After Ukraine, Part III – Polish security & Russian aggression: the return of old fears?

By Andrzej Kozłowski:

A  Leopard II tank from the Polish Army during  Exercise Steadfast Jazz, a joint training operation for NATO forces, November 2013. Photo: Cpl. Madis Veltman / Estonian army (CC 2.0)
A Polish Leopard II tank takes up a position during Exercise Steadfast Jazz, a joint training operation for NATO forces, November 2013. Photo: Cpl. Madis Veltman / Estonian army (CC 2.0)

A history of difficult relations

Polish-Russian history is one of the most complex and difficult among all nations in the world. Polish troops were some of the only troops to have captured and occupied Moscow – in 1610 – and the day of ousting them from the Kremlin is celebrated as a national holiday in Moscow. Poland itself was occupied by Tsarist Russians for 123 years from 1795, and then again after 1945, when Poland was ruled by the puppet communist government controlled by Moscow.

This heavy historical burden has been reflected in bilateral relations since the beginning of the 1990s, primarily because both sides have used history for political purposes.

After the collapse of the USSR, Poland feared Moscow revisionism and warned against it. Even joining NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004 did not change this attitude. Because of this stance it was commonly viewed as the most anti-Russian country in both NATO and the EU.

This situation was eventually addressed by the Civic Platform, which won election in 2007; one of the main points of foreign policy of its Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Ministry of Foreign Affairs Radosław Sikorski was rapprochement with Russia. They made several political gestures to show their changing attitude. Sikorski also announced a new doctrine of foreign policy, more focused on joining the EU leadership and less focused on an active role in Eastern Europe. He even claimed that Russia could join NATO.

They ignored the signs from Moscow that it was not going to abandon its aggressive foreign policy, like the military drills in 2009 that simulated an invasion of Poland, which was imagined as the ‘aggressor’, or Russia’s failure to properly investigate the plane crash that killed the Polish President in 2010 over Smolensk.

Indeed, the Polish military and defense experts stopped seeing Moscow as a threat. In “Vision of Polish Armed Forces in 2030”, published in 2008, they concluded that in 20-25 years there would be no possibility of military aggression of one country against another in Central-Eastern Europe[i]. These opinions were repeated in Poland’s White Book of National Security, where again the authors suggested that the main challenge in Central-Eastern Europe would come from the non-military threats[ii]. At the same time, Poland ended conscription and focused on a small, professional army with a strength of 100,000 soldiers, aimed at conducting interventions abroad but not sufficiently strong to defend its own territory. These political and military movements have now been recognised as great mistakes in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

Poland as peacemaker 

Since the beginning of the Maidan clashes, Poland has been among the most active countries engaged in the Ukraine crisis. Politicians from both the ruling party and the opposition travelled to Kiev to support protestors and find a compromise between the Victor Yanukovych Regime and the opposition. Polish citizens were also involved in supporting those people protesting against the Ukrainian President at Maidan and in other Ukrainian cities. They sent packages with medicine, food and other necessary things.

What’s more, young people from Poland and Ukraine created a human chain on the Polish-Ukrainian border checkpoint to show their support for the signing of an association agreement with the EU. Eventually Radosław Sikorski took part in negotiating a deal between the opposition and the Ukrainian President, which finished with Yanukovych’s escape.

But what seemed to be the end of the crisis turned out to be just the beginning. The Russian Federation reacted aggressively to the change of government in Kiev and accused Western countries, among them Poland, of training the opposition. The aftermath of the annexation of Crimea was then hybrid warfare in Eastern Ukraine.

At the same time Russia increased the frequency of its military exercises and their rhetoric became much more aggressive. The Ukraine crisis started to be perceived as a potential threat to Polish security, which, according to the authors of the previously mentioned strategic document, was almost unimaginable.

Changes in security policy after Crimea

The Polish authorities had two main tasks in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine. The first was to increase the military power of its army. The second was to guarantee that members of NATO would fulfill their obligations in case of an armed attack. This was at a time when more and more people were becoming skeptical about the readiness of the Alliance to defend Poland.[iii] The best option to gain security assurance was to persuade its allies to send their military forces to Poland.

To increase the military power of its army Poland adopted a New National Security Strategy, which described Russia and its unpredictable behavior as a key danger for Europe and stated that regional conflicts could not be excluded. These changes have also been made in the minds of the main policymakers. The Head of the National Security Bureau, Generał Koziej, clearly warned against the hybrid warfare conducted by Russia. Also, according to survey polls done by all-Poland research center Ariadna, more than half the population feared Russian invasion. This perceived threat has allowed the government to increase military expenditure and buy new equipment without significant opposition.

