Since the foundation in 1949, NATO has been serving as a security assurance of its member states. Despite the fact that military alliance was created against existing threat from the Soviet Union, organization’s role has not declined, even after the former had collapsed, subsequently followed by popping up new realities and challenges. Since that – mainly for eastern European countries, which had experienced brutal totalitarian regime for nearly 70 years – three priorities have evolved: 1) Establishing and strengthening democratic principles; 2) Economic reforms through transition from central planned economy to liberal one. 3) Elimination of current and possible security threats. The best option to respond to existing challenges turned out to bemutual cooperation policy which entailed integration within EU as a deepening economic tiewith other states and NATO has been viewed as a security umbrella which would deter future Russian aggression. Article tries to answer, why Poland matters to NATO and vice versa.
The simple reason why Poland is not amongst of founding members of NATO lies under the historiography, which mirrors 48 years of the Soviet Union’s occupation. In the beginning of 1990s Polish main security concern was presence of Russian troops around western part of thecountry. Through the direct bases Boris Yeltsin’s government could pressure and halt Polish preferences towards military alliance. Even though Russian president’s finale communique expressed an understanding for Poland’s NATO ambitions. From 1991-1993 around 56,000 Soviet soldiers, 7,500 civilian personnel and 40,000 members of military families, including 600 tanks, 200 planes, 90,000 tons of ammunition and tactical missiles for nuclear weapons were transported to Russia. As in September, 1993, the last Russian soldier left Polish soil, risks of pressure dwindled. It is important to mention the huge support from the US president when in July, 1994, during his first visit to Warsaw, Bill Clinton said that NATO enlargement was not a matter of “if” but “when and how”. Time came on March 12, 1999, when Poland officially became a member of NATO.
Now Poland celebrates 20th anniversary of being part of NATO. According to ministry of national defense majority of population, nearly 70 % think that membership of NATO has direct impact on the improvement of country’s security. Moreover, two thirds of Poles have a positive opinion about NATO’s global role. Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bronisław Geremek, may not have exaggerated when he assessed about NATOs eastern enlargement: “The most important event that has happened to Poland since the onset of Christianity”. The salient reason why NATO matters to Poland can be found in Lech Wałęsa’s expression to Bill Clinton: “We are all afraid of Russia … If Russia again adopts an aggressive foreign policy, that aggression will be directed toward Ukraine and Poland”. The former president turned out to be partly right. As the reality shows, the membership of NATO and especially its 5th amendment serves as deterrent toolagainst revisionist Russia, which conducts hawkish foreign policy and plays according to realist balance of power logic and obstacles its further expansion.
Poland is an active member of NATO. It has taken part into many operations since the mid-90s. According to permanent delegation of the republic of Poland to NATO, the latter participated in the following missions:
Areas of Polish military involvement in NATO missions and operations:
• Bosnia and Herzegovina (FIFG in 1995-1996 and SFOR in 1996-2004);
• Albania (AFOR in 1999);
• Kosovo (KFOR since 1999);
• Macedonia (Amber Fox in 2001-2002 and Allied Harmony in 2002-2003);
• Afghanistan (ISAF from 2003-2015, including NTM-A in 2009-2014, and RSM from 2015);
• Mediterranean Sea and other maritime areas (Active Endeavor in 2005-2011, from 2002 intermittently NATO Standing Naval Forces, including in 2010, 2013 and 2017 commanding a standing mine-sweeping team);
• Pakistan (Swift Relief in 2005-2006);
• Iraq (NTM-I in 2005-2011, NTCB-I in 2017-2018 – a lead country in the training of Iraqi personnel in the repairs and maintenance of post-Soviet equipment, and NMI from 2018);
• Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia (Baltic Air Policing, on and off since 2006).
Nowadays, while Donald Trump criticizes NATO members that they do not fulfill their obligation by pointing that most of them are not spending two percent of their GDP on defense, he does not mean Poland. In the 2019 budget, the Polish governmental defense expenditure is about 11.76 billion dollars (PLN 44.7 billion) which accounts 2 percent of GDP. The importance of Polish contribution was hailed also by NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg during a visit by a president Andrzej Duda on 4th June to NATO headquarters. “Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP)” was one of the important issues discussed during the visit, which is aftermath of Warsaw summit 2016. It can be considered as a response related to Russian annexation of Crimea. As NATO communique follows: At the Warsaw Summit, Allies agreed to enhance NATO’s military presence in the eastern part of the Alliance, with four battalions in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, on a rotational basis. The activities of NATO forces on the Polish territory underlines its geographical importance. “Saber Strike 2018” an exercise is one of them. Around 18000 troops from 19 NATO allies and partners participated in simulated operations. Involvement of Polish F-16s and MI-24 attack helicopters are notwithstanding.
The NATO Response Force was established in 2003. It was in 2014 when Allies decided to enhance NRF by creating a spearhead force, known as the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF). The main goal of such units is one of the measures of Readiness Action Plan, which is introduced in 2014 Wales summit, where the reason is implicitly expressed: changes in security environment on NATO’s border. In addition, exercise “Noble Jump 2019” had also taken place in Poland, which involved above mentioned units. For countries which share direct borders with Russia, it is quite important to be always ready for unexpected events.
Poland also plays an important role within NATO’s Science for Peace and Security(SPS) program. Not only information day held in Warsaw in 2018 where participants discussed future plans but Poland is now contributing to an SPS project monitoring chemical ammunition dumpsites in the Baltic Sea using autonomous underwater vehicle.
To sum up, Poland and NATO has been experiencing mutual beneficial relationship. As the latter serves as the assurance of Polish security concerns, the former tries to be outstanding member. The Soviet Union has disappeared, but now Russian troops are menacing European borders from Kaliningrad, where squadron of S-400 Triumph (the system’s range covers a large part of Poland, Lithuania and Baltic Sea, which could significantly hamper NATO aviation operations in the event of a conflict with Russia) and the 336th Guards Marine Brigade under Baltic Fleet Command is currently being deployed as well as the 79th Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade under the Western Military District and the 7th Guards Motor Rifle Regiment. Taking intoconsideration Russian military exercise “Zapad”, which involved 40,000 troops and as former Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite has suggested – the purpose of the exercises is aimed in that direction. Within the short review we can explicitly claim that Poland needs NATO and vice versa.
The opinions and conclusions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Tbilisi or The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.