WARSAW, Poland — Conversations about the value of military alliances here often lead to the same subject — the German invasion of 1939, when France and Britain were bound by treaties to aid Poland but, in the Polish view, hesitated before mounting serious offensives.
The lesson gleaned by Poland, a country so often at the mercy of the stronger, hungrier powers around it, was that treaties are mere paper promises unless backed up with troops and military hardware on its territory, the kind of physical ties that ensure outside support in case of attack.
Now, as the September NATO summit in Wales approaches and tensions in Ukraine remain high, the country will put forward its best case yet for achieving such long-pursued goals. Officials here say they will ask for updated military planning for the eastern flank of the alliance, new response mechanisms to cut down on lengthy consensus-building in the event of conflict and, most importantly, the movement of NATO and U.S. infrastructure and bases onto Polish, Romanian and Baltic territory. With stiff opposition already coming from larger members of the alliance, Poland’s ideas will test whether NATO can satisfy the concerns of its smaller, less-influential members in the east.
“What’s at issue here is the perception of threats,” said Judy Dempsey, an analyst at Carnegie Europe. “And there is no common threat to all NATO members.”
Since throwing off its communist regime in 1989, Poland has viewed NATO membership and the alliance’s Article 5 guarantee, which promises support for an attack on any member, as the most important external pillar of its security.
It has been an active member since joining the military alliance in 1999, implementing a series of defense reforms, funding its military at close to NATO-recommended levels of two percent of gross domestic product, and participating in NATO missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo.
“The Poles have worked hard,” Dempsey said. “They’ve worked the hardest, actually.”
But Poland continues to lack the influence of larger countries, and especially the “Quad” — the U.S., Britain, France and Germany — within the 28-nation grouping. Its campaigns for leadership positions on the political and military sides of the alliance have been unsuccessful.
Poland’s constant reservations about Russia and its focus on territorial defenses were viewed at the time by most NATO members as alarmist and a throw-back to the Cold War. Where Poland and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania saw a former oppressor that retained imperialist aspirations, most other NATO states saw a potential partner.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks further encouraged NATO’s move away from territorial defense of Europe and toward cooperation with outside states. Missions in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and Libya took the alliance farther afield and spoke little to the concerns of its eastern flank. Jerzy Maria Nowak, Poland’s NATO ambassador from 2002 to 2007, recalled that suggestions of Russia posing a threat were quickly dismissed.
“At that time it was politically incorrect to say it,” he said. “And when I say it, I feel like I am making a faux pas in polite company.”
Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 produced some anxiety in the West but was followed by renewed efforts at partnership. In the case of the U.S., a “reset” in relations sought to move past the conflict and a disagreement over NATO’s plan to install a missile shield in eastern Europe, which Moscow claims is directed against it.
But now, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and charges that Moscow is backing the anti-government uprising in eastern Ukraine, support is growing within NATO for changes to the alliance positioning, even if the details are subject to debate. The U.S. and others increased air policing in the region, raised the size of a fighter jet detachment in Poland and sent soldiers to train with local troops in Poland and the Baltics. The U.S. has promised more military rotations to the region in the future.
“I think others have realized that we were correct all along,” said Marcin Zaborowski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, a government-funded think tank with close ties to the foreign ministry.
Yet Poland believes the current steps are just a beginning to more concrete changes in the alliance.
Gen. Stanislaw Koziej, head of the country’s National Security Bureau and one of the authors of Poland’s 2013 national security assessment, said the operations conducted by Russia in Ukraine, as well as its intense propaganda, aim to cause instability versus winning territory, sparking concerns in Poland that alliance preparations are out of date. Because Article 5 envisions an invasion force or an outright attack versus irregular conflict, NATO members may hesitate to act against something less dynamic, he said.
The Baltic states, which like Ukraine have sizable populations of ethnic Russians, are especially vulnerable to such operations that fall well short of war, Koziej argues.
Although Moscow has not threatened any NATO member, Poland wants the allies to create more detailed contingency plans for the region. These would name specific units to respond to a crisis be stationed permanently in Poland, Romania and the Baltics or rotated through for large exercises. Koziej believes the NATO Response Force, the alliance’s rapid-response force, could play a role. But like others in the government, he believes the U.S. should station troops permanently on Polish soil.
“We think it would be of interest to the U.S. to have some other type of forces present here … But if it’s a rotational presence, from our point of view it’s also advantageous,” he said.
NATO should also move fuel and munitions into warehouses in the east from bases in the west, Koziej said, and prepare airfields for possible contingencies. To help pay for these changes, Poland is willing to offer funding equivalent to 0.05 percent of its gross domestic product - the amount of a defense funding increase recently announced by the Polish government.
With pre-drafted plans, named units and forward supplies, a response to any Russian incursions in the region would rely on a mere mechanism, Koziej said
“If these plans are updated and confirmed by the allies upfront, it means that we’ve already overcome one of the barriers to quickly have a consensus and react,” he said. “Then we only need a decision to push a button and NATO will be ready to react.”
Many allies already oppose such plans. Germany argues that basing in the east would go against the 1997 Founding Act, an agreement between NATO and Russia that limited buildup in former Soviet bloc states.
Along with France — which recently sold two warships to Russia — and a number of other European nations, they are concerned about needlessly provoking Russia, which views NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat, and jeopardizing Europe’s substantial economic ties with that country. Some NATO diplomats have dismissed Poland’s demands for greater security guarantees as obsessive.
“They’re not going to get what they want,” Dempsey said. “And the reason is that Britain and France and Germany are not actually willing to redeploy troops, American troops (stationed in Europe) or NATO equipment and barracks and infrastructure eastward.”
Koziej calls such opposition “disquieting” and believes Germany cites the Founding Act to protect its business interests. He believes Russia invalidated the act when it invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea.
Poland hopes for support from the U.S. as well as Sweden and Finland. The latter two countries, though not members of NATO, are concerned about Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Warsaw is also looking internally, speeding up military uprgrades it began in 2013. Plans call for new helicopters to increase mobility of forces, together with updated air defenses and a missile defense system that it hopes to tie into the NATO system under construction, part of which is an Aegis Ashore site scheduled for completion in 2018.
Koziej said NATO must adapt to the new threat on its eastern flank and learn to act quickly.
“It is difficult to count on reaching consensus fast when the threat emerges,” he said. “Then it is as it was in 1939 and the powers (around) Poland are all trying to make up their minds about what to do.”