Preparing for the Worst: Poland’s Military Modernization

No one needs to remind Poland of the strategic dangers arising from its geography. Often sandwiched between great European powers, Poland has been invaded, carved up, and occupied for over two centuries. During World War II, its mostly flat and open terrain made it particularly vulnerable to the mechanized armies of Germany and the Soviet Union. Today, Poland’s position is less tenuous, but still fraught. While its western and southern borders are anchored by friendly NATO countries, its eastern border abuts Russia’s military stronghold of Kaliningrad, Belarus (a close Russian ally), and Ukraine (a country riven by Russia).

Russia’s New Military Challenge

Unfortunately for Poland, the last decade has seen the emergence of a militarily stronger and more aggressive Russia, despite Western economic sanctions against it. Much of Russia’s new-found strength can be traced back to its long-running “New Look” military reforms, which assumed a new sense of urgency after its lackluster war against Georgia in 2008. The reforms sought to streamline Russian combat units, outfit them with new military equipment, and most importantly boost their training and readiness.

The reforms turned Russia’s once-lumbering military into a more nimble fighting force, one far better able to fight modern conventional wars as well as leverage “hybrid warfare” techniques.[1] Several of Russia’s airborne and “New Look” brigades can now go into action within 24 hours of an alert.[2] Russia demonstrated that capability in 2014, when it swiftly deployed its special forces, airborne, and naval infantry units to Crimea on short notice. Soon afterwards, it massed another 40,000 to 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine.

Rising to the Challenge

Russia’s military success in Ukraine convinced an increasingly anxious Poland of the need to be prepared to fight across the entire spectrum of operations. Fortunately for Poland, its briskly growing economy has enabled it to fund those preparations. Over the last three years, its regular armed forces have grown from 100,000 personnel to over 130,000. By 2025, Poland’s Ministry of Defense expects that number to reach 200,000. It also plans to expand the Polish army’s force structure from three divisions to four. In 2017, it even established a new armed service called the Territorial Defense Force (Wojska Obrony Terytorialnej or WOT). Separate from the regular army, the WOT’s wartime role will be to counter Russian airborne and special operation forces behind the frontlines. The WOT will eventually field 17 light infantry brigades, one in each of Poland’s provinces (two in the largest province), with an authorized strength of 53,000.[3]

Poland has also accelerated its military’s modernization. Rather than wait for new-build acquisitions, the Polish military chose to buy off the shelf and update its existing kit. Thus, Poland not only acquired 105 retired Leopard 2A5 tanks from Germany in 2015, but also began to upgrade its 142 Leopard 2A4 tanks with improved armor and combat systems a year later. Likewise, it laid plans to modernize its T-72 and PL-91 tanks and may purchase more second-hand Leopard 2A4s. Poland also expects to procure a full range of short-, medium-, and long-range anti-tank guided missiles for its regular army and the WOT.[4]

In its modernization drive, Poland has not overlooked its combat support arms. In the summer of 2017, it took delivery of the first 14 of 96 Krab 155-mm self-propelled howitzers and the first eight of 64 Rak 120-mm self-propelled mortar systems. And, to enhance the mobility of its mechanized forces, it has begun discussions to acquire new mobile bridging equipment. Finally, to counter Russia’s deployment of 9K720 Iskander ballistic missiles and Su-35 fighters in Kaliningrad, Poland has decided to buy U.S.-made MIM-104 Patriot air defense systems and as many as 48 new multirole combat aircraft.[5]

But perhaps the most telling sign of Poland’s earnestness has been the repositioning of its combat forces. Notably, Poland has shifted its best armored forces eastward. Last year, it transferred the PL-91 tanks of the 1st Armored Brigade on the eastern edge of Warsaw to the 15th Mechanized Brigade in Giżycko, near the Polish border with Kaliningrad and the strategic Suwalki Gap that links Poland to Lithuania. Replacing the PL-91 tanks will be two battalions of Leopard 2A5 tanks, which will be transferred from the 34th Armored Cavalry Brigade on Poland’s border with Germany.[6]

