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Poland and new military alliance against Russia in Central and Eastern Europe

The 2016 Warsaw Summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will be held in on July 8-9. The place of the summit is of both symbolical and practical importance. U.S. strategists assign a special role to Poland in the belt of Russia-bordering countries – a kind of mini-NATO to “deter” Russia. This analogue of the anti-Soviet “sanitary cordon” of 1920s has been recently defined by U.S. experts from the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) as “frontline countries.”

The codename of NATO’s latest exercise - Anaconda-16 - held on June 7-17 in Poland and the Baltic States contained a direct hint at the role prepared for those countries. The location of the exercise was important in the context of the functions which U.S. is going to give to Poland in the confrontation of NATO and Russia. 

As a reminder, after the strategy of defeating the rebellious South through direct invasions failed during the Civil War in U.S. in 1861-1864, the northerners chose a long-term Anaconda Plan to gradually surround the Confederacy, cut off its supplies, slowly strangle it into submission and split it. The Anaconda strategy was a success. The leading military alliance planned by U.S. with the center in Poland looks to restrain and oust Russia following the Anaconda Plan.

Over the last 25 years, the West has been creating a continental security through the expansion of NATO and the European Union into the east. Gaining a foothold there, the United States is embarking on the next stage of expansion with Poland and the regional anti-Russian military alliance around it to have the key part in that process. 

Why has U.S. chosen Poland for its continuing expansion into the East that has stumbled over Russia’s resistance in Ukraine? During the last three centuries, Poland has gained a reputation of a geopolitical victim in the region. Evidently, they try to recompense that geopolitical sacrifice with Warsaw’s special role in the new epoch. However, it has become a usual thing in Europe that U.S. participates in the leadership and financing of such military alliance formally led by Poland.  Otherwise, this will face national discrepancies in the region, embittered with the historical experience and the experience of Poland.

America’s strategy during the cold war was based on a system of preferential relations with the key states to deter the Soviet Union.  In Asia, it was Japan and South Korea, in Europe – Germany and Italy, in Eurasia – Turkey, and in the Middle East – Israel. U.S. is looking forward to repeat that with Poland now. 

Such decision is based on a range of circumstances. For instance, the U.S. troops in Europe have been reduced from 340,000 (at the end of the cold war) to about 30,000 in 2015 during the last twenty-five years. The United States cannot restore its erstwhile military presence in the short run. That is why, Washington justifies the idea of a mini-NATO in Central and Northern Europe with the fact that it cannot increase its military presence independently due to the limited resources and the growing problems on the other parts of the Earth, in particular in the Far East and Middle East.  Military buildup there may be very costly for the United States. Therefore, Washington chose Poland as its aide in supporting the regional security, though after preliminarily frightening it with the Ukrainian crisis. Washington’s refusal from its hegemony in Europe since the WWII may become an alternative to it.  However, Washington that is building a global empire will hardly do it.

The state ideology of the present-day Poland pursues “reunion” with the West. But Washington anticipates Poland to make more efforts to obtain deterrence posture along its eastern borders. After the aggression against Yugoslavia, NATO has officially “reconsidered” its responsibility zone going beyond collective defense. Instead of protecting its territory, NATO has expanded its tasks outside its responsibility zone, in fact, putting into practice the U.S. global hegemony. NATO’s European countries accepted Washington’s proposal to refuse from focusing on the territorial defense and increasing their expeditionary capacities instead. As NATO’s security strategy in Europe has changed, the European allies got an opportunity to reduce their expenses on defense at the same time increasing their expeditionary opportunities. Meantime, Poland continued participating in NATO’s overseas expeditions at the same time focusing on its territorial defense.

This has angered the public in Poland, as big financial resources were spent but the country’s defense capacity was left unchanged. For instance, Poland refused to participate in NATO’s military operation in Libya in 2011.

During the last 25 years, Polish regular army of 350,000 people has been replaced with a professional army of 100,000 troops. Such small army and reserves has faced harsh criticism inside Poland. Therefore, the country has recently announced formation of territorial defense troops. Actually, the decision pursued an increase of the reserve troops. Except Poland, all the other countries of the U.S.-initiated “defense belt” have small regular armies and army reserve. There is one more exception, Finland: the country is not a NATO member and has 230,000 army reserve. In May 2015, Finland slightly hinted at its army reserve when media reported that the authorities were ready to draft 90,000 Finnish reserve officers.

