In little over a month, the leaders of NATO will meet in Warsaw to discuss beefing up the Western military alliance’s presence in Poland. The country’s conservative nationalist government is asking for thousands of troops and heavy artillery to counter a historic foe: Russia.
But Poland is unlikely to get all of the military personnel and equipment it seeks as NATO walks the fine line of reassuring its Eastern European members while keeping the door open to rapprochement with Russia.
On Tuesday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier struck a conciliatory tone to Moscow, raising the possibility that the European Union might loosen economic sanctions against Russia if “substantial progress’’ is made over the conflict in Ukraine.
The current sanctions expire in July, so the decision on whether or not to extend them will coincide with NATO’s decision on basing troops in Poland, the European Union’s biggest eastern member which shares a border with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.
Polish leaders have repeatedly called for continuing the sanctions, pressing for the West to toughen its stance in the wake of Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea and its support for rebels in the eastern Donbass region of the country.
Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz in May said that NATO needed to be ’’prepared to react’’ in Poland to counter a potential Russian invasion. President Andrzej Duda, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski and Prime Minister Beata Szydło have all made similar calls.
The issue of Poland’s military vulnerability is expected to dominate a two-day forum on European security that begins Thursday in the western Polish city of Wroclaw. The event, sponsored by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, will gather nearly 400 high-ranking Polish, European and U.S. defense and policy experts.
“The Poles genuinely perceive themselves as being at risk,” said Frances Burwell, the vice president for European Union and special initiatives at the Atlantic Council. “The Poles also very firmly believe that the best way to make sure the Baltics are safe is for there to be more troops and equipment stationed there,” she told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
Since Russia’s 2014 aggression in Ukraine and because of the ongoing fighting in the Donbass region, Poland’s concerns cannot be dismissed flat out. “After 2014, a lot of scenarios which seemed improbable or impossible before right now cannot be dismissed,” Lukasz Kulesa, research director at the London-based think tank European Leadership Network, told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
Russia has also upped its military capabilities in recent years. “There has been a fundamental modernization of Russian troops and equipment since 2008,” said Stefan Meister, Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank. “Military definitely plays a bigger role again,” Mr. Meister told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
There has been a fundamental modernization of Russian troops since 2008. Stefan Meister, German Council on Foreign Relations
Poland’s relationship with Russia has long been fraught, with its larger eastern neighbor controlling it for much of the 19th century and again after World War II as part of the Soviet Union’s dominance of the communist Eastern Bloc. Recent Russian displays of military strength have exacerbated Polish wariness of Moscow.
A 2009 military exercise by Russia and its closest ally in the region, Belarus, played out a scenario in which the uprising of a Polish minority in Belarus was to be crushed, and even involved a preemptive nuclear strike against Poland.
With military exercises and daring maneuvers – such as the closing-in of Russian jets on a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Baltic Sea in April – Russia has further tested the nerves of the West. “If you put all this together, it is very destabilizing and very threatening,” Wojciech Lorenz, a senior researcher at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, or PISM, told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “This can’t just be dismissed as Russia flexing its muscles.”
Russia, however, denies any claims of wrongdoing. Instead, the country regularly claims to simply be reacting to Western aggressions with its military upgrades.
“Russia is frustrated,” said Mr. Meister in explaining the recent displays of military might. After the end of the Cold War, he added, the West didn’t take Russia and its proposals for a new security order seriously.
“Moscow feels it extended a hand to the European Union and to the United States, and that it has offered alternatives,” said Mr. Meister. The West, however, did not deem it necessary to listen to Russia, Mr. Meister said. That was a mistake, he argued.
Alexander Rahr, project manager with the German Russian Forum and a consultant for Russian companies in Germany, said even the annexation of Crimea made sense – from a Russian point of view. According to him, there was a chance of NATO installing a base in the Black Sea, ending Russia’s naval presence there, if the country had not invaded Crimea. “That would have been a slap to the face for any Russian president,” Mr. Rahr said.
While that might be an explanation of Moscow’s motivation, it’s not enough to put Warsaw at ease. In a show of its own resolve, Poland is currently upping its defense spending considerably. The military budget grew from previously 1.95 percent to at least 2 percent now, making Poland one of the few member states to meet the NATO spending target.
“The country’s defense modernization is a serious project too,” said Ms. Burwell of the Atlantic Council. “But the Poles are simply not under any delusion that they could defend their country themselves,” she added.
Yet, experts consider it unlikely that NATO will yield to Polish demands for a permanent stationing of troops on its soil. Such a deployment would violate a 1997 agreement between NATO and Russia that prohibits the permanent posting of significant Western troops in the former sphere of influence of the then Soviet Union.
“NATO decided not to withdraw from the 1997 declaration, which is why there aren’t going to be permanent NATO troops on the territory of new member states,” said Mr. Lorenz. A system that has troops rotate in and out of the Baltic states and Poland is a compromise NATO has reached, to provide support for its eastern member countries but still abide by the agreement.
The July NATO meeting could yield a two-track approach, Mr. Kulsa predicted. “The alliance will likely strengthen its forward capabilities to show its resolve, but also offer a clear path for constructive dialogue with Russia.”
The Western military alliance has already upped its troop numbers in the region following the 2014 Crimea annexation. But, warns Mr. Meister, “These reactions of course strengthen the hardliners in Moscow. It strengthens the people who claim the West is a provocation.”
Not everyone considers sanctions and military upgrades to be the right way to deal with Russia. “Some in the European Union, particularly the Baltic States and Poland, now say ‘see, we’ve always said that Russia is an aggressor’ and want to expand NATO and the European Union, intensify sanctions and basically force Russia to its knees, so that the country will behave for a while,” said Mr. Rahr. “Such views are not just unrealistic but also extremely dangerous.”
Instead, Mr. Rahr advocates reopening the dialogue – and the wallets. “We need reliable business ties with Russia,” he said, adding: “If those were to be implemented, I can tell you that Russian laws would become more European, and European norms would be introduced more quickly in the country.”
Ms. Burwell of the Atlantic Council, too, said there are “some opportunities to work with some elements of Russian business.”
But, she warned: “Of course you want to be careful not to enable a regime that is not a market economy, and a system that works for Mr. Putin and his close friends.”
Franziska Roscher is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. To contact her: [email protected]