Is Poland ready to defend itself against a Russian armed attack?

Korean K9 self-propelled howitzers for Polish Army soldiers on display at the base of the 11th Mazurian Artillery Regiment in Wegorzewo, northern Poland, 12 December 2022.
© EPA-EFE/Tomasz Waszczuk   |   Korean K9 self-propelled howitzers for Polish Army soldiers on display at the base of the 11th Mazurian Artillery Regiment in Wegorzewo, northern Poland, 12 December 2022.

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The second anniversary of Russia's full-scale attack on Ukraine (although this war has been going on for 10 years) is a moment of summaries, intensified speculations about the future of the conflict and mass public opinion polls. Although initially many people believed in Kiev's victory – especially when military aid began to flow to Ukraine from many sides – now only 10% of Europeans believe that Ukraine will win the war. In Poland, at a time of growing anti-Ukrainian attitudes, 17.5% of participants in the United Surveys poll for RMF FM radio and the "Dziennik Gazeta Prawna" newspaper believe in the neighbor's victory. The survey also shows that almost half of Poles expect that a war between Russia and Ukraine will last for many years and will end in the destruction of both countries.

And since, according to many experts, Putin's possible victory may encourage Russia to attack more Baltic states, respondents were also asked whether the Kremlin would want to attack Poland in the near future. And here, as many as 47.4% of respondents declare that they agree with this statement.

In another study, also conducted in February this year, but this time by the Pollster Research Institute on behalf of the "Super Express" daily newspaper, as many as 56% of respondents are afraid that there may be a war between Russia and NATO.

According to General Leon Komornicki, concerns are much greater in the east of the country, close to the border with Belarus and Ukraine. After all, this is where missiles enter our airspace. These grim moods are certainly spreading” said the former military man.

As Donald Trump questions the existence of NATO and Putin says that Russia's borders are infinite, and Poles are building themselves one of Europe’s largest armies

Opinion polls accurately reflect the current mood map. Although the war on Poland's eastern border has been going on for two years, and everyone is slowly becoming indifferent to brutal photos and recordings from the front and appeals for help for refugees, Poles have a permanent feeling that war has never been so close in the times of the Third Polish Republic.

On Russian television, propagandists openly say that after winning in Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic countries will be next. On the streets of Moscow, television screens are currently displaying a bizarre statement by Vladimir Putin, who tells the TASS agency that "Russia's borders do not end anywhere." When translated into the language of politics, we will receive a clear message that Moscow puts its interests above the right of nations to self-determination, the foundation of international law. These messages are mainly for internal purposes, but against the background of rockets falling on Ukrainian cities, they gain a sinister context. Moreover, the Kremlin announces an increase in the size of the army from 900,000 to one and a half million, and the creation of new military districts on the border with NATO countries.

All this is happening at a time when the future of American policy towards Ukraine has come into question against the background of the race for presidential elections. Congress is still unable to unlock the next tranche of aid for Kiev, and Donald Trump, the likely Republican candidate and a serious White House contender, accuses Europe at election rallies of not investing in arms and constantly hiding behind the back of the US. He also openly questions the Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, on which Poland’s entire security strategy has been based for years.

Will they come? Or not?” This question, which has aroused fear in Poles for centuries, has become relevant again during the past decade.

Shortly after the outbreak of the conflict over Donbas in 2014, Ukraine – attacked by Russia – restored universal military service, followed by Lithuania. In 2017, Sweden did the same, and more recently, Latvia. Previously, conscription was only in force in Denmark, Norway, Austria, Switzerland and Greece. Italy, France, Spain, Romania and Serbia are trying to restore conscription or at least compulsory military exercises. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius says directly that the country will not escape from this decision.

Discussion on this topic is driven by fears of Russia's increasingly aggressive tone towards Europe, as Moscow – which conscripts some 100,000 citizens per year – describes the support of NATO countries for Kiev almost as a casus belli.

In Poland, successive ministers of national defense assure that compulsory military service, suspended in 2009, is a thing of the past. Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak (PiS) said so in 2022. The same was declared recently by MoD in Tusk's government, Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz. Both politicians have one more thing in common. They avoid answering the question whether there will be no conscription because there is no need for it, or maybe because the Polish state is unable to carry it out after a 15-year break?

