Tensions are building between NATO and Russia and one place this is playing out is in Poland where, for the first time, NATO has stationed a battle group. The events unfolding today in the region are contextualized by Poles’ memories of a not so distant history. This article examines the recent military build-up on the Polish-Russian borders and discusses the immediate implications.
Eastern Military Buildup
Poland and Russia have long intertwined histories. For 123 years, Poland disappeared from maps during the partition by Russia, Prussia and Austria. As part of an agreement with Nazi Germany in WWII, the Soviet Union invaded Eastern Poland in 1939. This is a fact which is vehemently denied by Russia to this day. After WWII ended Poland was made a member of the Soviet Bloc countries until the end of the communist regime in 1989. However, Soviet troops remained on Polish soil until as recently as 1993. This era of communism and Soviet control in Poland underpins present day Polish-Russian relations.
The outbreak of the 2014 war in Ukraine and the subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea, together with the introduction of Russian military snap exercises in the Baltic region, have made countries in the region uneasy. Poland was likewise concerned by Russian military activities close to their eastern border and advocated for stationing NATO troops on Polish soil. After the Warsaw Summit in 2016, NATO agreed to create the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) which serves to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank. Approximately 4,500 multinational troops from 16 countries have been deployed to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. However, it is important to note that Poland’s NATO membership in 1999 was based on the Founding Act of 1997, an agreement made between Russia & NATO, which states that NATO will not have permanent troops in Eastern Bloc countries.
Map: NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (NATO)
Poland plays a central role in this new defensive front. Not only have the regional headquarters of NATO been placed in Elbląg, northern Poland, but there are also troops stationed in Orzysz, eastern Poland. These troops are a strategic reaction to the perceived threat of the Suwałki Gap. This gap is a 96 kilometer stretch of land between the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus. Some believe this is where Russia could potentially invade Europe.
NATO’s multinational battle group – the first of its kind, has been hailed as “historic” by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during his recent visit to Orzysz on the 25th of August this year. These NATO troops are stationed in Orzysz due to the close proximity of Kaliningrad; which lies a mere 60km away. This small town of Orzysz, population of just 5.797, is hosting more than 1,100 soldiers – the majority of which are US troops. This will undoubtedly have an impact on local and regional populations. It could perhaps have short term benefits for the locals but the EFP battalions are not intended to be permanent. The general reception of the NATO troops in Poland has been positive. Polish President Andrzej Duda recently praised NATO’s EFP saying that “Generations of Polish people have waited for this moment…” However, the question remains: what will be the long lasting effects of troops in the region?
The Russian Reaction
The response from Russia regarding the new NATO EFP has been strong. Russia has moved their nuclear capable Iskander systems to Kaliningrad. They also recently completed Zapad 2017, a joint military exercise with their neighbor Belarus. As a member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an international security body, Russia is required to have external observers during any military exercises with over 13 thousand troops. According to Russian figures, the military exercise involved 12,700 Russian and Belarusian troops and lasted just under one week. However, European estimates suggest that the amount of troops was closer to 70.000. The Zapad 2017 military exercise made NATO countries in the region wary as Russia has used military exercises as a pretext for their annexation of Crimea and military involvement in the Ukraine. Fortunately, the only notable incident that occurred was when two Russian jets briefly violated Lithuanian airspace due to weather conditions.
Zapad 2017 served to show off Russia’s military strength in the region and some analysts argue that NATO needs to host their own large scale military exercises in response to act as a deterrent to Russia. This is exactly what NATO are trying to accomplish with Dragon 17, a defensive joint Polish-NATO military exercise which involved 17,000 troops which worked together for the first time with the newly formed voluntary Polish Territorial Defense Forces. Is this response large enough to deter Russia? Or does it only increase tension and risks for the region?
It remains to be seen what will happen in the future between NATO and Russia. The perceived lack of trust on both sides plays a key role in the events unfolding in the region. Will the EFP be permanently stationed along the eastern flank? Will the situation continue to escalate further or could there be an opportunity for dialogue? How can NATO and Russia build mutual trust?
Photo: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visits Poland (NATO)
Disclaimer: The content of this article is the sole responsibility of the author and any opinions expressed therein do not necessarily represent the official position of the Youth Atlantic Treaty Association Denmark.