Thinking about the enhancement of Poland’s security in the context of its membership of NATO, I look into the future with a great deal of optimism. It is inspired primarily by the outcome of the NATO summit last July, which Poland had the privilege to host. The decisions taken at that meeting of the Alliance’s leaders, one of the most important in the past quarter-century, strengthen NATO for many years to come, preparing its members for the present and foreseeable threats.
Obviously, no one claims that the threats faced by Poland and the entire Alliance have gone away. Russia continues its aggressive policy of blackmail and provocation, seeking to restore its sphere of influence in the post-Soviet area. And the global South suffers from growing instability stoked—especially in Syria—by criminal Islamic extremism and Russian support for a dictator responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. This means that the Warsaw Summit decisions must be implemented swiftly and effectively.
Universal Nature of the Warsaw Summit Decisions
As a result of the Warsaw decisions, Poland and the whole Alliance will be better prepared to respond to all challenges, whatever their geographical origin or character. The summit played an important role in bolstering the security of all member states, and the decisions taken during its course have enhanced the Alliance’s capability to fulfil its essential core tasks. These tasks include collective defence, out-of-area operations and cooperation with partner states and international organisations towards improving the international security environment. It would thus be mistaken to interpret the Warsaw decisions as being only about preparations for a hypothetical defence of the Alliance’s eastern frontiers. One would be equally wrong perceiving Poland as a country that only wants the Alliance to focus on collective defence. During preparations for the summit, while performing the prestigious role of the host, Poland pronounced itself in favour of a multidimensional approach to the Warsaw decisions.
Back into Balance with NATO’s Essential Core Tasks
Surely, the universal nature of the summit decisions should not be taken to mean that individual member states did not enter the debates with their own detailed agendas. Poland and the other Eastern Flank countries set their sights on two major goals: regaining balance in the fulfilment of all three essential core tasks and having the member states’ forces stationed more evenly throughout the whole NATO area (thus finally getting rid of NATO’s division into “old” and “new”). Both of these goals of strategic importance to Poland are reflected in the decisions of the NATO summit.
It may be recalled that 2014 saw not only Russia’s aggression against Ukraine but also the end of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, which at its peak saw the deployment of more than 100,000 NATO troops, including over 2,000 from Poland. Thus, 2014 capped off a dozen years of the Alliance’s involvement in out-of-area crisis-management operations. The process started of a gradual improvement in Allied deterrence and defence mechanisms and, fortunately, produced its first results at the Wales Summit in Newport, even if these were largely meant to provide assurance to Allies in our region about NATO’s readiness to defend its members. Further-reaching decisions came with the Warsaw Summit.
Enhanced Forward Presence
One element in strengthening NATO’s deterrence and defence posture in our region is the so-called enhanced forward presence. The summit’s decision to this effect is of key importance for Poland but also represents a breakthrough for the whole Alliance by changing the defence arrangements and ending the division into “old” and “new” NATO. Previously, support was to be provided by sending reinforcements, primarily the NATO Response Force and, if needed, also Follow-on Forces. The reinforcement concept remains in place, but starting this year it is amended to include the deployment of four battalion-size battle groups—some 1,000 troops each—to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. This will help the Alliance in defending these countries, especially in case of a sudden, unexpected attack.
The decision to pre-position battle groups on the eastern flank was a necessity. With their multinational composition and robust combat capabilities, these forces should perform the deterrence function, making it clear that an attack on one Ally would be considered an attack on the whole Alliance from the get-go. They should also be combat-ready right from the beginning, even in case of sudden aggression. Russia, with its actions in Ukraine, has flaunted its disrespect for neighbours’ territorial integrity, and so the forward presence of NATO battalions sends that country a signal about the grave consequences that would follow if it transgressed the borders of a member state. It also shows that NATO considers it a priority to respond to the region’s long-standing military disproportion in Russia’s favour.
For enhanced forward presence to be effective, it should be incorporated into the Allied chain of command, and therefore Poland has called for an Allied division-level multinational command to be set up on its territory. The command will increase NATO’s collective defence capability in the region and so it is important that in peacetime this structure be ready to assume command of the battle groups and the NATO Response Force deployed as reinforcements in Poland.