The Polish Army, as announced by subsequent governments, is to become the largest land army in Europe within a decade, with 300,000 soldiers, including 187,000 professionals, nearly 1,600 modern tanks, some 600 howitzers and almost half a thousand rocket launchers capable of hitting a target the size of a newspaper stand from several hundred kilometers away. Like a phoenix, the Polish Navy is to be reborn from the ashes. According to the plans, Poland will also become a superpower in the air: 160 state-of-the-art fighters, while the country’s helicopter fleet is set to double in size. For the first time in history, Warsaw is purchasing early warning aircraft and planning a network of its own early reconnaissance satellites. The integrated air defense system currently under construction is already considered one of the most modern in the world – its creation will cost roughly as much as the construction of a large nuclear power plant.

Financing for such ambitious plans is provided by the Homeland Defense Act passed two years ago, according to which, starting from 2023, Polish defense spending cannot fall below 3% of GDP. In the 2024 budget just adopted by the Parliment, 118.14 billion zloty (nearly 30 billion euros) was allocated for defense, i.e. the equivalent of 3.1%. of the projected GDP. Together with money from the off-budget Armed Forces Support Fund, it will amount to nearly EUR 38 billion - or 4.2% of GDP. The new government simply took over the baton from its predecessors, which was welcomed by most security experts. This is not only the most among NATO countries. Globally, only Russia, Israel and South Korea will record a higher share of military spending in GDP this year.

Research shows that Poles want a strong army, but they do not want to be part of it

The rapid expansion and modernization of the Polish army are intended to be an argument that will stop Moscow from trying to check whether Poland can be drawn back into the orbit of its political and military influence. There is also one unknown in this equation. Will there be enough people willing to join the “most modern land army in Europe”?

An analysis commissioned by the Senate of the Republic of Poland, prepared last year by Dr. Michał Piekarski from the Institute of Studies and Security of the University of Wrocław, seems to confirm these doubts. An army of 300,000 – as Piekarski writes – will need as many as 61,500 new volunteers every year just to prevent its ranks from shrinking again. In order to achieve the above-mentioned number of 300,000 within the next decade, the Polish Army should increase its personnel by as many as 11,000 per year starting this year. Meanwhile, according to the Central Statistical Office, only slightly over 2 million men aged 20-29 live in Poland (with a decreasing tendency in each subsequent age group). By giving up conscription, a professionalized army will therefore have to fight for these people on purely free market principles.

As an example of the challenges that lie ahead, Dr. Piekarski mentioned recruiting truck drivers. Within a decade, the Polish Army will be equipped with at least 500 wheeled missile launchers of the American HIMARS system and the Korean Chunmu system. If the army wants to train only two crews for each of them, its demand for licensed truck drivers, and only in missile units, will increase by as much as a thousand people. Today, the salary of a professional private in the Polish Army is barely EUR 1,190. A non-commissioned officer receives an additional maximum of 285 euros. Meanwhile, the civilian market, which also has a shortage of drivers, pays on average twice as much.

„After Russia's attack on Ukraine, the Polish army observed a surge in interest in defense and a significant interest in service”, says Michał Piekarski. “But it was only an impulse that brought closer to the army those who were closest to it anyway due to their worldview or interests, or those that understood that citizenship also means readiness to defend the state and society. However, in relation to the entire society, the Polish army needs a new image that will make young people stop considering compulsory service as a life disaster. Meanwhile, unhealthy machismo and martyrdom still prevail in the Polish defense narrative. In this situation, even the restoration of compulsory military service will not significantly change the army's personnel situation. Many young people will try to avoid service anyway”. In a study conducted a year ago by the IBRiS, 41% of respondents assessed the plan to increase the size of the Polish army to 300,000 soldiers very positively. At the same time, only 12% were in favor of restoring the mandatory 9-month military service. As much as 44% of respondents were categorically against it.

Executive agreements for the purchase of weapons concluded after the elections indicate that the new government, at least for now, is breaking with the phantom of three hundred thousand, aiming for an army of around 150-170 thousand. It is almost certain that the formation of the additional Legion Infantry Division established last year will be suspended; the goal to be achieved are four existing divisions equipped with a large amount of modern weapons. But this, apart from money, also takes time.

