In 1999, Poland joined the NATO Alliance. Ever since, collective defense has been at the heart of Poland’s national security strategy. But recent changes in Europe’s strategic environment may be leading Poland to think twice about whether collective defense alone can guarantee its security. The combination of a more aggressive Russia, a less resolute Western Europe, and a growing divergence between the military capabilities of Poland and those of the rest of NATO have made unilateral Polish action a real possibility.
Despite the West’s economic sanctions against it, Russia has continued to throw its weight around on its periphery. After annexing Crimea and fomenting separatists in eastern Ukraine, Russia appeared to have shifted its attention to the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea. Finland, Sweden, and NATO’s Baltic members of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have all experienced repeated Russian incursions into their air and maritime spaces. it would not only create a new threat on Poland’s border, but also damage, perhaps irreparably, NATO’s credibility as a defense alliance.
NATO is important to Polish security. Despite its bigger and better equipped military, Poland cannot deter Russia by itself. Poland needs a strong NATO and one committed to the defense of Eastern Europe. Unfortunately for Poland, most of its NATO allies seem less than fully committed. Twenty-three out of NATO’s 28 members do not meet the Alliance’s minimum defense spending , which obligate each country to spend at least two percent of its GDP on defense and 20 percent of that spending on major new equipment or defense research and development. Nor have Poland’s allies invested in the infrastructure needed to deploy their forces to Eastern Europe, Indeed, many of the elites within some NATO countries, most notably Germany and Italy, want to entirely lift the economic sanctions imposed on Russia.
All of these issues make Poland nervous about the reliability of NATO’s security guarantee. Considering Russia’s threat to the Baltics, Poland has begun to think about what it can do to ensure NATO’s commitment to collective defense should a crisis erupt there. Paradoxically, what it can do—owing to its geographic location and increasingly robust military—may lead Poland to take unilateral action.
On the one hand, Poland could wait for NATO before taking action against a Russian intervention in the Baltics. But such a wait could last for weeks as each NATO country must debate and approve the use of force, mobilize its troops, and send them to Eastern Europe. While NATO’s rapid response forces could go into combat faster, they could not fight for long without sufficient logistical support. That could result in a long pause in the crisis that would give Russia time to consolidate its territorial gains and conduct an information campaign to discourage already reluctant NATO countries from ever trying to liberate the Baltics. The result could be a negotiated settlement that leaves Russia in control of part or all of the region—which would restore peace in the short run, but mean the end of NATO in the long term.
On the other hand, Poland could act immediately, and unilaterally. The swift entry of a major NATO country would undoubtedly complicate Russian operations. It would also escalate the crisis without a unified NATO decision to do so. While that may sound a little troubling, it may not trouble Poland as much as one might think. After all, Warsaw has long sought to
“internationalize Poland’s security within [NATO] to ensure that an attack on Poland would generate a collective allied response.” Reflecting on Western Europe’s lack of enthusiasm to confront Russian aggression, Poland might think it wise to hold NATO’s feet to the fire.
Unilateral Action and Its Consequences
Since the end of the Cold War, Poland has generally worked in concert with other European countries on security matters. But it has acted alone when it felt its interests were at stake. In 2011, after a rigged election in Belarus, Poland unilaterally slapped sanctions on those Belarusian officials it saw as responsible without waiting for the European Union’s (EU) approval. If relations between the EU and Poland continue to deteriorate because of their conflict over Polish judicial reforms, Poland would have even more reason to act to compel a united NATO response.
However, a unilateral Polish reaction to a Russian intervention in the Baltics could make things far more difficult for NATO. Strategically, it could undercut NATO’s ability to manage the conflict’s escalation, a perilous proposal given Russia’s relatively low threshold for the use of tactical nuclear weapons. At the operational level, it could disrupt plans for a larger and more coordinated NATO counteroffensive, which would arguably stand a better chance of success than the piecemeal introduction of Polish military and NATO rapid reaction forces.
Fate of Collective Defense
The best way to avoid a potentially disruptive, unilateral Polish military action is to ensure that Poland never loses faith in NATO’s credibility. Surely nothing would reassure it like the combination of firm political resolve and strong military forces. Sadly for NATO, that is probably more than it can muster at the moment. NATO needs to do better on both counts. Otherwise, it can expect that some of its members, like Poland, may take unexpected (and possibly unwelcome) actions in a crisis.
 In 2018, the five NATO members that do meet the Alliance’s minimum defense spending goals are Estonia, Greece, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Ironically, six NATO members met the Alliance’s minimum defense spending goals when they were first agreed to in 2006. The number gradually fell to three in 2010 and did not rise until after Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine.
 Brooks Tigner, “NATO’s rapid deployment ability faces many obstacles,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, May 25, 2016.
 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, Gary J. Schmitt, ed. (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Press, 2015), p. 164.