The crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border has been the most serious test for the Polish border protection system in decades, and a key role is played by Polish Border Guard and Polish army.
Migrants are making attempts to force the border barbed-wire entanglements, and Belarusian uniformed services are multiplying provocations – at one point they dazzle Polish soldiers and border guard with laser light, at the other, threaten them with guns. Each of their attempts meets with Polish response in the form of water cannons or tear gas. Such is the reality of recent few weeks at the Polish-Belarusian border. “We are the victims of a hybrid attack, in which illegal migrants have been cynically engaged,” Polish president, PM and MPs would repeatedly say. Poland quite soon received support from western governments of Europe and the United States, as well as from the European Union and NATO. They condemned the regime of Alexander Lukashenko and declared help.
The crisis has been growing slowly. The first symptoms have appeared in the spring, when Belarusian services started to push migrants brought in from the Middle East through the border with Lithuania. The situation would intensify with each coming week, and ultimately it also included the Belarusian-Latvian border. In August 2021, Lukashenko decided to target Poland. The border protection system had been undergoing one of the most serious tests for decades.
Pendulum Swings to the East
A total length of Polish borders amounts to a little over 3,500 km. “Border integrity is the foundation of a state’s existence,” emphasized LtCol Wojciech Sójka, PhD in Eng. at the War Studies Academy’s Faculty of National Security in Warsaw. “When we refer to activity, which is to ensure this integrity, we need to identify two terms: protection and defense.” The first one refers to the time of peace and crisis, the second – to the time of war. The responsibility for border protection lies mainly on the Border Guard, though not exclusively. For defense, also the army is responsible, although, according to the rules, it should receive the support from institutions subordinate to the minister of internal affairs and administration.
The changes in border protection system throughout last decades have been revolutionary. Not only in terms of technological progress, informatization or new tools for border services. It seems that in this context more important is geopolitics. At the beginning of the 1990s the Warsaw Pact collapsed, and Poland was getting closer to western Europe. The new direction in politics was sealed in 1999 with Poland joining NATO and in 2004 the European Union. The attention of services responsible for border protection automatically shifted from the west and south to the east. Following 2007, when Poland joined the Schengen zone, internal borders between most of the member states became open, which required even greater enforcement of the eastern border. Now, it was not only the issue for Poland, but also for the EU and NATO.
At present, the Border Guard counts almost 15,000 servicemen. The formation employs also several thousand civil employees. The attention of most of them is focused daily on the borders with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. The Border Guard services road, railway and river crossings, patrol the frontier zone, and conduct 24-hour observation from the towers fitted with the most state-of-the-art monitoring systems. At their disposal, they have handguns and long guns, and over a thousand patrol and terrain vehicles, motorcycles, quads, snowmobiles and patrol boats. The Border Guard also has several dozen own planes and helicopters. The main tasks of the formation is detecting border crimes, preventing them, and hunting for criminals.
The most frequent crimes are attempts to illegally cross Polish border to get into the territory of Poland, and at the same time – of the European Union. Statistics say that only last year the BG officers caught 2,238 people attempting to cross the border, while 2,002 people tried to pass border crossings, using false documents. The remaining ones chose green border routes. These numbers are hardly comparable to 2021 statistics. Only by the middle of November 20021, the guards on Polish and Belarusian border noted 34,000 attempts of illegal crossing onto the territory of Poland.
Other serious problem is smuggling goods. Some attempts are quite spectacular. Several weeks ago, the media reported that in the vicinity of Dorohusk, the Polish Border Guard intercepted cigarette packages without Polish excise tax, which were smuggled through the border with Ukraine with the use of a drone. The contraband was valued at 53,000 PLN. To counteract such crimes, the Border Guard is assisted by the Tax and Customs Service subordinate to the ministry of finance.
Sea Under Protection
The fact that the Border Guard is focused mainly on the eastern border does not mean that other borders are not secured. The Border Guard keeps watch over them too, although not on the same scale. The officers also operate within the so-called fourth area. They can, for example, control vehicles, service traffic on aviation border crossings, or run centers for migrants. The Border Guard’s duties include controlling the Baltic Sea’s border and coastal zones, and it is the responsibility of the Maritime Regional Unit (MOSG). “The team includes two basic components: the first one operates on the land, keeping watch over the border crossings in the ports, e.g. in Gdańsk, Gdynia, Świnoujście and Kołobrzeg, but also on the international airports in Szczecin-Goleniów and Gdańsk-Rębiechowo,” explains LtCdr (Polish Border Guard) Andrzej Juźwiak, Press Officer for Maritime Regional Unit, Polish Border Guard. “Our officers are responsible for about 850-meter long border stretch with the Russian Federation on the Vistula Spit. They control the legality of the foreigners’ stay and employment on the territory subordinate to us,” he adds.
The second maritime unit is permanently monitoring Polish maritime areas, including internal sea waters, mainly the Vistula Lagoon, but also the state border on the Baltic Sea. It is 12 nautical miles from coast. Within the scope of interest of the Border Guard maritime unit also remains the Polish exclusive economic zone. The zone is not included in the territory of Poland, but it is only Poland that has the right to undertake and engage in fishing and manage and exploit the natural resources there. The total area watched by the border officers on the Baltic Sea is 32,000 km2; the border guard officers cooperate with the Polish Navy, mainly by exchanging information. Responsible for it are most of all the operational services of the Maritime Regional Unit of the Border Guard and the Maritime Operations Center – Maritime Component Command.
