Once the subject of sneering indictments from EU bureaucrats, Warsaw will shortly be in the top class of Western military forces
IVOR ROBERTS 17 February 2023 • 6:00pm
It doesn’t seem so long ago that Poland was regarded as the problem child of the EU, a “dirty Remainer” whose constitutional tribunal ruled that fundamental parts of EU law do not trump its national constitution. How different things are now, with Poland assuming the role of bastion of Western defence – a key nation in the front line of the battle against Putin’s Russia. Warsaw has consistently been at the forefront of support for Kyiv: diplomatically, military, but also morally, as it copes with the largest number of Ukrainian refugees.
Andrzej Duda, the Polish president, is currently on what he describes as a “diplomatic offensive”, holding talks with Nato leaders to stiffen support for Ukraine in advance of President Biden’s visit to Poland next week, marking the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion. Duda’s talks in London on Thursday and Friday with Rishi Sunak and the King will have been preaching to the converted. But this trip was also a missed opportunity: we should have emphasised the need for a new special relationship between London and Warsaw. A new axis in European diplomacy and defence.
At this weekend’s Munich Security Conference, conversations with Chancellor Scholz of Germany and President Macron of France will flow less smoothly. Warsaw has been openly critical of both leaders for being willing to talk to Putin (which is like talking to Adolf Hitler, says Duda), and for their general reluctance to provide strong concrete support for Ukraine. Duda’s recent announcement that he was prepared to send German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine whether Berlin agreed or not was just the latest diminution in their relationship.
More importantly, it showed that Poland does not need the EU’s two main powers. No, it wants to become a power of its own. And it has every right to pursue that. Warsaw can reasonably claim to have acted as a catalyst for Western Nato unity in the wake of Russia’s aggression. Far from suffering “brain death” as President Macron described Nato only three years ago, the alliance is alive and very much kicking with traditionally neutral Sweden and Finland lining up to join.
And Poland will soon become an indispensable European military power in its own right. The country aims to create Europe’s largest land army: 300,000 combat troops up from its current 114,000. The Polish armed forces are being modernised at pace. The defence budget is set to reach 4 per cent of GDP from its present 2.4 per cent. Poland has roughly three times as many main battle tanks as the UK (647 to 227), and has on order hundreds of new US Abrams tanks and 1,000 K2 tanks from South Korea.
Naturally, then, Biden’s visit will be the first time a US president has come twice within one year. Beyond signalling the high importance now attached to US-Polish relations, there will also be the occasion of a summit of the so-called Bucharest Nine, the eastern flank of Nato.
Biden can expect to be pressed to provide air support to counter the anticipated Russian aerial onslaught this spring. While the US president will probably maintain some ambiguity over any precise commitment, he will almost certainly endorse Poland’s lofty ambitions to be a leading Nato player and laud the country’s commitment to a substantial increase in defence spending.
Washington has for decades complained about the failure of European governments to meet the agreed Nato commitment to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence. Poland, aiming to move to 4 per cent, will go from being an EU problem child to top of the Nato European class.
Sir Ivor Roberts is a former British ambassador to Yugoslavia, Ireland and Italy, and former president of Trinity College Oxford
There is a race against time. Forget about all the talk of the putinazis being incompetently led, badly supplied, corrupt and low in morale; they always have been, but they are still a gigantic headache.
It falls on Poland and the U.K. to do more. The Visegrad should be fully militarized and augmented. Kick out fascist Hungary and add Ukraine.
The existing tripartite agreement with Ukraine, Poland and the U.K. must now be fully militarized too.
Britain and Poland must be prepared to provide air cover for Ukraine.
“Poland is now the leading power of Europe”
And rightfully so. As Poland took the lead in helping Ukraine, the other “leading powers” of Europe, sans the UK, had surrendered their role as leaders and opted instead to swim in the stinking sewage of appeasement. They have tried to catch up since then, but still are way behind brave Poland.
Poland has taken a leading role in the European response to Putin’s invasion.
Since the invasion began, Poland has welcomed more Ukrainian refugees than any other European country, while also providing a range of benefits such as access to healthcare and education along with employment possibilities. During the past year, the Polish authorities have registered more than 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees.
Poland is also a leading contributor of military aid to Ukraine. In per capita terms, Poland has actually sent more military aid to Ukraine than virtually any country other than the Baltic states and plays a vital role in the logistical efforts to deliver international military aid to Ukraine.
Diplomatically, Poland has been at the forefront of calls for tougher sanctions against Russia. Most recently, Polish leaders pressed Berlin to deliver German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and allow others to do so. When German Chancellor Olaf Scholz hesitated, Poland threatened to export dozens of German-made Leopard tanks in defiance of German re-export restrictions. “We will not just watch Ukraine bleed,” commented Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. “It now depends on Germany whether they want to join the mission and stop Russian barbarism, or whether they choose to silently observe and go down in history as those who were on the wrong side.”
Poland has assumed a position of moral leadership on issues of European security. This has included criticism of Austria and Hungary for allegedly pandering to Putin. Poland has also called out Germany for foot-dragging over sanctions. In April 2022, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki accused Germany of “standing in the way” of harder sanctions against Russia. “Anyone who reads the notes of EU meetings knows that Germany is the biggest impediment when it comes to more decisive sanctions,” he told journalists in Warsaw.