The Polish contingent of NATO’s new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), deployed for the first time in Exercise NOBLE JUMP, in Zagan, Poland
Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, along with its support of separatist forces in Ukraine’s Donbass province, has Poland and NATO’s military leadership wary of Putin’s intentions in Eastern Europe. According to Polish President Andrzej Duda, NATO could be doing much more to bolster his country militarily. Speaking to the Financial Times, he argued:
“Today, when we look at the dispersion of [NATO] bases . . . then the borderline is Germany… If Poland and other central European countries constitute the real flank of NATO, then it seems natural to me, a logical conclusion, that bases should be placed in those countries.”
President Duda has a point – if NATO truly intends to function as a protective alliance, it must establish a permanent military presence in Eastern Europe in order to prevent its most vulnerable members from falling into the Kremlin’s sphere of influence. Additionally, if Warsaw’s fears of being left in the cold in case of invasion go unaddressed, NATO’s credibility as an alliance will suffer.
For a country that is part of the European Union and NATO, what does Poland have to fear? For one, Poland shares a direct border with Russia through its Kaliningrad exclave – a potential launching point for a Russian invasion. Secondly, memories of atrocities committed by Soviet occupying forces during the Second World War and of Poland’s past as a Communist satellite state remain deeply entrenched within the country’s collective consciousness. Finally, Moscow’s lack of transparency in helping Polish officials investigate former President Lech Kaczyński’s death in the 2010 Smolensk disaster have only increased the amount of distrust between the two nations.
Another major concern for both Poland and the Baltics is Russia’s use of the UN resolution R2P, or “responsibility to protect,” to advance its own interests. Otherwise known as the “Putin Doctrine,” it refers to the Russian strategy of justifying invasions in bordering countries by claiming it is acting in protection of Russian-speaking minorities. Crimea is the most recent casualty of this doctrine and was preceded by Georgia in 2008, which Russia invaded under the pretext of acting to protect Russian citizens in the disputed areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. These regions currently remain under Russian occupation. With these events in mind, the Baltic states – home to significant numbers of ethnic Russians as well as Russian-speakers – fear being Putin’s next target. Poland, for its part, with its proximity to the Baltic states and its potential to become the strongest economic and military power in Eastern Europe, can serve a key role in discouraging Russian expansion in the region.
Although Poland is well-placed to deter Russian aggression in the Baltics, there are several hurdles to overcome before NATO can deploy permanent bases in Eastern Europe. The first is the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, in which NATO assured Russia that the organization would not deploy or store weapons in its Eastern European member states. However, by annexing Crimea and supporting separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, Russia has effectively broken another – equally important – agreement. In what is known as the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine agreed to relinquish the ex-Soviet nuclear weapons stationed on its soil in exchange for Russian acceptance of its national sovereignty and borders. Moscow’s claim that the Memorandum does not apply to its annexation of Crimea shows that the Kremlin cares about international agreements only when they serve its own interests. Why, then, should NATO keep its promises when the Kremlin obviously cannot? This is precisely what Polish officials claim when they argue that Russia’s actions in Ukraine have voided the 1997 treaty. By installing permanent bases in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, NATO would force Moscow to think twice about breaking its international obligations.
Even if the legality of establishing bases is worked out, there remains the problem of politics. Public attitudes in Western Europe display a lack of commitment when it comes to supporting their Eastern European allies. A recent study by the Pew Research Center finds that nearly 60 percent of the German public and over 50 percent of French and Italian respondents are opposed to using military force to help an ally under Russian attack. In addition, Berlin is politically opposed to Poland’s requests for permanent NATO bases on Polish soil because it fears provoking the Kremlin and does not want to jeopardize its economic ties with Russia. The only NATO members that have the public’s majority support in using force for mutual allied defence are the United States and Canada.
But given the poor condition of Europe’s militaries, that support may be effectively useless. Reports of German service members being “too fat to fight” in Afghanistan and using broomsticks in place of actual guns in NATO exercises due to chronic equipment shortages raise questions about Germany’s combat readiness. For the Baltic states, the situation is even worse – Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania have no fighter aircraft and therefore completely rely on NATO forces to patrol and protect their airspace. NATO’s members clearly expect the United States, which funds nearly a quarter of the organization’s entire budget, to come to their aid in case of attack. In fact, Estonia is the only country aside from the U.S. that currently meets NATO’s defence budget goals. Can Europe safely rely on America to always pick up the slack?
The Polish public has expressed serious doubt that NATO would help in case of a Russian invasion – nearly a third of Poles believe that NATO would not mobilize to defend their country. Such views, while pessimistic, have grounds in the country’s history. The Poles remember their betrayal at the hands of the Allies during the Second World War – first when they failed to act after German forces rolled across the Polish border in September 1939, and then when Poland was left to Soviet domination at the Yalta Conference. Due to experience and the situation in Ukraine, Warsaw has been trying to close the defence gap by engaging in a massive military spending campaign aimed at modernizing its forces and procuring more equipment, to the tune of $35 billion over the next ten years. In comparison, the military budgets of the UK and Germany have decreased this year. It seems that the Americans, with their recent show of force in Eastern Europe, appear more interested in preserving NATO’s rear flank than Europe itself. But symbolic gestures are not enough to prevent an outright Russian invasion.
If Poland cannot depend on NATO, what can Warsaw do? While it is already taking steps to fortify its own defensive capabilities, Poland cannot single-handedly stop a Russian invasion. A potential alternative lies with the Visegrad Group. Composed of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia with the aim of increasing mutual military, economic and energy cooperation, the organization has the potential to become a “sub-alliance” within the EU and NATO that can be used to deter Russian aggression. If the Visegrad Group were to expand and include the Baltic states as well as Bulgaria and Romania, such a coalition would have more resources aimed at preventing Russian expansion and could potentially create a credible strategic deterrent.
Clearly, many obstacles remain in creating an Eastern European stronghold within NATO. The fact remains that Putin is clearly aware of Europe’s military weakness and of its reluctance to stand up for itself politically, which may result in another Crimea-like situation in the Baltics in the future. Time is running out for NATO to decide whether Poland should be a buffer or a bulwark against future Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. After all, nobody would have predicted the landing of the so-called “little green men” in Crimea a few years ago. Who knows what the future has in store.
Michal Jastrzebski is a graduate of the University of Toronto with a Honours Bachelors of Arts in Political Science and History.