Commitment to Deterrence

In the coming years, Poland’s total defense expenditures will likely exceed two percent of its GDP—well above what most other NATO countries are spending. Even so, Poland’s military modernization still has gaps. A big one lies in its small Soviet-era attack helicopter fleet. Though Poland is upgrading its 23 Mi-24 attack helicopters with new sensors and guided missiles, it needs a next-generation attack helicopter and far more of them.[7] A recent war game demonstrated that even with 120 attack helicopters, Poland would have trouble holding back a determined Russian assault before NATO rapid reaction forces could arrive.[8]

Ultimately, what is most notable about Poland’s military preparations is not how complete they are, but rather the scale and speed with which they are being made—which for a European country are extraordinary. While other NATO countries make excuses for their plodding attempts to enlarge or modernize their armed forces, Poland has done both, at the same time. Surely, Poland hopes for peace. But Poland also seems committed to building a stronger military to help preserve it.

[1] Andrew Monaghan, “The ‘War’ in Russia’s ‘Hybrid Warfare,’” Parameters 45(4), Winter 2015-2016, pp. 65-74.

[2] Gustav Gressel, “Russia’s Quiet Military Revolution and What It Means for Europe,” European Council on Foreign Relations Policy Brief, Oct. 15, 2015, p. 4.

[3] Remigiusz Wilk, “Polish Territorial Defence Force expanded to 53,000 personnel,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Nov. 17, 2016; The Defence Concept of the Republic of Poland (Warsaw: Poland Ministry of National Defense, May 2017), pp. 46, 53; Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland to stand up Territorial Defence Force,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Mar. 22, 2016.

[4] Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland seeks short-range ATGM,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Oct. 9, 2017; Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland reinforces armour,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jul. 12, 2017.

[5] Bruce Jones, “Russian Duma confirms Iskander-M Kaliningrad deployment,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Feb. 8, 2018; Nicholas Fiorenza, “First Polish Army unit receives full complement of Krab SPHs,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Aug. 4, 2017; Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland receives first Rak 120 mm mortar vehicles,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jul. 3, 2017.

[6] Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland relocates Leopard 2A5 tanks to the east,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Apr. 21, 2017.

[7] Charles Forrester, “Thales, Poland to integrate rocket launchers onto Mi-24s,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Sep. 6, 2017.

[8] Reuben Johnson, “Baltic conflict simulation concludes Poland is wasting valuable time,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Sep. 21, 2017.

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Bear at the Door: Poland Ponders its Strategic Environment

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.[1]

(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.[2] 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.”

Greater Self-Reliance

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.”[3] Rather than urging cooperation with Russia, it asserted that Russia is “a threat . . . for Poland and other countries in the region.”[4] The paper also intoned in its opening sentence that “The Polish Armed Forces remain the best guarantor of the security of Polish citizens.”[5]

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.”[6]

[1] National Security Strategy of the Republic of Poland (Warsaw: Poland National Security Bureau, 2014), p. 22.

[2] 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.

[3] The Defence Concept of the Republic of Poland (Warsaw: Poland Ministry of National Defense, May 2017), p. 23.

[4] The Defence Concept of the Republic of Poland, p.6.

[5] Ibid.

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The Eurasian Economic Union’s growth is not good for democracy in the region

In August 2015, Kyrgyzstan officially became a full member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), joining Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia in the Russia-led European Union rival. The expansion of the EEU could spell trouble for the democratization of Eurasia.

The EEU itself is a new institution, formally coming into existence on January 1, 2015. Loosely modelled, in concept if not yet execution, on the EU, it grew out of the Eurasian Customs Union that had been founded on January 1, 2010 between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan—which itself was the result of a series of customs unions created by various Eurasian countries in the late-1990s and early- to mid-2000s—and seeks regional integration on a political and economic level.

Unlike the EU, the EEU is not held back by the necessity of considering the democracy and human rights records of potential members, as the Freedom House Freedom scores for the founding members are a  6, 6.5 and 5.5, respectively, all “Not Free.” In addition, as Russia has by far the largest and most robust economy in the region, with a GDP roughly nine times that of Kazakhstan and twenty-nine times that of Belarus, and the economies of the other countries are already so dependent on Russia, any attempts at integration will be dominated by Russia and, as a necessary consequence, Putin. Russia’s economic preponderance, codified by the EEU, will give it much greater leverage over its neighbors. Uzbekistan’s heretofore hesitancy to joining the EEU, fearing direct Russian influence over its affairs, evidences that other countries in the region are aware of this risk. Yet even here, the already established economic dependence is working against Uzbekistan: in late 2014 Russia simply wrote off $865 million dollars of Uzbekistan’s debt, with the goal of developing ties between the two countries.

