As Vladimir Putin’s Russia continues to threaten Ukraine, having stolen Crimea in the spring and exerted de facto Kremlin control over much of the Donbas this summer, war worries are mounting on NATO’s eastern frontier. New reports of Russian troop movements on the Ukrainian border this week are not reassuring to those Atlantic Alliance members who suffered Soviet occupation for decades, and still live in Moscow’s neighborhood.
Neither are Russian air force incursions into Western airspace calming nerves with their reborn Cold War antics: yesterday, NATO fighters intercepted no less than nineteen Russian combat aircraft, including several heavy bombers. No NATO countries are more worried about Kremlin aggression than the Baltic states, with their small militaries and lack of strategic depth, which are frankly indefensible in any conventional sense without significant and timely Alliance assistance.
But Poland is the real issue when it comes to defending NATO’s exposed Eastern frontier from Russian aggression. Only Poland, which occupies the Alliance’s central front, has the military power to seriously blunt any Russian moves westward. As in 1920, when the Red Army failed to push past Warsaw, Poland is the wall that will defend Central Europe from any westward movement by Moscow’s military. To their credit, and thanks to a long history of understanding the Russian mentality better than most NATO and EU members, Warsaw last fall, when the violent theft of Crimea was still just a Kremlin dream, announced a revised national security strategy emphasizing territorial defense. Eschewing American-led overseas expeditions like those to Iraq and Afghanistan that occupied Poland’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) during the post-9/11 era, this new doctrine makes defending Poland from Eastern aggression the main job of its military. Presciently, then-Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, contradicting optimistic European and NATO presumptions of our era that conventional war in Europe was unthinkable, stated in May 2013, “I’m afraid conflict in Europe is imaginable.”
Particularly in light of the fact that both NATO and the Obama administration rejected my advice to seriously bolster Alliance defenses in the East with four heavy brigades, including the two brigades that Warsaw explicitly asked NATO — meaning, in practice, the United States — for after this year’s Russo-Ukrainian War began in earnest, the issue of Poland’s military readiness is of considerable importance to countries far beyond Poland. Instead of creating a militarily viable NATO tripwire that would deter Russian aggression, the Alliance, and Washington, DC, have opted for symbolic gestures — speeches, military visits, small exercises — that impress the Western media but not the Russians.
Simply put: Can Poland defend itself if Putin decides to move his aggression westward? Even if NATO rides to the rescue, as they would be required to under Article 5 — that is now an “if” question to many in Warsaw — will the Polish military be able to buy sufficient time for the Alliance to come to their aid? Notwithstanding that Poland (and Estonia) are the only “new NATO” members that take their Alliance obligations fully seriously, spending more than the required two percent of GDP on defense — a standard almost all longstanding NATO members can’t manage to meet — there are serious doubts about the ability of Poland’s armed forces to defend against a major Russian move to the West.
There is good news. When it comes to resisting what I term Special War — that shadowy amalgam of espionage, terrorism, and subversion at which the Kremlin excels — Warsaw, with its long acquaintance with sneaky Russian games, is probably better equipped than any almost NATO country to deter and defeat Putin’s secret offensive. The recent arrests of two Polish agents of Russian military intelligence (GRU), one of them a Polish military officer assigned to the MoD, sent a clear message to Moscow that Special War will be countered with aggressive counterintelligence.
When it comes to conventional defense, however, the news from Poland appears less rosy. Despite the fact that no one questions the basic competence of the Polish armed forces, nor the impressiveness of their current defense acquisition program, there is a matter of size. The recent MoD announcement that it is moving thousands of troops closer to the country’s borders with Belarus and Ukraine, where any threat would emerge, is encouraging but not sufficient (thanks to the Cold War, when Poland’s Communist military was directed westward, most of its major military bases are closer to Germany than the East). Since the abandonment of conscription five years ago, a cumbersome process that caused readiness problems for some time, Warsaw’s armed forces come to only 120,000 active duty troops, with less than 48,000 in the ground forces (i.e. the army). That number is insufficient to man the army’s structure of three divisions with thirteen maneuver brigades (ten of them armored or mechanized).
A solution to this manpower shortfall was supposed to be found in the establishment of the National Reserve Forces (NSR), with 20,000 fully trained part-time volunteers who would flesh out the order of battle in a crisis. Yet the NSR, which was announced by the MoD five years ago with much fanfare, has had considerable teething problems, with shortages of recruits and inadequate training budgets. Recent reports indicate both morale and readiness are low among NSR soldiers, who feel poorly treated by the regular military, while none dispute that the force has only recruited and trained 10,000 troops, half the target figure.
Quality can compensate for deficient quantity to an extent, and Poland’s recent acquisition of more late-model Leopard II tanks from Germany, adding to the 124 it already has, means they will be able to replace most of their Soviet-model legacy armor, and meet any Russian incursion on an equal footing in terms of quality, if not quantity. By approximately 2020, the air force will have wholly replaced its Soviet-era helicopters, buying 150 modern airframes, while the MoD plans to purchase thirty-two late-model attack helicopters by 2022, which would pose a significant threat to Russian armor.
