Belarusian helicopters violated Polish airspace, says Warsaw

Two Belarusian helicopters yesterday violated Polish airspace by crossing the border into Poland, the Polish government has announced. Minsk denies the claim, but eyewitness accounts have also confirmed that the aircraft crossed the border.

Warsaw has condemned the “dangerous” incident and summoned the Belarusian charge d’affaires to explain it.

On Tuesday morning, shortly after 9 a.m. local time, a photographer in Białowieża, northeast Poland, posted photographs on Facebook showing two Belarusian military helicopters. Other local residents also reported seeing the aircraft.

Shortly afterwards, the operational command of Poland’s armed forces issued a statement saying that “Polish airspace had not been violated” and that the helicopters were conducting patrols on the Belarusian side of the border.

However, in the evening, the defence ministry issued a statement revealing that the Belarusian aircraft had, in fact, crossed the border into Poland.

“After analysis…it was established that today, 1 August 2023, two Belarusian helicopters, which were training near the border, violated Polish airspace,” announced the Polish defence ministry.

Komunikat MON dot. wyjaśnienia aktualnej sytuacji na granicy polsko-białoruskiej.

— Ministerstwo Obrony Narodowej 🇵🇱 (@MON_GOV_PL) August 1, 2023

It noted that “the border crossing took place at very low altitude, making it hard to be detected by radar systems”, which was why the initial announcement by operational command had said no violation of airspace was recorded.

The Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper reported, based on local witness accounts, that the crossing took place before 8 a.m. near the village of Grudki. The helicopters reportedly flew at a low altitude around 3 kilometres into Poland before turning back.

The defence ministry noted that NATO has been informed of the incident and that the Polish defence minister, Mariusz Błaszczak has “ordered an increase in the number of soldiers at the border and the allocation of additional forces and resources, including combat helicopters”.

Meanwhile, Belarus’s charge d’affaires – currently its most senior diplomat in Poland – had been summoned to the Polish foreign ministry “to clarify the incident”, added the defence ministry in its statement.

That news was subsequently confirmed in a communique from the foreign ministry, which said it had “issued a firm protest and called on the Belarusian side to immediately and in detail explain the incident”, which it “perceived as another element of the escalation of tension on the Polish-Belarusian border”.

A deputy foreign minister, Piotr Wawrzyk, described Belarus’s actions as “very dangerous”, noting that it had violated not only Poland’s airspace but also NATO’s. Minsk “is playing a very risky game”, he said, quoted by the Polish Press Agency.

W związku z naruszeniem 🇵🇱 przestrzeni powietrznej przez dwa białoruskie śmigłowce, do Ministerstwa Spaw Zagranicznych RP w trybie natychmiastowym wezwana została Charge d’Affairs Ambasady Białorusi.

Więcej informacji ⤵️

— Ministerstwo Spraw Zagranicznych RP 🇵🇱 (@MSZ_RP) August 1, 2023

In response, Belarus’s defence ministry described Poland’s claims as “baseless rumours” and insisted that “there were no violations of the airspace”. It suggested that the Poles had “changed their narrative…after consulting with their overseas masters”, reports the Belta news agency.

The ministry also claimed that the accusations were being “made by the Polish military-political leadership to justify the build-up of forces near the Belarusian border”.

Meanwhile, the US defence department’s press secretary, Pat Ryder, was asked to comment on Poland’s claims that its airspace had been violated.

He said only that such questions should be referred to the Polish defence ministry and that the US “will continue to work together with our NATO allies to ensure that every square inch of NATO remains safe”.

Tensions at Poland’s border with Belarus have been high since mid-2021, when the Belarusian authorities began to orchestrate a crisis that has seen thousands of migrants and asylum seekers – mostly from the Middle East, Asia and Africa – try to cross into the European Union.

Those tensions increased further last year, following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and then again last month following the arrival of mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group in Belarus.

Wagner forces in Belarus have moved towards the Suwałki Gap between Poland and Lithuania, says Poland’s PM

The mercenaries will mount “hybrid attacks” by helping migrants illegally enter Poland and may even enter themselves disguised as migrants, he warns

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) July 29, 2023

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Main image credit: Хомелка/Wikimedia Commons (under CC BY SA 3.0)

Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign PolicyPOLITICO EuropeEUobserver and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.

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