Despite attempts by the European Union to court post-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe and Eurasia and bring them into direct association with the EU via programs such as the Eastern Partnership, support for European institutions is down in several key target states. In Moldova, for example, seen as one of the leading lights of the Eastern Partnership—and one of the most successful Eastern Partnership countries in terms of reform—support for the European Union hovers around only 40 percent. In 2007, 78 percent of Moldovans supported the EU. The recent protests have cast further doubt on Moldova’s chances for a successful integration with Europe; while the protestors themselves are not openly pro-Russia and have valid reasons to protest, the collapse of the fragile pro-European coalition could see pro-Russian political groups profit, with two of the most vocal supporters of the protests, the Socialist Party and the Patria Party, holding pro-EEU positions.

At the same time, support for the Russia- and Putin-led Eurasian Economic Union is growing in the region as a whole. Armenia, one of the Eastern Partnership countries, has already joined the EEU, acceding in January 2015. In a poll carried out by the Moldovan Institute for Public Policy, 50 percent of respondents favored integration with the EEU, versus 32 percent that favored joining the EU. Although support for the EU in Georgia, one of the most Euro-centric countries in the region, remains high at 68 percent, 31 percent of Georgians now favor joining the EEU, up from 16 percent only last year.

That support for the EEU is rising even in countries with relatively competitive democratic institutions is deeply troubling. Moldova, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan are countries that, while perhaps not yet on the level of the strongest Eastern European democracies, have slowly been taking the necessary steps to establish certain democratic and pluralistic norms that are not often found in the region.

The lack of conviction of the EU initiatives and the unwillingness of EU politicians to make any promises about the chances for Eurasian countries to join the EU, both in evidence at the May 2015 EU summit in Riga, puts these trends in an even more worrying light. The difficulty of joining the European Union potentially makes the EEU a more satisfying prospect for populist politicians looking for successes to sell to their constituents.

In creating the EEU, Putin has found a vehicle for binding post-Soviet countries more tightly to Russia. Although the EEU’s founding members were countries already linked to Russia and Putin, the accession of Armenia and Kyrgyzstan and the increase in support for the EEU in Georgia and Moldova shows that other countries in the region are being convinced by Russian rhetoric. The greatest danger if these countries fall under greater Russian influence is not only that they will move further away from Europe, but also that Putin will be able to influence their politics more directly and so any democratic gains they have made in the past few decades will be lost for good. 

Simon Hoellerbauer is a research intern with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions and a graduate of Kenyon College. 

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Belarus Proposes Donbas “Peacekeeping Force”

Live in peace—prepare for war.[1]

-Russian proverb.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko on Friday proposed sending troops to serve as peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine’s disputed Donbas region.[2]  Lukashenko made his proposal in an interview with online television channel Euronews, excerpts of which were published on Thursday 2 October.  He is hosting the Trilateral Contract Group[3] negotiations in Minsk, Belarus, which started in September.

Aleksandr Zakharchenko, Prime Minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic[4] declared in an interview with the Russian language website LOOK (ВЗГЛЯД) that he “is not in principle against the introduction of Belarus troops into the Donbas as peacekeepers.”[5]  Zakharchenko wants the Belarus peacekeepers to occupy a buffer zone to be established on the Ukrainian side of the border claimed by the DPR: “It depends whether they will be positioned outside Donetsk.  If so, we’d be pleased to see them come.  We believe that a large part of our territory is now illegally occupied” [by Ukrainian forces].[6]

Zakharchenko’s point was reiterated by Miroslav Rudenko, Deputy Chairman of the DPR’s Supreme Council, reiterated this during a transcribed radio interview with Moscow Speaks (Говорит Москва): “It would be great to see the Belarus military contingent positioned to disengage forces along Ukraine’s border with the DPR and the LPR [Luhansk People’s Republic], and to separate the territories of the two republics from Ukrainian territory.”[7]

