Monday, April 21, 2014

US-Polish Ties and the Ukrainian Situation

Since the end of the Cold War, one of the most remarkable yet unsurprising shifts in east-west affiliation has been that of Poland.  While Poland was staunchly behind the Iron Curtain following World War 2, in the decades since it has become a staunch member of NATO and it will be a key member of the alliance in any defense maneuvering conducted counter to future Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Polish flag flying above the ruins of Monte Cassino, 1943
The Polish Army, crushed between the German and Soviet war machines, fought far more effectively on the ground than Americans generally believe them to have done, but were nevertheless defeated rapidly.  Many of the best Polish officers were murdered in captivity by the Soviets in the Katyn Forest, and democratic sentiment in Poland was severely weakened when the Germans put down the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.  The city was almost completely destroyed, and Stalin prevented the Soviet 1st Army from coming the the aid of the Polish Resistance, wanting for them to be destroyed.  Despite these setbacks, however, the Polish Army (fighting from abroad after the fall of Poland) contributed the fifth most soldiers to the Allied war effort and the Polish Air Force scored an impressive 769 kills against the Germans.

Resistance fighters patrol the streets of Warsaw, 1944
The Polish people were always reluctant members of the Eastern Bloc, but Poland was solidly behind the Iron Curtain.  While there were minor armed and unarmed opposition groups against Soviet-enforced Communist political dominance, they accomplished little before the Solidarity movement in the 80's which eventually overthrew the Communist government in the 1990 election, the first after World War 2 to be even partially free and fair.  Following the 1990 elections, Poland transitioned rapidly and effectively to a democratic government and market economy.  In 1995, they became the first formed Warsaw Pact country to surpass their pre-1989 high GDP, and today Polish citizens enjoy first class political and personal rights.  

Polish Air Force F-16C, 2013
Given this history, it's not surprising that Poland has sought to align itself towards Europe and against Russia.  They joined NATO in 1998, and the EU in 2004, and have lobbied extensively for greater integration of the European community.  Their military has begun the process of transitioning to Western-sourced equipment:  they have purchased MRAPs and F-16C’s from the US, and their general-issue infantry rifle is a Kalashnikov variant chambered for the 5.56 NATO cartridge (although it does not use NATO standard magazines).

Beryl Assault Rifle

Poland sent land, air, and sea forces to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, totaling the fourth largest overall contribution.  Polish special forces were instrumental in securing Iraqi oil wells intact, as well as taking the port of Umm Qasr.  Polish GROM special forces troops train closely with US Navy SEALS and other SOCOM operators, and have conducted numerous counter-insurgency missions alongside American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Polish GROM and US Navy SEALS conduct a joint training exercise, 2008

Poland was also apparently involved in helping to coordinate and train some of the Euromaidan protestors who were largely responsible for the fall of President Yanukovych’s government.  I do not consider these reports to be 100% verifiable, but I do consider them to be credible.  While most of the reports have been negative, calling the protestors putschists or neo-Nazis, these efforts clearly align with both Polish and American interests:  Poland is deeply committed to Europeanization, and opposed to increased Russian influence in its border nations.  Training members of the pro-European opposition in Ukraine would clearly benefit their interests.

Secretary Hagel speaks about wargames in Poland, 2014
At present, the US is preparing to deploy air and ground forces to Poland in response to the Ukrainian crisis.  Secretary Hagel emphasized that his priority is to de-escalate the crisis, and that US troops in Poland were not meant to threaten Russia.  Nevertheless, this must be interpreted as a show of American support not just for de-escalation but also for pro-Western interests in both Poland and Ukraine, as well as a reaffirmation of the US's willingness to stand by its NATO allies in Eastern Europe.  An additional 12 F-16's and 10 F-15's will be deployed to Poland for Baltic operations in addition to group forces.

US Airmen participate in a ceremony to mark US-Polish military cooperation, 2014
Furthermore, the US is planning major war games in Poland involving the US military as well as armed forces from several central and eastern European nations.  Poland will of course be participating, as well as detachments from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.  Speaking about the exercise, Vice President Biden said that they were intended to reassure Poland and the Baltic countries that the US remains a "steadfast ally".

No matter its affiliation, Poland has played an important role in all the east/west conflicts of Europe in the recent past.  Given current events, it is certain to continue to do so.  Considering Russian ambitions in Eastern Europe, the US and Poland should continue to strengthen their partnership.

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