“Our tasks include, among others, counteracting smuggling. There have been cases of smuggling cigarettes or amber. Transfer of people, illegal migration via sea route occurs much less frequently than on the land. Occasionally, we deal with the so-called blind passengers. These are people who boarded the ship in the third country, and revealed themselves on the way,” informs LtCdr (Polish Border Guard) Andrzej Juźwiak. The Center is equipped with vessels, helicopters and aircraft. It also uses automated monitoring radar system.
Space for Troops
The passenger aircraft which crossed the Polish border, suddenly changed route. Its pilot stopped to answer the calls. The Polish Air Navigation Services Agency (Polska Agencja Żeglugi Powietrznej, PAŻP) alarmed the air defense commander on duty. He then commanded several F-16s to intercept the suspected machine – such is the scenario of one episode during Renegade/Sarex Exercise. The army, in cooperation with the uniformed services and civil institutions, every year does such a training. This is important, because it is the army that is responsible for the protection of borders in air space, or to be more specific – the army in cooperation with Air Defense Operations Center – Air Component Command.
Air defense watch is kept 24/7, and commanded by the air defense commander on duty, who is directly subordinate to the operational commander. At their disposal, they have the equipment and soldiers from the communications and aviation troops. The first ones constantly monitor airspace, and the second ones are on alert to respond in case of threats or the urgency to send a pair of aircraft on duty into the air. Auxiliary teams from air defense forces and communications forces, as well as tactical aviation and helicopters, which are part of the aviation forces, are also kept in combat readiness.
Soldiers on duty remain in contact with many other institutions, including the Polish Air Navigation Services Agency, Military Counter-Intelligence Service or the above-mentioned Border Guard. When on the Polish sky there suddenly appears a civil aircraft that is suspected of having been kidnapped and that can be a potential tool for a terrorist attack, the operational agents launch very precise procedure. While collecting information about the behavior of the machine, they can mark them with different Renegade status: Suspected Renegade, Probable Renegade, and finally Confirmed Renegade. At the same time, an operational commander decides about further activity regarding the plane. In the first situation, the suspected plane can be called to land on the designated airport, leave Poland’s airspace or return to its pre-planned route. In the second situation, combat machines can be sent up to intercept the suspected plane and, for example, force it to land. In extreme situation, the operational commander can decide to shoot it down, but only when it is confirmed that all people who are onboard that plane intent to use this plane for a terrorist attack. When this is not the case, Polish jets will escort the suspected plane to the Polish border. If Polish airspace is violated by a military aircraft, the initial procedures are similar; however, when it does not follow instructions, such aircraft must be aware that warning shots can be shot by the intercepting jet, and when the suspected aircraft continuous to fail to respond to a call – it can be eliminated.
Meanwhile, the civilizational progress makes the concept of border protection and state security broader. Today, a state can also be destabilized by cyberspace attacks – stealing sensible data or destroying telecommunications networks. Many institutions are engaged in defense against cyberattacks. Among them, there are three computer security incidents response teams, or CSIRTs, which are ran within the Ministry of National Defense, Scientific and Academic Computer Network (NiASK) research institute, and within Internal Security Agency (ABW). All of them cooperate closely with each other.
System in System
Polish border protection system is a part of NATO and EU systems. Allocated army forces which are on combat duty – including tactical aviation – perform tasks within the frame of allied air defense system (NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defense System). The Polish Border Guard respects the regulations of the Schengen border code. It also uses SIS, which includes data enabling to identify whether the person crossing internal border is not searched for, is under classified supervision or is prohibited from entering the EU territory. The border guards have also access to joint informational visa system and to Eurodac, which enables automatic fingerprints recognition. Meanwhile, the EU is getting another measures ready. In 2022, ETIAS is to be implemented, the system which allows for early control of travelers from outside the EU who are trying to cross EU borders, and, if needed, for denial of entrance.
There is more to joint procedures and databases. Polish border officers train with their EU colleagues, actively participate in all kinds of forums and missions. They cooperate with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex). All of that to meet new and increasing challenges of today.
The crisis on Belarussian border is a totally new situation for Poland. Although obviously, this is not war, still the Border Guard is directly supported by the army. As explained by the Armed Forces Operational Command, such solution is applied in accordance with the act on the Polish Border Guard of October 1990. The army can be engaged in protection of state border in a situation where there is a direct risk of attack on its integrity or if public safety is endangered. The decision on the engagement of the army is made by the president on request of the prime minister. In urgent cases, it can be also made by the defense minister.
“Reality around us is constantly changing. In the future, we’ll probably more frequently than today face transsector and asymmetric threats. Aggressor will reach for all kinds of warfare means, such as those within the area of demography, economy, politics, religion and disinformation. For that reason, being the citizens and soldiers, the officers of uniformed services and specialized agencies, we should enforce the integrated security system of our state,” summarizes LtCol Sójka.
autor zdjęć: DWOT, S. Dorochowicz