Other Elements of the Strengthened Deterrence and Defence Posture
The need for improvement of NATO’s collective defence capability transcends the decision on enhanced forward presence. The Allies must be prepared to send and receive bigger forces required for large-scale operations. Such capabilities were largely lost after the end of the Cold War when many Allies came to believe that the security situation in Europe would durably improve and that the outbreak of an armed conflict was implausible. Consequently, defence budgets were drastically cut and heavy armaments (especially in armoured corps) were abandoned in favour of light weapons, required in crisis-management operations outside Europe. Also, exercises involving the transfer of large forces between member states were discontinued and administrative constraints emerged with respect to the rapid movement of Allied forces across NATO’s internal borders.
The member states now agree about the need for improving the capability to command large defence operations, affiliating forces to commands, and keeping an adequately trained force and adequately enhanced battlefield capability. Important decisions towards this goal—taken at the summits in Newport and, especially, Warsaw—include the ongoing functional review of the NATO Command Structure, covering, for example, the key command centres at Mons, Brunssum and Naples. Its objective is to find out if the present command structure makes it possible to fully fulfil its tasks. If the answer is “no”—and such is the Polish diagnosis—concrete decisions on what should be done will be taken this year(which may necessitate setting up the structure’s new elements, for example, in our region).
Apart from all this, other measures must be taken as well. Most importantly, adequate financial resources must be channelled to defence. The commitment taken in Wales is 2% of GDP, with one-fifth of those resources going to modernisation.
Polish Contribution to a Stronger Alliance
Poland has met the 2% GDP criterion. It has detailed plans for armed forces’ modernisation and for a new segment of the armed forces—the Territorial Defence force, well trained and equipped—which will enhance the defence capability of this country and consequently of the whole NATO.
Poland is aware of its responsibility for the security of other Allies. I already mentioned the division-level command that will raise the Alliance’s capability to effectively defend the Suwałki Gap, which means defending Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. We also have plans to send a company to the battalion-size battle group in Latvia, where Canada is the framework nation. Another company-size unit will be deployed to Romania, thus reinforcing the Alliance’s land presence in that segment of the Eastern Flank. Poland provides support for southern Allies through the Aegean Sea operation (where a Polish frigate was deployed in July-August 2016) and the coalition operation against the so-called Islamic State (IS/ISIS/ISIL).
Cooperation with the European Union and Partner States
After NATO, the European Union is a second organisation of importance for Poland with respect to strategy questions. The EU is currently facing the challenge of strengthening its Common Security and Defence Policy, which should help improve the security of the whole of Europe. But this process must complement—not compete with—NATO’s adaptation effort. The Allied Command Structure and NATO’s defence planning mechanism play an important role in ensuring that NATO members that are simultaneously Member States of the European Union—the bulk of NATO membership—are capable of conducting a full spectrum of military operations, including collective defence operations. This must be taken into account in the development of the European Union’s defence capabilities.
After the Warsaw Summit, there are real prospects for the Alliance and the EU to establish practical cooperation in such areas as defence against hybrid and cyber threats, and in the coordination of operations. It is also important that NATO’s relations with partner states be tightened up, especially as regards the Baltic Sea region (Sweden, Finland) and those directly threatened by Russian policies (Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine).
Following the decisions of the Warsaw Summit we can look to the future with hope. But these decisions must be implemented in full and speedily, as Poland has been urging in the NATO forum. They require translation into a host of detailed arrangements. Poland has actively been contributing to the process while using this opportunity to cite the core message of the summit decisions, namely the strengthening of NATO security in the face of present and foreseeable threats.
In this context, there is an important question of maintaining regional solidarity. The Baltic states, Visegrad Group members, Romania and Bulgaria should support each other and act towards enhancing the Alliance’s capability to defend the region. In an important initiative planned for this year, land force company-size units from Visegrad Group members will conduct training in Baltic states. This is proof of regional solidarity, which also must fit in with Allied solidarity. We therefore seek to win over the Visegrad partners to the idea already embraced by Poland that in coming years their effort should become a durable element of NATO’s enhanced forward presence. An opportunity to intensify regional cooperation will be provided by the so-called tailored forward presence—aimed to increase the security of Bulgaria and Romania—to which Poland will send a company-size unit. All these efforts will increase the effectiveness and reliability of NATO going forward.
Tomasz Szatkowski is an Undersecretary of State in the Ministry of National Defence of Poland.