Some NATO countries in Central and Eastern Europe have reacted to the crisis in Ukraine. For instance, Lithuania has restored the regular army and conscription. The Baltic States have increased their defense budgets. As for Poland, yet before the crisis it tackled an ambitious plan of modernizing its defense capacities, including development of the air defense system, acquisition of air-to-surface missiles, attack and transport helicopters, as well as advanced diesel-electric submarines. Relying on the U.S.-made Patriot system, Poland voiced a regional approach to the air defense.  It is suggested that Poland with its Patriots protects not only its territory, but also other countries, the Baltics, first.

Relying on territorial defense for Poland means to organize the armed forces with a focus on land warfare against Russia. To that end, as envisioned by Washington, Poland will have to focus not only on defense of its territory, but also on coordination of the defense of the entire region. Actually, the United States will have to invest solid military resources and send troops to Poland. Warsaw is seeking to get a special status for the military industry of the United States. Although Poland is one of the key buyers of the U.S. military equipment in Europe, the direct investments of U.S. in Poland’s defense enterprises are at a very low level. Meantime, Warsaw believes that direct investments in the defense field would foster the technological development of Poland. Therefore, within the new military alliance, U.S. needs to provide military, economic, political, and diplomatic support to Poland and its allies in the region. Poland is being turned into the region’s display. It has already become an example for Ukraine to a greater extent, and for Belarus to a lesser extent.

In 2014, Stratfor founder George Friedman wrote about the United States’ anti-Russian strategy in Central and Eastern Europe and the allied near-border countries.  Now we can see that strategy being implemented with some modification when it comes to the Norther countries, the most important of which – Sweden and Finland - are not NATO members.

As envisaged by the strategists from Washington, at present, the “sanitary” line partly surrounding Russia from Europe consists of two groups: the Scandinavian states +Finland (in the north) and Poland + Baltic States (in the northwest).  Ideally, the line should not be interrupted up to Romania. However, it is abrupt, due to Hungary with its special stance and Slovakia and the Czech Republic that seek an agreement with Russia rather than confrontation. 

Farther to the south, as Friedman wrote, the anti-Russian front should have included Azerbaijan, Turkey and Bulgaria, but the circumstances have changed here, due to the interests of Turkey, a relatively independent actor.  Yet, the latest flare up in Nagorno-Karabakh gives U.S. hope to involve Azerbaijan into the anti-Russian alliance. On the other hand, EU’s energy strategy aimed against Russia requires relative stability on the possible way of the Iranian gas on the southern section of the anti-Russian line.

Actually, the countries Washington has chosen for the anti-Russian frontier “cordon” of Europe and NATO still lack a single military alliance due to a range of reasons. Both Sweden and Poland remember their geopolitical defeats by Russia in the 18th century, and for Poland there was a defeat in the 20th century too. This is a factor stimulating the alliance. However, since the beginning of the 19th century, Sweden preferred acting against Russia from behind-the-scenes. Therefore, there are no guarantees that Sweden is ready to depart from its role and take a more decisive military position.

In addition, solid political resources are necessary to unite the Northern (Swedish) and Northwestern (Poland-Baltics) groups.  Such possibilities create special financial and economic relations of the Baltic States with the Scandinavians, mostly Sweden, and of the Estonians with Finland.  The Baltic States do not trust in each other and their cooperation is not ideal. Poland and Estonia are the only countries from the anti-Russian military belt to spend 2% of their GDP on defense. However, this too seems insufficient to U.S., as that country would like them to spend at least 5% of their GDP on defense. How to achieve this: that is the question.

External threats have always sparked local nationalism and inter-state tensions in Central Europe. Basing on its historical experience, Poland, for instance, thinks it will lose, if its allies are small and weak countries in the region. Poland has reasonable grounds to suspect that the Baltic States are not reliable in the military conflict against Russia and that Russia and Germany will (again) achieve an agreement behind the back of Poland and the Baltic States.  On the other hand, the countries of Northern Europe and Baltic region fear the political unpredictability of Poland after Kaczyński's impulsive right-wind nationalists have replaced Donald Tusk’s reliable government.

Institutional mechanisms of regional military alliance could be a response to the distrust of the sides, but there are no such. It is not clear how to create them either. The council of the Baltic Sea states includes all the countries of the region, Russia and Germany, which is not in favor of the anti-Russian countries in the region. The cooperation of the Northern countries, in turn, leaves out the Baltic States, while the recently intensified Scandinavian-Baltic cooperation leaves out Poland.