How many soldiers trained for service and capable of military operations does Poland have now? The Ministry of National Defense boasts of the number of 164,000 on its website. However, unofficial information from the army itself says about 45-50 thousand. This is approximately as much as the Ukrainians had when they went on the offensive last summer on just a few dozen kilometers of the Zaporizhia front. Meanwhile, the total length of Poland’s borders with Belarus and the Konigsberg Oblast exceeds 600 kilometers.

The condition of the Polish army is the "credit" of almost all the governments in power since Poland joined NATO. Allied guarantees, including a place under the US nuclear umbrella, formed the basis of Polish thinking about security. Since the beginning of this century, the priority of the Ministry of National Defense has been to build an army with significant intervention capabilities, which is to gain the recognition of allies by participating in missions far from Poland. The basic dimension of the functioning of the armed forces, i.e. the protection of our own borders, has faded into the background because, after all, “NATO will protect us”.

European defense budgets are growing, but Trump still wants the US to leave NATO. Will Europe be able to defend itself and will it come to Poland's aid if necessary?

For anyone who still believes that the most important advantage of the Polish military is its membership in NATO, the events of recent weeks must have been a bucket of cold water. In January, Politico wrote that, during his presidency, Donald Trump told European Commission head  Ursula von der Leyen that he would never come to the aid of Europe in the event of an attack, and that NATO is “dead”. Then most recently, during election meetings, among others in Iowa, Trump said that "whether we fulfill our obligations to NATO depends on how they treat us.”

So will the alliance actually “defend us”? General Keith Kellogg, former national security advisor to US Vice President Mike Pence, in an interview with the Polish Press Agency, reassured that Donald Trump will not withdraw the US from this pact. “He's a businessman and his approach to NATO is that if you don't keep your end of the bargain, there's no deal” Kellogg says. Trump's words can therefore be understood more as a warning.

They can be understood as a warning, but as Trump’s one time National Security Adviser John Bolton admits, the former president is serious about withdrawing the US from the Alliance. “I myself witnessed the events at the summit in Brussels in 2018, when it was very close” Bolton told Gazeta Wyborcza. He uses NATO to show what he wants in international politics. And at the same time it weakens NATO. But I don't think Trump cares. He doesn't understand the essence of the Alliance. In his understanding, the US provides protection to European countries and Canada – and gets nothing in return. And Europeans do not want to do it themselves, because many countries still do not spend the promised 2% of GDP on defense. Trump does not understand that NATO operates in different dimensions, it is a collective defense Alliance, and we all benefit from being its members.”

What Donald Trump seems to fail to grasp is that, for Washington, NATO is more than a mere defensive alliance; it is a vehicle through which the United States can play a role in world politics far more important than it could alone. Keeping the commitments taken towards partners in Europe is also of key importance for the perception of the United States' place in the Pacific, an arena that all American parties consider strategic for the future. It is easy to imagine how Seoul or Tokyo would react to a possible retreat of America from Europe. Not to mention Taipei, which, like Warsaw, based its security strategy on partnership with Washington.

It is therefore possible that what many wrongly perceive today as the death of NATO is in fact its so-called Hamiltonian moment. Just as the War of Independence made representatives of individual American states aware of the need to form an alliance and take out a common debt, Russia's aggression against Ukraine made European NATO members realize that the time when they could rely (mostly) on the US for their security has passed. In 2022, military budgets around the world increased by 3.7% to $2.2 trillion, but in Europe there was a jump of about 13% on average, with some of the countries closest to Russia going well above that figure – there was a 36%  increase in Finland’s military spending and a 27% in Lithuania’s.

At the same time, as the deputy director of the Center for Eastern Studies, Justyna Gotkowska, emphasizes, work on defense plans has accelerated at the tactical level: The Alliance already has a ready plan to respond to potential Russian aggression for virtually every section of its eastern border. Tasks have been assigned and specific forces are being assigned to them. We are still far from operational readiness, but it is still huge progress”

Russia has already attacked NATO, so member states, including Poland, should step up preparations in order to deter Moscow from starting a full-blown war

In 2023, only ten NATO countries spent more than 2% of their GDP on defense, i.e. the minimum agreed jointly during the Welsh summit of the alliance in 2014. The undisputed leader is Poland, which spent 3.9% of its GDP. The USA came second (3.49%), and Greece closed the podium with 3.1% of GDP.

