Russian navy starts Baltic sea drills
Against the backdrop of the Russian war in Ukraine, Poland has become NATO’s spearhead in Eastern Europe and its principal line of defence against a potential Russian threat should the war expand beyond Ukraine. Poland has an extensive border with Ukraine. It has served as the main entry point for massive Western arms shipments there. So far its main contribution has been to serve as an assembly point for Soviet weapons from Eastern Europe.
Poland, itself, has donated more than 240 modern T-72 tanks to Ukraine and sold Kyiv an additional 60 AHS Krab self-propelled tracked gun-howitzers. Poland is also the main recipient of refugees from the war. Since the Russians launched the invasion on 24 February, Poland alone has taken in more than 2.5 million Ukrainians. But Poland’s qualitative strategic leap in terms of armaments is the product of huge arms deals with the US for some of the top US defence manufactures. The US, for its part, has pledged to make Poland one of the strongest military powers in Europe, a plan informed by Poland’s crucial geopolitical position.
Warsaw is joining other European powers in their collective race to increase military spending and expand their armed forces. In the coming years, they will be purchasing more arms than ever from American defence manufacturers. Sweden, which has a large military industrial base, will soon be joining other NATO countries in this race. Germany, for its part, is determined to recover its place as a foremost military power at the heart of Europe within the next ten years. In fact, it is interesting to compare Poland and Germany in view of their 20th-century history. Poland had once been the political fulcrum of the Warsaw Pact, the USSR’s answer to NATO. It took Poland a quarter of a century of structural transformation in the framework of disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) and security sector reform (SSR) programmes, to “Westernise” in accordance with European standards. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, half of Germany had been a part of the Soviet Union, like Poland. After unification, Germany remained encumbered to a large extent by the restrictions placed on it during the post-World War II period. Poland’s actions since the start of the war in Ukraine have confirmed its historical transition to the Western camp. Ukraine, as we know, did not have a similar opportunity to keep pace with the transformations that followed World War II and the end of the Cold War up to the point where it became a victim in the war that Russia has unleashed against it.
According to Western reports, the process of turning Poland into NATO’s spearhead in Eastern Europe involves two main and interdependent levels. The first is to build the country’s advanced strategic weapons arsenal. Some of its major acquisitions were the subject of talks during the Polish minister of defence’s recent visit to Washington. According to reports, the shopping list includes 500 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, six Patriot surface to air missile (SAM) systems of which Poland will receive the first batch in October, various quantities of Lower Tier Air and Missile Defence Sensor radars and P-18 PL early warning VHF radars, a number of F-35 stealth multirole combat jets and 250 Abrams battle tanks. Poland also seeks assault helicopters, some frigates and around 100 drones.
The second level concerns the US role in Poland. On 2 June, the US Ambassador to Poland Mark Brzezinski unveiled a US project to build over 110 military facilities in Poland in the next 10 years “to support the American military and NATO military footprint in Poland as part and parcel of our force posture.” He said that the project will take place in two areas, one for munitions and equipment depots, warehouses and forward positioning, the other for logistics, education and training, and administration. US forces will operate 51 of the facilities and the rest will be at Poland’s and NATO’s disposal.
In fact, this development in the US-NATO outlook and Poland’s ambitions in this regard is not new. It can be traced at least as far back to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and to the perceived threat of Russian military bases in Belarus near the Polish border. Poland has been a member of NATO since 1999, however it feels it has not received the deployment of NATO assets commensurate with its fears of Russia. Until recently, its main criteria was probably based on comparison between itself and other European powers where NATO had a heavier presence. But its fear has grown into alarm now that Russia has approached becoming a direct neighbour through its invasion of Ukraine.
Russia, for its part, has continually expressed its concern with and opposition to Western military reinforcements, the construction of new facilities in Eastern Europe and even sales of sophisticated weaponry and hardware, all of which it claims are crossing red lines. Western powers and Poland specifically are determined to forge ahead with their defence policies regardless. They cite the lesson from Ukraine, the nexus of the new mode of cold war now unfolding.
A version of this article appears in print in the 16 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.