More interesting still are plans taking shape to give Warsaw asymmetric deep-strike capabilities to resist Russian aggression. The navy and the army intend to acquire long-range missiles to counter superior Russian numbers, but the cornerstone of the deterrence concept called “Polish Fangs” by Warsaw is the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), to be carried by the air force’s F-16 fleet (the wing of forty-eight F-16’s is the backbone of Polish airpower). Combined with drones and Poland’s excellent special operations forces, which are among the best in NATO, Warsaw believes that the American-made JASSM on the American-made F-16 will give them an important qualitative advantage over the Russians, including the ability to precisely hit targets up to 370 kilometers behind enemy lines.
Yet even the most optimistic forecasts predict that “Polish Fangs” will not be fully operational for three more years — five seems a more realistic estimate — so there is the pressing matter of deterring Putin’s rising aggression right now. To provide additional deterrence, Warsaw is taking the remarkable step of creating home guard forces to harass the Russians in the event of occupation, a condition that Poles are only too familiar with. Unlike Ukraine, Poland plans to be prepared should Putin opt for war.
Ever since Moscow’s aggression against Kyiv became overt in the spring, the Polish MoD began quietly standing up volunteer forces to bolster the armed forces, should the Russians come again. Word of this became public this week with a story in the Polish edition of Newsweek that details what’s been going on behind the scenes. Building on shooting clubs that exist all over the country, possessing several hundred thousand members, the MoD has been supporting the establishment of paramilitary units that would bolster the army if needed. Their intent would be to counter Russian irregulars, GRU’s “little green men” that caused such havoc in Crimea a few months ago.
How many volunteers have already been enrolled is unclear, though it’s evident that the number far exceeds the 10,000 belonging to the NSR. In late September, and explicitly invoking the legendary Home Army (Armia Krajowa — AK) that resisted Nazi occupation in the Second World War, the first volunteer unit was sworn in at Świdnik, near the eastern border, with modest public fanfare, despite the fact that the MoD considers the existence of this new shadow army to be officially classified.
Advocates of the reborn Home Army speak of finding 100,000 volunteers soon, but that seems a rather long-term goal. While this project has attracted the support of some Polish right-wingers — the sort who tend to join rifle clubs — its MoD manager is Major General Bogusław Pacek, the director of the National Defense Academy, a veteran of Poland’s Cold War Communist military not known for dirigiste views. Pacek’s quiet enthusiasm for a new Home Army has been noted and it can be expected that before long “AK 2.0” may constitute more than a nuisance to any invader.
This begs that question why Poland, a leading member of the Atlantic Alliance, thinks it needs to worry about an actual Russian invasion. In the first place, the Poles have been invaded and occupied by Moscow too many times over the centuries, including twice during the last one, to think this is just a fantasy. Putin’s harsh and threatening language gets more attention in Warsaw than just about anywhere else.
The Poles also understand that Article 5 only works as a deterrent if everyone understands that NATO will actually go to war to defend a member under threat. Here, again, recent history gives room for doubt. All of Europe was happy to sit back and watch Poland fight off the Red Army in 1920, alone, while Kremlin sympathizers in Western Europe blocked desperately needed arms shipments headed to Warsaw. More germanely, the joint Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 brought none of the Allied help that Poland was obligated to receive under treaty. Although both Britain and France were supposed to come to Poland’s direct military aid, they were content to declare war on Germany and essentially do nothing, letting Hitler and Stalin dismember Poland completely. Warsaw’s war plans assumed they needed to buy time — perhaps six weeks — until the British and French arrived. That promised rescue force never came, and every Pole today knows it.
Hence NATO assurances are met with a certain skepticism in Warsaw, including — perhaps especially — in defense circles. Then there is the touchy issue of President Obama. The Polish Right was never enamored of him, noting with disgust how Obama in 2009 cancelled a US/NATO missile defense system in the country, termed “betrayal” by Poland’s president, while making the announcement on September 17, the seventieth anniversary of Stalin’s invasion, added insult to injury. More than a few Polish right-wingers have doubted the staying power of Obama, particularly given his youthful dislike of President Reagan, a revered figure to many Poles for his major role in ending the Cold War and regaining Poland’s freedom.
Obama’s talky dithering on foreign and defense issues and his rough dealings with America’s friends have led to Polish worries spreading well beyond the country’s right wing. I deal regularly with Polish defense and intelligence officials, and over the last few years their doubts about Washington, DC’s courage and wisdom have mounted steadily. Poles understand that without American leadership there is no NATO in any military sense. Since the onset of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, those fears have multiplied and there are now many in Warsaw who wonder if Obama would really honor Article 5 in a crisis.
Yesterday I spoke with a top Polish MoD official, a man of sober and strongly pro-American views whom I’ve known for years. Referring to this week’s needless White House crisis with Israel, another American ally who has doubts about the current administration, he noted, “I didn’t need the Beltway media to tell me who the real chickenshit is.” “They really have no idea what they are doing,” he opined about Obama and his national security staff, “and we know it. You have no idea how many promises we’ve been given, even by the President himself, but there’s never any follow-up, it’s all talk. He thinks he’s on Oprah.” When I asked if he thought America would come to Poland’s aid in a crisis, he said laconically, “I’d flip a coin.”
In a similar vein, a senior Polish intelligence official, another veteran of long collaboration with Washington, DC, expressed his skepticism to me. “Is it 1939 again? I don’t know,” he explained, “but I think Obama isn’t even a Chamberlain,” citing the British prime minister who left Poland in the lurch at the beginning of World War Two. Given such doubts, combined with Putin’s obvious desire to break the Atlantic Alliance, Poland will prepare to resist the Russians alone, while hoping and praying it does not have to.