However, as to the further meetings of meeting of the Trilateral Contract Group, Zakharchenko said there are “too many differences for the peace process to continue now,” especially “in light of the battle for Donetsk’s airport.”[8]  He elaborated in another interview, “The Ukrainian side absolutely does not control the situation with its armed forces.  It proclaims one thing at the Minsk meetings, but the result is completely different.”[9]

Ukraine Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebiynis peremptorily rejected Lukashenko’s proposal: “The Russian Federation must withdraw its troops form Ukraine’s territory.  Peacekeeping troops are not needed.  We are capable of restoring order in our own land if the foreign troops leave.”[10]

By most accounts, only symbolic gains have come so far from the Trilateral Contract Group process, most of which have accrued to Lukashenko.  One Russian outlet begrudgingly declared him the only “winner” so far, having convinced Ukraine to drop all trade restrictions before the Minsk talks ever commenced.  The nationalist Russian news outlet ИА REX[11] writes, “As the crisis in Ukraine deepens, so the role of intermediaries in the dialogue between the forces involved in the conflict will only increase.”[12]

[1] It reads in the original Russian: “Живи в мире – готовься к войне.”  The proverb was quoted by Donetsk People’s Republic Prime Minister Aleksandr Zakharchenko, who continued, “Now we have a truce, but we are preparing for war.  Not today, but tomorrow, the whole country will be attacked, so we need to be ready.” See: «Ожидается нападение на все государство». ВЗГЛЯД [online Russian language edition, 3 October 2014]. Last accessed 3 October 2014.

[2] “Белоруссия введет войска на краину. [Russian language online edition, 3 October 2014]. “ Last accessed 3 October 2014.

[3] The Trilateral Contract Group is comprised of Ukraine, represented by former president and the current president’s presidential special envoy, Leonid Kuchmar; the Donetsk People’s Republic, represented by Prime Minister Alexsandr Zakharchenko and First Deputy Andrey Purgin; and the Luhansk People’s Republic, represented by its head, Igor Plotnitsky and Supreme Council chairman Alexey Karyakin.  Also participating are the Russian Federation, represented by its ambassador to Ukraine, Mikhail Zurabov; and Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

[4] The Donetsk People’s Republic is a self-proclaimed state in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.  It is commonly referred to in Russian and Ukrainian media outlets by the acronym “DNR”, from the Russian and Ukrainian transliterations.  Russian: Донецкая народная республика. Russian transl.: Donétskaya naródnaya respúblika. Ukrainian: Донецька народна республіка. Ukrainian transl.: Donets’ka narodna respublika.

[5] “Захарченко: Все зависит от того, где встанут белорусские войска. ВЗГЛЯД [online Russian language edition, 2 October 2014]. Last accessed 3 October 2014. The quoted text reads in the original Russian: “он в принципе не против ввода белорусских войск в Донбасс в качестве миротворцев”

[6] Ibid.

[7] “В ДНР приветствуют идею Лукашенко направить миротворцев на Украину.” Говорит Москва  [online Russian language edition, 3 October 2014]. Last accessed 3 October 2014.

[8] Ibid.

[9]  The full quote reads in the original Russian: “Это плохо только для Украины, потому что украинская сторона совершенно не контролирует ситуацию в своих вооруженных силах. Украинская сторона на минских встречах декларирует одно, а в итоге выходит совершенно другое.”

[10] “Киев отказался от предложения Лукашенко ввести миротворцев в Донбасс.” ВЗГЛЯД [online Russian language edition, 3 October 2014]. Last accessed 3 October 2014.

[11] The slogan of which is “A Russian news agency, not a foreign agent” [ИА REX — российское информационное агентство, не иностранный агент].

[12] “ЛУКАШЕНКО – ПРОПАГАНДИСТ УКРАИНСКОГО ФАШИЗМА, МАССОВЫХ УБИЙСТВ НА ДОНБАССЕ И РУСОФОБИИ / АЛЕКСАНДР ЖИЛИН.”  ИА REX [online Russian language version, 3 October 2014]. Last accessed 3 October 2014.

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