With unreliable Russian missiles cruising just miles from the Polish and NATO border, Poland is becoming more concerned about the possibility that war in Ukraine will spill over. That might well trigger NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense commitment.
On March 13, a barrage of Russian missiles struck the Yavoriv training base in Western Ukraine, killing 35 Ukrainian soldiers and wounding more than 100. The installation is just 15 miles from Poland and until very recently, hosted 400 NATO trainers – including Americans and Poles. On March 19, Russian missiles struck Lviv, also not far from Poland’s border. Alarmingly, missiles struck Lviv again during President Biden’s visit to Poland on March 26. That visit included a stop near Ukraine’s border to rally American troops and assess the mounting humanitarian crisis.
Russia’s sweeping, and unprovoked attack on Ukraine has sent a chill around the globe. Not since World War II has Europe seen fighting on this scale. Should the Kremlin succeed, Poland’s hostile borders could increase from one to three: Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. The danger of the conflict encroaching on NATO’s eastern flank is real. We must address these security risks now.
First, border enforcement and refugee management detract from military readiness. Since last summer, Poland has been lauded by the EU for its strict handling of the Belarussian-induced border crisis in its east. In this continuing “hybrid-warfare” attack, encouraged by Russia, Polish border guards require assistance from the military. This reduces vital readiness for the military’s core mission of defending the homeland. The new border challenge is immense as Poland has welcomed more than 2.2 million Ukrainian refugees and tens of thousands more pour across the border daily. Russian provocateurs may be among them.
Poland is a crucial NATO frontline ally — it requires billions in US and EU aid for refugee assistance and urgently needs the US and NATO to reinforce its defenses. So far, the EU has pledged €500,000 (about $550,000), which is clearly inadequate. During his visit, President Biden announced $1 billion in general refugee support. This was welcomed by Poland’s President Duda, who also thanked Biden for sending 5,000 additional soldiers, doubling America’s troop presence in the country. In December, the NATO Response Force (NRF) was alerted. NATO should immediately deploy the full NRF, with additional air and missile defense (AMD) capabilities to the region.
Second, the war is forcing Poland to accelerate defense modernization. Its plan is ambitious and will require Western assistance to achieve its goals of defending the homeland and NATO’s eastern flank. Poland’s total force of 113,000 active-duty (and 30,000 territorial) personnel is being expanded to 300,000 soldiers — 250,000 active, and 50,000 territorials. It is streamlining its legal framework to manage the military more effectively including procurement, personnel recruitment, and retention.
Likewise, Poland is increasing defense spending from just over 2% percent of GDP (the current NATO target) to 3% — among NATO allies, only the US spends more on this key measure. Poland’s modernization program includes the latest Abrams main battle tanks, Hercules recovery vehicles, Patriot air, and missile defense, high mobility rocket artillery (HIMARS), Javelin anti-tank systems, Blackhawk helicopters, F-35 fighters, additional C-130 transports, as well as Turkish drones, and Polish-produced drones and field artillery. Costly warships and attack helicopters are needed as well, among other requirements.
The problem is that Poland’s defense budget is overstretched for an economy of its size — Germany’s population is about double Poland’s, for example, but its GDP is more than six times greater. Germany additionally enjoys secure borders and thus far, has not felt the urgency to maintain readiness, nor modernize its military (though that appears to be changing.) Meanwhile, Poland’s borders are increasingly more volatile, even as it shoulders an outsized burden for the alliance by maintaining the largest and most capable military on NATO’s frontlines.
Poland is a ready and willing ally, but it needs additional help to become more able. Western leaders should maximize Poland’s advantages, assisting in the rapid modernization of its military. This will fortify NATO’s regional bulwark against Russia. One immediate solution would be a 21st-century “Lend-Lease 2.0” effort, supported not only by the US but other West European allies, including Germany. During World War II, Roosevelt’s original Lend-Lease Act helped save the free world. It is exactly the type of jumpstart needed to close security gaps for Poland, and for NATO’s eastern flank.
Third, Poland and its neighbors are now in range of multiple Russian weapons systems and, as a crucial transit hub for Ukraine, the danger grows. Putin has warned, “Whoever tries to impede us must know that the Russian response will be immediate and lead to consequences you have never seen.” Such threats must be taken seriously. So should the fact that Poland is often the central target during Russian military exercises. Undeterred, Poland continues urging NATO and the EU to do much more for Ukraine — including a No-Fly Zone, transferring fighter jets, and a NATO ground forces peacekeeping operation — while it continues delivering tons of weapons, ammunition, and relief to Ukraine.
The need is immediate for US and NATO forces to bolster Poland’s defenses – including speeding up programs to deliver air and missile defense, armor, and long-range artillery. It’s time for the US and NATO to come to grips with the fact that Russia only understands strength. Since 2014, NATO’s limited response to Russian aggression has not deterred the Kremlin. On March 25 during an emergency summit, NATO announced deployments of additional battle groups to the region. This is welcome, but not enough. NATO must deploy its 40,000-troop NRF now, including all three maneuver brigades to bolster Poland and other front-line allies. General Richard Shirreff, NATO’s former deputy SACEUR, told the BBC on March 24 that alliance troop numbers need to be quadrupled.
During the Cold War, NATO did not defend against Soviet Russia from the beaches of Normandy, it did so toe-to-toe with Russia and utilized West Germany as its main defensive hub. As NATO expanded eastwards, it erred by not shifting forces and infrastructure in parallel, helping to create today’s regional insecurity. NATO must relearn Cold War lessons.
Poland brings a host of vital assets to the table. It is highly motivated to defend NATO territory. It is loyal to the United States and Europe, and endeavors to rapidly build military capabilities. Poland possesses immense basing capacity and is in the geographic heart of NATO’s eastern challenge. The alliance should organize a modern version of “Forward Defense,” with Poland as NATO’s east flank bulwark, along with Romania as NATO’s bastion in the Black Sea region.
- Permanently assign the entire US Army V Corps Headquarters to Poland (not just its Forward Headquarters)
- Permanently assign divisions — one US Army, and one comprised of allied troops – in Poland and Romania, with subunits bolstering other regional allies and partners, and
- Upgrade NATO air policing and maritime patrol missions to more robust air and missile defense and maritime defense missions.
These defensive measures, along with strong political and economic action, will significantly increase the security of NATO’s eastern flank, including Poland. They will send a strong message — the kind that Putin understands — concerning American and European strength, solidarity, and commitment to this vital region.
Colonel (Ret) Ray Wojcik is a Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), and a 30-year Army veteran, with multiple tactical-strategic assignments culminating as US Army Attaché, American Embassy, Warsaw, Poland.