As envisaged by Washington, besides Romania, Poland has to establish special allied relations with Sweden.  Poland together with Sweden have sufficient military potential necessary to create the basis of the anti-Russian security belt. U.S. may think that it will be easier to involve Sweden and Finland into the conflict against Russia if they join the regional defense alliance with Poland formally in the head rather than if they join NATO, amid public protests. NATO has no official commitments to Sweden and Finland. Sweden is not NATO’s ally, but it is one of its key and active partners. Sweden cooperates with NATO, but it is not involved in the Alliance’s system of collective security. Therefore, Sweden’s rapprochement with NATO is possible through its bilateral relations with Poland.  Foreign Ministers of Poland and Sweden, Radoslaw Sikorski and Carl Bildt, had acknowledged the common interests of their countries in promoting the European values in the post-Soviet countries when launching the Eastern Partnership project.  Both Poland and Sweden are looking to control the Baltic Sea. In the long-term outlook, Poland and Sweden could coordinate, if not integrate the elements of their marine modernization projects by creating interoperable combat platforms, for instance. Poland and Sweden could foster their cooperation in the field of air defense, as both the countries are modernizing their air defense systems. All this create a real basis for the Polish-Swedish cooperation in the defense field. It is simply necessary to formalize that cooperation.

Another goal of the Americans is to prevent Poland’s isolation in the vineyards of the regional diplomacy. Since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, Poland and its southern neighbors have been perceiving the “Russian threat” differently.

The statements by the Czech Republic Slovakia and Hungary over the Ukrainian crisis and the sanctions against Russia have disclosed the fundamental political difference between the countries of the Visegrad Group with regard to Russia. Hungary’s real policy and Poland’s ideological enmity towards Russia have put these countries on the opposite sides, amid Czech Republic’s hesitations and Slovakia’s carefulness.  In addition, Hungary’s policy towards Ukraine was based on the protection of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine.  This led to a situation when Poland preferred dealing with the Scandinavian and Baltic States and Romania rather than with its allies in the Visegrad Group when it came to security issues. 

The difference in the attitude towards Russia in the region comes from the historical experience, ideological motivation, tendency towards political cooperation and specific economic interests. Eventually, the Visegrad Group lacks a common interest in joint security.  It has turned out that in Central Europe, the political leadership lacks national consensus and general strategic comprehension of the regional security environment as well as a coinciding threat evaluation.  Part of the local politicians seeks to come out as mediators between Russia and the West through special economic deals with Russia. In addition, Poland’s military budget is twice as much as the aggregate military budget of the three other members of the Visegrad Group.  Poland’s military weight is obvious.

All these circumstances have affected the usefulness of the Visegrad format (V4) for Poland’s diplomacy and through them for U.S. too. Unlike Poland, the three other members of the Visegrad Group have understood that their potential commitments to NATO may affect the relations with Russia. This has created a temptation for historical reminiscence of an alternative regional group oriented at Austria to wage a more reserved security policy not influenced by the external powers.

U.S. anticipates V4 to become one of the instruments to be used to make equal the national interests of the NATO allies in Central Europe. The United States still has an opportunity to restrict the cooperation in the region against the joint military efforts of NATO.

Poland is the only country of the Visegrad Group that is a direct neighbor of Russia. With great discontent Warsaw looks at the Russian enclave in Kaliningrad and its military capabilities. Besides, Poland should take into account the factor of Belarus.

Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia inherently refuse from being part of the U.S.  plan of regional security with Poland in the head, as they think the attempt to fortify NATO’s “eastern flank” will increase the tensions in the relations of the West and the East. It is noteworthy that the special stance of the three countries of the Visegrad Group in the anti-Russian front resulted in two different NATO drills – Atlantic Resolve north and Atlantic Resolve South.

Despite the disagreements inside V4, Poland cannot refuse from its active geopolitical strategy in the region, but it cannot do it alone.  The expected presence of the U.S. and other allied troops in Poland and the Baltic States not only looks to deter Russia, but also encourage and motivate Poland to be more active in the region despite its disagreements with the southern neighbors.

