With the beginning of a new year with all its new hopes and new fears, one cannot help but worry about Putin’s next political move. The year 2014 witnessed Russia claiming power over the Crimea, destabilising the Eastern Ukraine and President Putin directing increasing aggression at the Baltic States. These Cold War antics have left the majority of the members of the Atlantic Alliance feeling vulnerable, Poland however, with its position on the Alliance’s central front, does have the military strength to stop any Russian moves heading west.
When the Red Army failed to march through Warsaw in 1920, Poland became a symbol for the safeguarding of Europe from a Moscow invasion. The Polish military understood their eastern enemy better than anyone else, and with this re-emergence of Russian aggression in the region Poland once again has to call on its historical experience to ensure its main military priority is to check and defeat any military moves Russia makes against Poland. Though political times have changed however; recently the former Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski has been left feeling disappointed at the Obama administration’s rejection of his advice to upgrade the Alliance’s defences in the East. This is a huge error as Poland’s ability to defend itself from its eastern bully is of considerable importance to countries far beyond that of the Polish borders. The soft play tactics of speeches and military visits employed by President Obama will impress the Western media but they look laughable on Russian TV screens, as an ever emboldened Putin realising that the military will of the West has been eroded by years of unsuccessful and unpopular wars.
I’ve begun to ask myself, is it really the case that the West will repeat its actions of the Second World War by abandoning Poland to defend itself from Russia? Even if NATO gallops to the rescue of its Iraq War ally, will the Polish armed forces be capable to cope on its own until the cavalry arrive?
One has to remember that Poland and Estonia are the only Eastern Alliance members that take NATO obligations seriously, however there still remains an issue of size. The Polish military has only 120,000 active duty troops, with less than 48,000 troops in the ground forces, and even with the formation of the National Reserve Force adding an additional 20,000 army volunteers, these numbers are still not enough. Yes sometimes quality can compensate for quantity but Poland will need to do far more than simply replace its Soviet-style armour. The best it can do now without NATO’s assistance is to continue to extend its home guard forces and maintain its production of paramilitary units so, should the Russians come, there will be a new force such as the legendary Home Army that once resisted a Nazi occupation.
But is the threat of a Russian invasion a serious concern? Poland has been invaded and occupied by countries since its founding almost a millennia ago. The answer is YES! The consequences of a second “Russification” is just too a distressing an idea for Poles, especially to the older generations who know the Soviet cultural assimilation process far too well. One would be a fool to think that Putin’s aggressive manoeuvres directed at the Eastern Frontier are just Polish oversensitivity. Oversensitivity or not, Poles understand that Article 5 of the Atlantic Treaty only works as a dampener and looking back at history there is much doubt about NATO’s enthusiasm to jump to Poland’s rescue. During the 1939 Nazi-Soviet invasion, Europe was happy to sit back and watch Poland become dismembered, with both France and the United Kingdom taking a witnesses’ stand by, refusing to aid Poland. The promised rescue force that never came is still well remembered in Polish minds.
This may explain the Eastern European scepticism directed at NATO’s role in defending the region. While President Obama may be popular with the younger generations, the Polish officials on the right think less favourably of the Democrat. Obama’s decision to cancel the missile defence system, along with making remarks about Stalin’s anniversary of the Polish invasion have all been insults that have added to past injuries. There is a growing sense of hopelessness and anti-climax with Washington’s foreign policy. Ever since the Russo-Ukrainian War began the Polish nation has started to raise doubts over Obama’s willingness to honour Article 5 and, sadly, European people know that the simple fact is that without American participation there is no real NATO.
There is no doubt about Vladimir Putin’s burning desire to break the North Atlantic Alliance, and America’s countless promises and pretty TV performances are not adequate military assistance to counter this.
In the end, even though we hope it never comes to it, Poland needs to accept the fact that they will have to resist the Russians alone.