Yet that question might determine whether U.S. troops end up stationed in Poland to face down the Russian menace, as conceived by Warsaw. The new Polish government has refused to back London’s request for immigration controls. Unless, maybe, Britain supports permanent NATO bases in Poland. And we all know which country would be expected to furnish the necessary garrisons.
It’s easy to sympathize with Poland. The old Mexican saying was poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States. For Poland it should be poor Poland, however close to or far from God, stuck between Germany (including Prussia and Austria) and Russia. That once was a fate not to be wished on anyone.
The end of the Cold War seemed to offer a welcome respite. Reunified Germany had become more European than almost anyone else in Europe, seemingly unwilling to use its capable military for anything. And Russia was a shadow of the Soviet Union, lacking both ability and will to threaten its neighbors. The specter of foreign invasion finally seemed to have been banished from Poland.
Still, nationalist Poles didn’t particularly like their neighbors, east or west. And after President Lech Kaczynski died in a 2010 airplane accident in Russia, his twin brother, former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, dismissed the obvious cause of bad weather and presumed a malign Russian conspiracy. He then was in opposition, so his dubious imaginings mattered little. But as chairman he dominates the Law and Justice Party, which won last October’s election and since has ruthlessly consolidated power with little regard for law. His paranoia inflames fears already high after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support for Ukrainian separatists.
While it has been said that even paranoids have enemies, in the case of Poland that might not be true. Despite all the fevered emotion there appears to be no practical threat from Russia against its now worried neighbor.
Vladimir Putin isn’t cute and cuddly. He doesn’t let the niceties of international law get in the way of what he believes to be necessary to advance Russia’s interests. Hence backing the separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, acquiring Crimea, and supporting ethnic Russian separatists in Ukraine.
But he’s no Hitler. The forgoing isn’t much of an imperial domain after 16 years in power. And Putin’s objectives have been carefully limited: protect Moscow’s influence in border territories once part of the Soviet Union, especially if inhabited by ethnic Russians. Indeed, despite all of his maneuvering, he’s made no effort to swallow Georgia or Ukraine, which would be a disastrous overreach.
There’s even less for Russia in Poland. It was not part of the Soviet Union and is not filled with fellow Russians. Moreover, Moscow cut out its pound of flesh at the close of World War II, essentially moving both countries westward. All Russia could take today would be indigestible Polish territory inhabited by angry patriotic Poles. Putin is many things, but not a fool, which he would have to be to inaugurate war against Warsaw for such a counterproductive purpose.
Which means despite all its fussing and worrying, Poland faces no greater threat today than it did in 1989. No one’s going to invade. Ironically, establishing NATO bases is more likely to cause Russia to view Warsaw as a threat. Even that wouldn’t spark a violent military response, but it would intensify Moscow’s paranoia.
Of course, Poles still may be worried. If so, they should do more themselves. Only last year did Warsaw bother to meet the two percent of GDP military spending expected of alliance members. Poland’s armed forces remain but number eight in size within NATO. That’s not nearly enough if the country really believes itself to be a Putin target. Warsaw should develop a tough territorial defense which would make invasion by anyone far too expensive to be worth a try. If Poland’s defense is only worth two cents on the dollar for Poles, why should everyone else in NATO contribute?
But the current government expects them to do so. When Polish President Andrzej Duda took office last year, he announced: “We need more guarantees from NATO, not only we as Poland but the whole of Central and Eastern Europe, in the current difficult geopolitical situation.” Because of Russia “We need a greater NATO presence in this part of Europe.” He added, “We do not want to be the buffer zone. We want to be the real eastern flank of the alliance.”
At the last NATO Summit in September, 2014 members agreed to establish a rapid reaction force. However, the unit’s personnel remain in their home countries.
Since then Warsaw has been pushing for a permanent base with a couple of heavy combat brigades comprising 3000–5000 men. Opposition has been strong since it would violate a 1997 treaty signed with Russia that limits the NATO presence in former Warsaw Pact states. The Poles want to discard the agreement, while other alliance members, such as Germany, oppose creating another point of contention with Moscow.