However, there is no shortage of countries that barely exceeded the 1% level (Spain 1.26%, Slovenia 1.35%). Germany, the most populous and wealthiest country in Europe, only spent 1.57% of its GDP on defense last year. As a result of this chronic failure to spend more for the army, the Bundeswehr can currently rely on just 60% of the equipment it needs “from artillery systems to tents”.

Time is running out because Russia has already basically attacked NATO. Its agents carried out several assassination attacks in Great Britain, in addition to hybrid actions, which, as we know today, contributed significantly to the Brexit referendum decision. France discovered a network of several hundred Internet portals with Russian propaganda aimed at European countries. An ammunition warehouse exploded in the Czech Republic, which the local police attribute to the activity of Russian agents. Almost every day NATO is faced with provocations by the Russian air force, which, with its transponders turned off, approaches NATO airspace and forces the allies to scramble their planes. In 2015, the Turkish air force even shot down a Russian SU-24 bomber that violated the country's space. Justyna Gotkowska points out that all these are warning signs, and that NATO is taking heed, and so should Poland: "NATO as a whole and Poland as its member prepare for various scenarios. From sabotage, through hybrid attacks of “little green men” on the border with Belarus, to full-scale conflict. The latter seems to me the least realistic at the moment, but Russia has already shown that it plays as its opponent allows it. There are many reasons why the Kremlin will not be able to rebuild the military capabilities it lost in Ukraine in the next two or three years. This is time that Poland must use to strengthen its army and our international position. If we do not do this, it may turn out that Russia will once again play blind and decide to check how strong an opponent it is dealing with”.

As part of these preparations, work on changing the attitude towards defense in Poland seems to be a necessity. This is a country that lost almost 6 million citizens (mainly of Jewish origin) in the previous war, and 180,000 buildings were destroyed. Even several generations later, society still carries the war trauma, but this does not translate into the feeling that it is worth being prepared for the worst. Poles are rather reluctant to own firearms, ignore safety and first aid training, or accept that local governments don’t invest in urban shelters. Poles are also not eager to fight - this is according to an IBRiS study conducted in December 2023 on behalf of the daily newspaper "Rzeczpospolita". When asked: „what you would do in the event of a military attack by Russia on Poland”, 29% of respondents declared their readiness to help, e.g. as a volunteer in a hospital. 15.7% of respondents answered that they would volunteer to join the army. However, as many as 37.4% would like to evacuate from the country, and every fifth Pole (22%) would do nothing in the face of foreign aggression.

Poles have fewer problems answering the question whether Poland, following the example of some NATO countries, should restore the army draft suspended 15 years ago. In a survey conducted in the fall of 2023 commissioned by the Academy of War Arts, as many as 60% of respondents answered that they did not believe that the next government would dare to introduce mandatory compulsory military service for all citizens. The limits of the cohabitation between the army and society that is acceptable for Poles are set, as the same study showed, by the idea of cyclical military exercises for men up to 35 years of age.

General Mirosław Różański, former general commander of the Polish army and currently chairman of the Senate committee for national defense, does not seem to be concerned about such sentiments. Yes, in the context of plans to build a 300,000-strong army, the widespread reluctance to serve raises justified concerns about the chances of their implementation. "But let's ask ourselves whether we really need such a large army," said Różański. In my opinion, talking about the size of the armed forces separately from the skills they should have makes no sense. I believe we need a military that can effectively detect, identify and combat threats before they even reach our borders. This means that we should build an army of highly trained professionals, equipped with modern equipment that will help eliminate the enemy's numerical advantage.”

According to Różański, more modern equipment means less need for people to operate them, because robotization is also entering military technologies. And fewer soldiers mean lower costs of current operation of the army, and therefore more money for training people in service and purchasing new weapons. The circle closes. As an example, Różański gives the American M142 HIMARS missile launchers, which have already been ordered for the Polish army. „They allow you to precisely hit targets located up to 300 kilometers away. They require three soldiers to operate them. Meanwhile, the obsolete Polish WR-40 Langusta launchers are operated by as many as five people, and their maximum firing range is only 40 kilometers”, said general Różański.

However, the question remains whether Donald Tusk's government, embroiled in internal wars with President Duda and Kaczyński’s party, will be able to develop an appropriate strategy for modernizing the army so that it is perfectly prepared to defend the Polish border in the east (which is also the eastern border of the EU).

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