Poland was rearming even before Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine was launched in February 2022; the program went into overdrive once all-out hostilities were underway.
Poland and Ukraine immediately strengthened their relationship, with the former serving as Ukraine’s leading political supporter, logistics hub, refugee sanctuary, as well as a significant weapons provider (the current grain export dispute notwithstanding.)
Poland also focused hard on what the war meant for its strategic position and the risks it now faced — not just the possible spill-over from Ukraine, but also its long border with Belarus, which has become very largely a Kremlin puppet state with Russian short-range nuclear weapons on its territory.
The conclusions were grim and led to rapid decisions. Poland was already spending 2.4% of GDP on defense by 2022, ranking third in NATO after the United States and Greece.
The government decided much more was required. In 2023, Poland estimates it will spend more than 4% GDP on defense, which would be the highest proportion in NATO, as well as the highest proportion of the budget spent on equipment (over 50%.)
As Europe’s sixth-largest economy, by far the largest on the Eastern Flank, these figures translate into very substantial increases in personnel and hardware.
The country plans to double its land forces to 300,000. Huge purchases from abroad include 366 Abrams tanks and 96 Apache helicopters from the United States; 980 K2 tanks and 648 self-propelled howitzers from South Korea; hundreds of US HIMARS rocket launchers; many more Patriot air defense systems; 22 UK-made air defense batteries and three UK-designed frigates; as well as 48 South Korean FA-50 combat aircraft from and 32 US F-35 aircraft, complementing its existing fleet of 48 F-16s.
Meanwhile, it has made very significant arms transfers to Ukraine, including MiG-29 jets, modernized T-72 tanks, and Krab 155-mm self-propelled howitzers.
Poland will be challenged to pay for, absorb, and integrate such varied high-end equipment — despite a $2bn US loan — and may fall short of 4% GDP spending on defense in 2023. Moreover, if the government changes hands in elections on October 15, the dimensions and execution of the military buildup could shift. But the main political parties support defense growth and there is no doubt about the overall commitment.
The military build-up is on a grand scale and moves Poland to a different league in European defense. The armed forces are now on track to become the continent’s most capable land force, and the anchor of the European Union (EU)/NATO’s Eastern Flank capable of deterring and defeating Russia.
Leaders in Poland and other Eastern Flank countries recognized Russia’s menace long before its February 2014 “little green men” invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, an outlook that generated considerable disdain in Western Europe and the US. Like its neighbors, Poland understands Russian imperialism from direct experience.
Poland is not alone in raising defense spending. The continent’s top three countries by population and economic heft — Germany, France, and the UK — are also injecting new funding and equipment into their militaries. But for ground-based deterrence and defense against Russian incursions in Europe’s Eastern Flank, Europe will increasingly rely on Poland and (if the West continues to supply weapons) Ukraine’s battle-hardened military, as the backbone of its eastern defenses.
For Poles, this is not a new role. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was among Europe’s largest countries, a dominant military power that briefly occupied Moscow. In 1683, Jan III Sobieski’s Polish forces famously responded to the call of the Habsburg monarchy to rout the invading Ottoman Turks at the gates of Vienna and save Europe.
Two hundred-plus years later, at the Battle of Warsaw (the so-called Miracle on the Vistula) of 1920, Poland defeated Soviet forces intent on invading Europe and installing communism in Germany. That feat was particularly remarkable because Poland had only just reemerged as a state after its 123-year erasure at the hands of Prussia, Russia, and Austria.
Poland’s more recent experience of being abandoned by European allies when Germany and the Soviet Union conspired to invade in 1939, starting World War II, merely underscored the need for self-defense.
How will Poland play this role in the 21st century, in likely partnership with Ukraine, and what does it mean for Europe?
Much depends on the outcome of the war, the outcome of Polish elections, and Polish relations with other European powers. The Law and Justice (PiS) government elected in 2015 and reelected in 2019 is well known for its fights with the EU over independence of the judiciary and liberal democratic norms.
PiS resists EU supranational institutions and considers Poland’s parliament the supreme branch of its government. While an active participant in NATO, Poland has punched below its weight politically, partly due to tensions with other allies.
There’s an opportunity now for Poland’s influence in Europe and NATO to grow, especially on the question of security and prosperity in the NATO/EU Eastern Flank. Were it to set and succeed on the strategic priority of Ukraine’s entry into the two big Western clubs, coupled with practical steps for improved security and prosperity for the entire flank, it could ascend to the top tier of European powers where it increasingly belongs.
But the recent grain dispute exemplifies the political challenges, and there are historical ones too.
Success, however, would reshape European security in ways fundamentally aligned with Poland’s interests.
Many have observed that Putin never imagined his war in Ukraine would push Finland and Sweden into NATO. Perhaps even more impactful on Putin’s imperial designs would be Poland and Ukraine becoming Europe’s leading land powers, united in a common cause to deter and defeat Russia while reshaping and fortifying the Eastern Flank of Europe for decades to come.
Ambassador Paul Jones (ret.) is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He was US Ambassador to Poland (2015-18), US Ambassador to Malaysia (2010-13), and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs (2013-15). He was also Vice President for International Government Relations at Raytheon Technologies (2020-23).