Poland is shaping up to be at the centre of a potential clash between NATO and Russian forces. According to a proposal by Poland’s Defence Ministry, the Polish government could offer up to $2 billion in funding for a permanent US military presence on Polish territory. In response, Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Russian government, stated that if the Americans accepted this offer by Poland, it could ‘lead to counteraction from the Russian side.’
This latest fallout between Poland and Russia comes at a time of growing tension between the two countries. Radio Poland has reported that the ‘Polish security services have detained a Russian citizen and banned four people from entering the country after cracking down on a network waging a hybrid and information war masterminded by Moscow’ with the objective of destabilising the Polish state.
A quick look at the history of foreign relations in the post-Cold War period shows why today’s poor Russian-Polish relationship has the potential to turn Poland into a NATO-Russian flashpoint. Since the Poles joined NATO in 1999, they have developed a strong strategic partnership with the United States.
Professor Justnya Zajac of the University of Warsaw points out that ‘maintaining America’s political and military presence in Europe has been imperative from Poland’s point of view. In Warsaw, the United States was seen as a security stabiliser and a state whose presence in Europe secured a desirable balance of power.’ Poland’s expression of such a deep commitment to advancing American geopolitical interests in Europe has caused consternation in Russia. The Russians fear that the strong Polish diplomatic connection to the US leaves their enclave of Kaliningrad Oblast exposed to NATO advances.
Piotr Buras and Adam Balcer from the European Council on Foreign Relations note that ‘Russia sees Kaliningrad as a vulnerable outpost because it is surrounded by the most “hawkish” NATO member states (Lithuania and Poland)…if the conflict were to escalate, Russia would probably want to neutralise Poland by occupying the Polish-Lithuanian border region (the Suwalki corridor) located between Kaliningrad and Belarus.’ In response to what is perceived as NATO’s “hawkish” actions as Poland establishes a special relationship with the Americans, Russia has transformed Kaliningrad into a deeply militarised corner in north-east Europe.
The stage is therefore set for a potential confrontation between NATO and Russia on Polish territory that is not dissimilar to the case of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014.
There are troubling similarities between Russian interests in Ukraine in 2014 and the current row between Poland and Russia. The RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank, published a report in 2017 that found that, just as Poland today faces a potential Russian military threat along its north-eastern border with Kaliningrad, Russia ‘had forces in place at its Black Sea Fleet’ that threatened Crimea.
Another similarity between the Polish-Russian clash and the 2014 Ukrainian case is a ‘Russian information campaign accompanying its military movements.’ This is illustrated by the Polish government having established a new wing of Poland’s military known as the Territorial Defence Forces, which is specifically designed to confront Russia’s spread of false information. What happened to Ukraine at the hands of the Russians could happen again to Poland.
However, what makes the difficult relationship between Russia and Poland even more worrying for European security than Russia’s interference in Ukraine is the fact that, unlike Ukraine, Poland is a NATO member state. As a NATO member, Poland is part of its system of collective security enshrined by Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that an ‘armed attack against one’ NATO member state ‘shall be considered an attack against them all.’
If Russian troops stationed in Kaliningrad were to invade Poland, under Article 5 Russia would be taking on all of the member states of NATO, which most importantly includes the United States.