By present, the United States and its allies have responded to the Ukrainian crisis with economic sanctions against Russia, a promise to increase military expenses, create a joint military task force of increased readiness, and provide one billion dollars for the need of the European security.  As for the Central and Eastern Europe specifically, at the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, U.S. sent twelve F-16 fighting falcons and three C-130 transport aircrafts to Poland. Six F-15 American fighter aircrafts and two refueling aircrafts were sent Poland’s neighbor Lithuania.  NATO announced that it will revise its defense plans for the Baltic States and Poland, develop a military readiness plan, assess threats, create mechanisms of joint use of the intelligence data, launch early prevention procedures and plan rapid response to crisis situations.

The United States said it will deploy NATO troops in Poland and the Baltics, though it will be relatively small contingents – 4 battalions.    It was already announced that heavy weapons depots will be created in the three Baltic States, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and, perhaps, in Hungary.  In June 2015, NATO decided to set up six operative headquarters in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. It was suggested to increase the rapid response troops from 13,000 to 40,000. Activities were launched in Poland to set up a regional headquarters in  Szczecin.

U.S. assigns a high priority to increasing the military capacity of Sweden, Finland, Baltic States, Poland and Romania to counteract Russia in the region. U.S. wants that the mini-NATO countries have their own offensive capacities. That is why, U.S. has supplied advanced AGM-158 JASSM air launched cruise missiles for F-16 falcons already supplied to Finland and Poland. These cruise missiles with a range of at least 400km can make highly-accurate attacks on important targets, such as command points, missile batteries, depots and supply bases. Poland’s contract for these missiles to be supplied in 2017 is $250 million. The strike potential of AGM-158A JASSM will make Russia deploy its air bases in the territory of Belarus beyond Berezina River.

In addition, U.S. has already supplied AGM-158 JASSM cruise missiles to Finland. For the first time in its history, Finland has a possibility to destroy targets deep in the territory of Russia, including Saint Petersburg.

On the ground area of war, Poland needs a certain number of tanks and light armored divisions. As long as there are no such, Washington will be supplying a big number of anti-tank guided weapons. To neutralize Russia’s artillery, U.S. is looking to supply Poland and its allies in the region with mobile counter battery radars that detect the positions of the artillery and mortars of the adversary.  These systems must be closely connected to their own mobile and long-range artillery tubes and multiple-launch rocket systems.

However, the present-day “Anaconda” strategy of the United States in the region has evident weak points. For instance, Poland’s security strategy is too dependent on international ties and the bloc it belongs to. When France and Germany agreed to ignore Poland at the beginning of the Minsk process, Poland had nothing to do but accept that insulting decision. In addition, the Ukrainian crisis has once again demonstrated that NATO is not a real military and political actor and it cannot do without U.S.

It is evident that Poland will not have a military capacity comparable to the one of Russia any time soon.  Warsaw is to pay generously to the American military industry for the weapons supplied to it. This restricts the independent actions of Poland.

The United States comes out as the key security guarantor of Poland.  Due to the developed strategic scheme of “buffer” and “bordering countries,” U.S. is looking to achieve the following advantages:

— To reduce its direct military involvement in Eastern and Central Europe. This interference will be possible only at the last stage of the conflict with Russia;

— Poland will have to carry out some modern security functions assigned to it by the United States;

— U.S. will increase control over Poland’s foreign policy and security policy. An asymmetric alliance implies a control over the subordinate partner;

— The factor of uncertainty concerning the U.S. interference (something the Baltics are so afraid of) will be reduced in the region;

— U.S. will get a new lever of influence on the European policy;

— U.S. will get one more preferred partner in the European continent.

At the same time, the idea of the regional alliance to deter Russia contains certain risks for the United States:

— The progressive erosion of NATO as parallel security mechanisms are created in Europe;

— Implementation of some of the advanced U.S. security measures by Poland in Europe;

— Reduction of Poland’s sovereignty due to the growing control over its foreign and security policies by the US, which may anger the Polish nationalists;

— The area of common security interests in the region is rather big for Poland and U.S. to cover and implement the planned strategy;

— The growing military treat will keep the new alliance united until a certain moment. At the highest point of the escalation, the member-states will prefer individual security strategies to their joint commitments;

— The U.S. support to the security of Central and Eastern Europe depends on the ratio of its global and national interests. When the ratio changes, U.S. will leave Poland with its new problems like it happened in Yalta. There is still a problem of the low regional potential and diversity, which impedes the formation of the new military alliance with Poland in the head. These negative factors cannot be overcome any time soon.

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