that people shouldn't just sit back and wait for the state to do something. Like many families in Poland right now, the Zajaczkowskis have started stocking up on provisions and preparing a hideout.

Krzysztof Zajaczkowski with provisions in the cellar underneath his barn
Like many in Poland, Krzysztof Zajaczkowski is preparing for all eventualities by stocking up on provisions and preparing a hideoutImage: Monika Sieradzka/DW

"We have a big cellar underneath the barn, where we could hide out for a while in the event of danger," said Zajaczkowski's 73-year-old mother Krystyna, who is already storing potatoes, honey and eggs from the farm there. "Whether there are hoards of migrants or a Russian attack, I'm not leaving my house."

This article has been translated from German.