Whether by design or by happenstance, Poland has played significant roles in nearly all of Europe’s major geopolitical acts over the last 100 years. Throughout much of the twentieth century, Poland found itself sandwiched between two major powers; Germany to the west and Russia to the east. World War II began with Hitler’s invasion and subsequent defeat of Poland. In the Cold War era Poland was a satellite of the Soviet Union and member of the Warsaw Pact. The first cracks in the Iron Curtain appeared in Poland with the birth of the Solidarity movement in 1980. Following the end of the Cold War and break up of the Soviet Union, Poland was once again a free nation-state, and as the twentieth century drew to a close the former Soviet satellite applied for, and war granted membership in the NATO alliance.
Eighteen years into the twenty first century and Poland is again playing an essential role in European geopolitics. The reemergence of the Russia as a threat to NATO places the nation squarely on the front line of what is potentially a new cold war. Along with the threat to the east, Poland is contending with another type of threat coming from the west. Warsaw and the European Union have locked horns an increasing number of times in recent months on a diverse range of issues. Poland’s independent streak is rubbing Brussels the wrong way. Whatever drama comes next, Poland will be in the middle of it.
With all of this in mind, the Spring 2018 project for this blog will be to produce a picture of what Poland will look like four years from now. Economic, political, military, and domestic factors will be explored. Questions will be formed and hopefully answered as well. The following are but two examples: Will Poland’s relationship with the EU mend, or continue to fray? How seriously do the Polish people take the possibility of a future war with Russia?
The project posts will be published weekly between mid-March and mid-April, 2018.
Until recently it has been generally accepted that the greatest threat to Poland lay to the east in the form of the Russian Federation. Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia has responded decisively to what it perceives as NATO and European encroachment of its traditional sphere of influence. Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis following Euromaidan and the subsequent War in Donbass can be linked directly to its fear of NATO or the European Union co-opting Ukraine and molding it into a pro-West nation-state. Moscow cannot let this happen for a variety of reasons. As the fighting in Ukraine reached a stalemate, Russia began to shift its attention to the Baltics and its former satellite states in Eastern Europe. Russian military exercises set around the periphery of the Baltics and Poland, coupled with NATO military deployments to the region heightened tensions, and made the prospect of a future Russian-NATO clash in Poland seem a reasonable scenario.
While Russia remains a clear threat to Poland, its status as the greatest could be facing some competition. A newer menace to Poland and its sovereignty is developing in Brussels at the headquarters of the European Union.
The EU and Poland are moving towards a confrontation that could prove to be a crucial test for the Union. The right wing Law and Justice government in Warsaw has undertaken a series of moves that the EU regards as a challenge to EU principles. Even though Poland remains a proper democracy in every regard, the government’s attempts to reform the voting system, and judicial system rub Brussels the wrong way. Added to this is Poland’s refusal to accept refugees as part of the EU attempt to distribute asylum seekers from North Africa and the Middle East across Europe.
In December, the European Commission invoked Article Seven of the Lisbon Treaty, giving Poland three months to reverse its judicial reforms or face EU sanctions. This action projects the current differences as being a matter of the EU bullying Poland because it does not approve of the domestic decisions being made in Warsaw. Brussels claims otherwise, of course, but the fact remains that the European Union wants Poland to reverse its reforms and come in line with the supra-national body’s principles. In short, the EU seems determined to punish Poland for what it views as Polish defiance.
The brewing confrontation fits in well with a project on Poland I’m in the process of planning. Later this week I’ll post about it and then separately next week provide a deeper analysis of the EU-Poland rift.
Less than two days after the US government penalized a pair of Russian companies for violations of the INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) treaty, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States of breaking the treaty themselves, and further, of laying the groundwork for a formal withdrawal from the INF treaty. Speaking on Friday, Putin lashed out at the US on a vast array of defense and geopolitical-related subjects. His points of contention give some insight to the issues that are irking the Russian leader beneath the surface, as well as providing an glimpse at where Cold War 2.0 might potentially take is in 2018.
Russia has still not come to terms with the US deployment of Aegis Ashore to Europe as part of a US-NATO missile shield being constructed to contend with the threat of Iranian ballistic missiles. From the earliest days of the program, Russia has opposed it, with Moscow claiming that the system’s true intent is to neutralize Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal.
