Poland, NATO and the Return of History

Conventional threats are coming back in Europe.

After years of presuming that all significant activities by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would be “out of area,” big changes are afoot as key Alliance member countries are realizing that traditional military threats are returning and NATO, having placed enormous effort since 2001 on the losing war in Afghanistan, is unprepared to meet them. As NATO plans to leave Afghanistan next year, the Alliance’s future path is coming into focus.

The reemergence of Russia as a traditional military power is now clear to all who wish to see. Bolstered by oil money, the Kremlin is investing seriously in defense for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian naval shipbuilding, which nearly disappeared in the 1990s, is now funded at half the level of the U.S. Navy’s program, while only a few years ago it was only one-tenth of the Navy’s level. Russia’s ground forces, which have been troubled for more than two decades, are now receiving serious reinvestment and are slated to add forty new brigades by 2020 (by way of comparison, the U.S. Army will be down to thirty-two active maneuver brigades by 2017, even under unduly optimistic budget scenarios).

All this has been noticed by the NATO member countries located close to Russia, many of which were unnerved by Moscow’s recent Zapad (West) military exercises which, despite their portrayal by the Kremlin as a counterterrorism practice run, were clearly more conventional in focus and, given their location—and name—plus the involvement of Belarusian forces in the exercise, proved troubling to frontline NATO states, above all Poland and the Baltic states.

NATO’s Baltic members are accustomed to regular harassment by Moscow, with aggressive espionage, subversion, and manipulation of local politics, business, and Russian minorities being part of daily life in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Russian intelligence services are highly active in the Baltics and generally treat them as less than sovereign states, much less NATO member countries. But the return of a conventional military threat from Russia, coupled with press releases from Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin that seem nostalgic for the Soviet period, has led to a mounting sense of dread in the Baltics.

Poland’s response here has been significant, as it is the largest and most important NATO frontline state in terms of military, political and economic power. Warsaw of late has been trying to raise Alliance awareness of the rising threat from the East, but this has been met with skepticism by NATO members located farther to the West than Poland. In a typical example, the expression of current Alliance assumptions by NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen that “war among European nations is simply unimaginable,” was countered in May by the statement of Poland’s Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski: “I’m afraid conflict in Europe is imaginable.”

Poland’s dissent from NATO’s received wisdom here matters, not least because it is one of the very few new members that has taken its defense obligations seriously since it joined the Alliance in 1999. Not only has Poland, with Estonia, been the only new NATO member country to allocate something like the officially required—but widely ignored—two percent of GDP to defense spending, that budget is rising, unlike practically every other NATO member country. When outgoing U.S. defense secretary Bob Gates in June 2011 stunned the Alliance by publicly calling out members for spending too little on defense, warning of a “dim if not dismal future” for NATO if these budget patterns did not change, he was taking aim at most members and every country that has joined the Alliance since the end of the Cold War—except Poland.

Moreover, Poland has punched far above its weight in American-led wars in the Greater Middle East since 2001. Warsaw’s contribution to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has been greater than any new NATO member, and larger even than many older members; additionally, Polish forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan were more aggressive and willing to engage in combat than most NATO militaries, whose lack of ardor and restrictive rules of engagement proved frustrating to the U.S. military. Poland’s contribution has been important to NATO and the United States, even though Warsaw deployed its forces during a tumultuous reorganization of its armed forces, and despite the fact that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were never very popular with the public at home.

As NATO’s war in Afghanistan winds down, Poland has refocused its efforts on defense at home. Warsaw’s current acquisition program, which cuts across the armed services, is clearly aimed at improving conventional defense against threats from the East. The emphasis on heavy ground forces is impossible to miss. This trend was formalized recently with the announcement by Polish president Bronislaw Komorowski of a new National Security Strategy that prioritizes territorial defense and aid to NATO allies above foreign missions. This represents a clean break with over a decade of Alliance policies and programs that Poland wholeheartedly supported.

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