Russian behavior has long influenced how safe Poles feel. Centuries of fending off or being subjugated by Russia (or, its 20th-century incarnation, the Soviet Union) have left them with an abiding mistrust of their big and often unfriendly eastern neighbor. Needless to say, Russia’s recent aggressiveness in Eastern Europe has put many Poles on edge. Adding to their unease have been worries over the reliability of Poland’s principal security partners: NATO and the United States. At times, both have appeared either slow or unprepared to counter Russia’s actions.
Strategic Differences with Russia
Even without its deep-rooted anxiety over Russia, Poland has good reason to regard its neighbor with suspicion. After all, the two countries have very different aims in Eastern Europe. For generations, Russia has sought to create a sphere of influence over the region and control its ports on the Baltic and Black Seas. To that end, Russia has backed pro-Russian regimes in Belarus and Ukraine, and lately harassed the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania with airspace incursions. In contrast, Poland has viewed westward-looking governments in Eastern Europe as in its national interests. Hence, Poland supported Ukraine after that country’s “Orange Revolution” (which toppled a pro-Russian leader) in 2005 and Belarus’ opposition following a government crackdown on it in 2010.
Unfortunately for Poland, things have not gone its way in the last half decade. Russia successfully annexed Crimea (along with its Black Sea port of Sevastopol), sponsored separatists in eastern Ukraine, and survived Western economic sanctions against it. Russia also bolstered its forces in Kaliningrad, a Russian military stronghold on Poland’s northeast border, with new K-300P Bastion coastal defense missile systems and S-400 air defense systems. Topping it all off, the Russian military conducted large-scale exercises that resembled thinly veiled rehearsals for operations against Poland and the Baltics. The most recent of these exercises took place in September 2017.
Poland’s growing concern over Russia can be seen in the shifting tenor of its official national security strategy papers, particularly after Russia’s military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine. Whereas the papers’ 2003 and 2007 iterations supported the notion that cooperation with Russia was the surest way to ensure Polish security, Poland’s 2014 national security strategy paper declared Russia to be a “challenge” and stressed its need to respect international law and the territorial integrity of its neighbors.
(Un)reliability of NATO and the United States
Meanwhile, Poland has become less confident in NATO and the United States as reliable security partners. A decade ago that was not the case. American commitment to Poland’s security seemed rock solid. As Russia backed away from its conventional and nuclear arms control commitments in Europe during the latter half of President George W. Bush’s administration, the United States suggested stationing interceptor missiles for its Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, an advanced anti-ballistic missile system, on Polish soil. Despite some popular misgivings, Poland’s leaders welcomed the proposal as a tangible sign of American reliability.
But that changed with the election of President Barack Obama. He hoped to “reset” U.S. relations with Russia on friendlier terms. To remove a source of friction, the United States cancelled the deployment of the GMD system. The unilateral American decision left Polish leaders feeling jilted. As a consolation, the United States offered Poland the less-robust Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system. But soon after the Obama administration backpedaled on that too, scrapping its original plan to outfit the system with the latest SM-3 missiles. Clearly upset, former Polish President Lech Wałęsa grumbled: “It wasn’t that the [missile] shield was that important, but it’s about the way, the way of treating us.”
In the following years, Poland would also find cause to question NATO’s dependability. In contrast to Russia’s swift and decisive intervention in Ukraine, NATO struggled to form an effective response. Even after its member countries agreed on economic sanctions against Russia, many remained hesitant. NATO again appeared flat-footed after Russia intensified its harassment of NATO’s Baltic members in 2015 and again after it deployed nuclear-capable 9K720 Iskander ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad in 2016. It would take NATO over a year to “enhance” its forward presence in the Baltics with a deterrent force of three multinational battlegroups (essentially reinforced battalions). A fourth battlegroup, formed around a U.S. mechanized infantry battalion, deployed to Poland in mid-2017. By comparison, Russia’s nearby Western Military District alone can muster over 22 armored, airborne, and motorized infantry battalions, along with ten battalions of artillery.
But possibly most worrisome to Poland was its recent realization that much of the critical infrastructure that the Alliance needs to deploy and sustain its frontline forces either fails to stretch far enough eastward or is no longer fully functional. And while Poland can take some comfort in the presence of a U.S.-led battlegroup, it does not fully allay Polish concern over the long-term commitment of the United States, given its continued distractions elsewhere in the world and its growing reluctance to act as the “world’s policeman.”
How Poland has reacted to the changes in its strategic environment was evident in its 2017 defense concept white paper. The paper’s tone was strikingly different from those that preceded it. It pointed out Poland’s past “wrong conviction that the risk of an armed conflict in [Eastern] Europe was marginal.” Rather than urging cooperation with Russia, it asserted that Russia is “a threat . . . for Poland and other countries in the region.” The paper also intoned in its opening sentence that “The Polish Armed Forces remain the best guarantor of the security of Polish citizens.”
Poland has much to do before its military can adequately deter Russia. While NATO and the United States remain key parts of Poland’s defense plans, Warsaw has come to realize that it must do more itself. As Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski summed up: “In recent years, we have found out once again that defense of principles and values is sometimes effective only when supported by force—not only moral force, but also by military force.”
National Security Strategy of the Republic of Poland (Warsaw: Poland National Security Bureau, 2014), p. 22.
 Andrew A. Michta, “Polish Hard Power: Investing in the Military as Europe Cuts Back,” in A Hard Look at Hard Power: Assessing the Defense Capabilities of Key U.S. Allies and Security Partners, ed. Gary J. Schmitt (Carlisle, PA: United States Army War College Press, July 2015), p. 150.
The Defence Concept of the Republic of Poland (Warsaw: Poland Ministry of National Defense, May 2017), p. 23.
The Defence Concept of the Republic of Poland, p.6.