Putin also took aim at President Trump’s national security strategy, labeling it as offensive and aggressive. The new US doctrine has labeled Russia as one of the nation’s strategic competitor, though experts and insiders agree the term means the US considers Russia to be a major threat to US interests, and policies. In spite of Putin and Trump making an effort to play nice in public, there’s suspicion and animosity growing on both sides. The US investigation into Russia’s possible tampering with the 2016 election is certainly not helping US-Russian relations. However, growing US economic sanctions are a larger bone in Putin’s throat for the moment.
The growing number of NATO troops present in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States was also brought up. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO encroachment has become a major domestic issue in Russia. Putin has used the average Russian citizen’s suspicions about NATO intentions as the rallying cry for a more aggressive foreign policy. The fact that the increase in NATO forces was made because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and continuing involvement in the War in Donbass is conveniently left out of the discussion.
With Zapad 17 having officially ended and the withdrawal of Russian forces from Belarus ostensibly complete, NATO intelligence officers will be spending the next few weeks analyzing the major exercise and drawing conclusions from it. One of the concerns prevalent in NATO circles prior to Zapad was whether or not all of the participating Russian military units would depart Belarus once the exercise ended. Aware of this unease, Moscow transformed the departure of Russian combat aircraft from Belarussian airbases and their arrival back in Russia into a media event of sorts. On the surface, the move was conducted to minimize the NATO concerns and assure neighboring nations that Russian forces were in fact returning to their home territory instead of remaining in of Belarus.
Despite Russia’s efforts, suspicions that all was not being revealed remained with a number of Western military officers and diplomats. While Russian fighters and bombers were heavily photographed and videoed leaving Bealrus, the same media attention was not afforded to ground forces supposedly also departing the country. A reason for this could be that not all of the Russia’s units are leaving Belarus, or at least not with the same amount of equipment and weapons they arrived with.
Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief General Viktor Muzhenko expounded on these suspicions and worries when he alleged that a number of Russian troops had remained in Belarus following the end of Zapad. Muzhenko told Reuters that Russia did not withdraw all of its combat units, and misrepresented the actual number of troops that were involved in the exercise. Moscow had claimed that no more than 12,000 troops were taking place, however, estimates from other sources put the number at anywhere from 70,000 to 110,000.
Moscow wasted little time in responding to Muzhenko’s allegations. A press conference was hastily laid on and a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense vehemently denied there are any Russia troops still inside of Belarus. According to the spokesman, the last train carrying Russian soldiers and equipment departed Belarus on 28 September. The press conference, and the official reaction of the Russian government, was widely covered by the state media.
On the other side of the coin, Polish defense minister Antoni Macierewicz has called for Muzhenko’s claims to be treated seriously, leaving the door open to closer NATO scrutiny of Russia’s actions and intentions in the aftermath of Zapad 17.
After months of anxious speculation by Western politicians, general officers, and media outlets, the waiting is over. Zapad 17 is underway. Russia’s quadrennial strategic military exercise has attracted an overwhelming amount of scrutiny and attention. In light of past behavior on the part of Russia, some observers and analysts believe this exercise could be cover for a large scale Russian military action against NATO, or even against their erstwhile Belarussian allies. The 2008 Georgian invasion, and 2014 Crimean takeover were preceded by large scale military exercises. This fact is pointed to as cause to suspect Zapad 17 might be more than it appears. Other observers, politicians, and military officials suspect that Russia will use the exercise to permanently station large numbers of troops in Belarus, tilting the military balance in eastern and northern Europe in its favor.
Practically speaking, Zapad 17 is a preparation for war. After all, that is the point of a strategic exercise like this. In the absence of a hidden political agenda, the results of the exercise will be an indicator of the nation’s military capabilities and of vital importance to Moscow.
Zapad 17 will run from 14-20 September and involve units from every Russian service branch and military district. Moscow claims there are only 12,000 or so troops participating, however this number is deliberately false. In reality there are upwards of 100,000 personnel involved. Not admitting the true number is a deliberate attempt by Moscow to prevent Western observers from being allowed to monitor the exercise up close. Russia and NATO have previously agreed that exercises containing upwards of 30,000+ troops trigger an automatic attendance by observers from the other side. By cooking the numbers in this case, Russia is taking advantage of a loophole to keep as many prying eyes out of Belarus as possible.
As the week goes on and Zapad 17 unfolds, we’ll keep an eye on what is happening in and around Belarus and the Baltics.