Kremlin’s Aggression on High Alert by Poland in Absence of INF Treaty

by Paweł Markiewicz

Wypowiedzenie traktatu INF przez Stany Zjednoczone i Federację Rosyjską zaostrzyło stanowisko reszty członków NATO wobec Moskwy. Po raz pierwszy sojusznicy jednoznacznie uznali, że Kreml łamie traktat. Jako członek NATO i sojusznik Stanów Zjednoczonych Polska popiera decyzję Ameryki lecz widzi dalsze zagrożenia ze strony Moskwy. Aby zapewnić bezpieczeństwo kraju i regionu Europy Środkowo-Wschodniej, Polska dąży do umocnienia relacji obronnych ze Stanamy Zjednoczonymi, starając się o stałą bazę wojskową na terenie Polski oraz poprzez zakup nowoczesnego sprzętu obronnego.

 

How Poland is reacting and what it is doing to guarantee regional security and defense?

Even though the Cold War is often something which seems to be distant history, recent events have prompted some observers to see the genesis of a modern Cold War between the United States and the Kremlin.

First it is necessary to recall the past. On December 8, 1987 the United States and the then Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty – a document in which both parties pledged to eliminate land-based ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and missile launchers (short-medium range of 310-620 miles and intermediate range of 620-3,420 miles). Signed between Soviet President and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Ronald Reagan in the White House, and officially coming into force in June 1988, the INF Treaty was seen as a major step toward limiting perhaps the greatest fear of the Cold War era, nuclear annihilation and mutual destruction. As of May 1991 both nations eliminated a total of 2,692 missiles with a 10-year period of on-site verification inspections.

In the wake of further worsening US-Russian relations, the INF Treaty once again made news as President Donald Trump declared the United States would withdraw from it, claiming Russian non-compliance. The Kremlin violated the treaty by, for example, deploying their new SSC-8 cruise missiles whose maximum range of 310 miles infringes upon the ceiling agreed to in the treaty. Iskander missiles were among the land, sea and air-based weapon system whose range also exceeds 310 miles. Perhaps most worrying is the fact that these weapons can be armed with nuclear warheads. Based in Russia’s Kaliningrad oblast which borders Poland and Lithuania – two NATO and EU memebers – the Iskander’s can reach those capitals as well as Berlin.

The Kremlin countered US claims with ones of their own. It accused the US of deploying and installing Aegis Ashore anti-missile facilities in Romania and eventually in Poland. Both could be used as cruise missile launchers. NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg claimed Kremlin comments of US installations in Romania and soon to be in Poland are mere attempts at turning attention away from the real problem which he sees in Kremlin treaty excesses. The culmination of the accusations and claims was the mutual suspension of the INF Treaty by both the United States (on February 1, 2019) and the Kremlin (February 2, 2019). NATO allies supported the US decision, unanimously underscoring the Kremlin’s INF excesses.

Perhaps most alarming for Poland and other countries located within striking distance of the Kremlin’s missile arsenal is the fact that the mutual withdrawal from the INF Treaty created a gaping security hole. For Poland specifically, new fears of Kremlin aggression and sabre rattling resurfaced and have caused much concern. Poland is one of America’s largest and strongest allies in Central Europe. Conversely, it is also one of the most vulnerable countries in the region due to its rather unfortunate geographic position on the European continent.

For Poles, the past proves to be the lesson which guides mistrust toward the Kremlin today. The Polish psyche recalls the turbulence of modern Polish-Russian/Soviet relations: the Polish-Soviet War of 1920 in which the spread of communism west was abruptly halted by a Polish military victory on the Vistula River; the 1937-1938 Polish Operation conducted on orders of Stalin by the Soviet secret police (NKVD) against Poles living in the USSR deemed “foreign agents.” Over 111 thousand were summarily executed in this ethnic witch hunt. Then there is the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of August 1939, the dual partition of Poland in September 1939 by Nazi Germany and the USSR; the deportation of thousands of Poles to hard labor in Siberia or Kazakhstan. The massacre of over 22 thousand Polish army officers at the hands of the NVKD in the Katyń Forest and other locations, as well as its cover-up during and after the war, resonates to this day. And of course the postwar implementation of pro-Soviet regimes and over 40 years of communist rule remind many Poles to look at the Kremlin in very skeptical, even hostile terms. The Nordstream I and soon to be Nordstream II gas pipelines also illustrate that the Kremlin is expanding its economic influence in Western Europe at the expense of Central Europe.

This is not all. The Kremlin’s suspension of the INF Treaty means that they can openly build what has until now been a forbidden arsenal, including an expansion of SSC-8 cruise missile installations. This coupled with other missile systems could serve as a further means of intimidating NATO states. Without a formal agreement like the INF Treaty, such intimidation would place Poland in a more precarious and possibly dangerous position.

Poland learned from this bitter history and has done much to protect its interests and geopolitical position in Europe. It entered NATO and the European Union, it was recently upgraded to the status of a developing market, and has made steps toward guaranteeing itself and the other nations of Central Europe energy independence from the Kremlin by leading the Three Seas Initiative. These strides are turning Poland into an up-and-coming regional power.

With memories still fresh and possible threats looming it is no surprise that Poland has been petitioning the US for a greater troop presence on NATO’s eastern flank. Besides the historical lessons, Poles also see modern acts of Kremlin aggression against Georgia and Ukraine as well as constant provocations in the Baltic Sea region have propelled Poland to petition the US for a larger, permanent troop presence and base – the so-called “Fort Trump.” To date Battle Group Poland consists of some 1,100 soldiers, primarily from the US but also from the United Kingdom, Croatia and Romania. Stationed in northeastern Poland some 35 miles from the Kaliningrad oblast, the battle group is prepared to defend NATO partners, especially in the Baltic States and the Suwałki Corridor, on short notice.

In petitioning for Fort Trump, the Poles declared a willingness in the past to pay up to $2 billion to make it happen in exchange for permanent US troops to act as a deterrent to any acts of Kremlin aggression.

A home for a permanent US military base is not all that Poland is willing to offer as an incentive for the US. Thanks to its developing economy, Poland has pledged to contribute over 2 percent of its GDP for NATO expenses by the year 2020. Besides this, Poland has become a consumer of US military weapons. On February 13 Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak, in the presence of Vice President Mike Pence, signed-off a contract to purchase Lockheed’s High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS); a deal worth $414 million. Poland’s first division will consist of 18 combat-ready launchers and two training launchers. Polish President Andrzej Duda hailed the deal as a subsequent example of Poland defending itself and the free world with modern weapons systems. In mentioning Poland’s 20th anniversary of entering NATO, Pence reaffirmed the US commitment to stand shoulder to shoulder with Poland “to defend freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights.”

Poland’s geographic position in Central Europe places it in what analysts see as a constant Kremlin military threat. This means both, a conventional threat as well as a hybrid one. The Kremlin has on numerous occasions shown that it is capable of conducting successful hybrid attacks on Eastern as well as Western European countries and is on track to continue this form of aggression. Specialists believe that we are in the course of an undeclared technological war. As a US ally, developing EU member and NATO partner, Poland is undertaking a political line which can guarantee it security and defense in the wake of Kremlin aggression and revisionism.  By working to strengthen its security and defense measures as well as other projects such as the Three Seas Initiative, Poland will be better able to safeguard its sovereignty on its own by ensuring a prosperous future for itself. Furthermore it will be an even stronger ally for the US in Central Europe.

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PawelPaweł Markiewicz specializes in 20th century East-Central European history. He earned his Ph.D. in modern European history at Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland. He comments on historical and modern events in that region.

 

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