Poland started a 10-year program of army modernization (2013–2022) worth $35 billion USD and has already bought JASMM cruise-missiles to have an ability to reach Russian bases in Belarus and Kaliningrad Oblast. The next purchases covered 32 new attack helicopters, 70 medium-lift utility helicopters, 97 drones, new tanks and armored vehicles, three submarines and an anti-missile system.[iv] Poland also contacted the United States to inquire about buying Tomahawk cruise missiles[v].

Polish authorities have considered different options to try to increase the number of people who have military training, given their concerns over the small size of their army and their inability to create a reserve system.

One option is compulsory military service, although there is little chance this will be restored. The idea is still unpopular in Poland and, with presidential elections this month, followed in 5 months by parliamentary elections, politicians will be wary of such bold reforms.

Yet 600,000 Poles have received military training in volunteer paramilitary organizations. Indeed, the private sector has expressed an interest in this issue and has announced that 100 companies are ready and eager to set up their own paramilitary organizations; half of them have also declared an eagerness to fund the creation of volunteer fighting groups.[vi]

Since it first joined NATO, Poland has tried to persuade the other members to set up military bases on Polish soil. However, limited by the agreements with Russia from 1997[vii] and afraid of provoking Moscow, Poland’s proposals were rejected. In the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, Poland strengthened diplomatic pressure on its partners; it even invoked Article 4 of the Washington Treaty[viii] for only the fourth time in NATO’s history.

The result was not what Poland were after: instead of setting up permanent military structures on Polish territory, NATO decided to send additional airplanes, organized more military drills, and setup a rotational presence of ground forces until the end of the crisis. The United States also organized a march of its cavalry brigade to show solidarity with the citizens of the Eastern Flank of NATO.

The results of the NATO Wales Summit also left Poland somewhat disappointed, although the decision to create a spearhead headquarters in Poland was acclaimed by experts and politicians. In fact, it seems that NATO, and particularly the United States, took Poland’s anxiety seriously and have made several steps to assure Poland that it can count on NATO in case of an attack.


The Ukrainian crisis was profoundly significant for Poland and its security. It is a reminder of the darkest part of Polish history, when Russia attacked and captured Poland. It also shows that Polish rapprochement with Moscow has collapsed completely. The changes in military expenditure and the increasing pace of military buildup only confirm that Polish politicians and society do care about their own security and remember their own history. The only question is whether it is too late for such military reforms.

Poland still has time. Russia has cooled its activity in Ukraine and, even if it decides to continue the offensive, the next probable target would be the Baltic States. More importantly, no one in NATO will now claim that Polish demands to strengthen the military presence of the Alliance in Poland stem from Polish Russophobia. The policymakers in NATO have slowly come to accept this reality. The Ukraine crisis may ultimately contribute to increasing the security of Poland by resulting in a significant NATO presence on Polish soil.

Andrzej Kozlowski is a PhD candidate at the Department of Transatlantic Studies and Mass Media in the Faculty of International and Political Studies at the University of Lodz. He is an expert at Polish think-thanks Kosciuszko Institute, the foundation of Aleksander Kwaśniewski Amicus Europae, and The Casimir Pulaski Foundation. He is vice-chair of the Security Section in the Polish newspaper “Stosunki Międzynarodowe” (International Relations). His area of interests include cybersecurity, the South Caucasus region, and the foreign and security policy of the United States. He was an intern in the European Parliament, the Polish embassy at the Hague, the National Security Bureau, and the Polish Institute of International Affairs.

This article is part of a Strife series entitled ‘Russia and the World following Ukraine’. The series has examined the global reaction to the crisis in the Ukraine. In the last part of the Series, Sebastian Åsberg will examine the debate regarding NATO membership in neutral Sweden and Finland, which has intensified significantly as a result of the war in Ukraine. In the first article of the series, Mike Jones discussed Britain’s handling of the Ukraine crisis and why it has not received more attention in the UK. In the second articleConradin Weindl looked into the relationship between the European Union and Russia in the wake of the war in Ukraine.


[i]Vision of Polish Armed Forces 2030 , p. 10,

[ii]The White Book of National Security of Republic of Poland Polish Security, November 2013,p. 7 – 17.

[iii] More than 30% of people claims that NATO will not help Poland.

[iv]Details of this program you will find in this article.

[v] The only country, which is using this weapon expect the United States is Great Britain.

[vi]More on this issue in this article.

[vii] On the basic of NATO Russia Founding Act in 1997 NATO pledged not to deploy significant military forces to former Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union members.

[viii] „The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened”-The North Atlantic Treaty.

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