During the Trump administration, Poland requested that the U.S. establish a military base on Polish territory with the intention of further deterring Russia, according to Reuters. This request occurred in 2018 – two years after the Russian annexation of Crimea and just four years before Moscow renewed its assault on Ukraine.
The base didn’t come to fruition at that time. But with Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, Poland has once again looked for defense assurances from Washington. In June 2022, the Biden administration announced that it would permanently place the 5th Army’s Headquarters in Poland and ramp up military forces across Europe, according to Notes from Poland.
With a permanent presence in Poland, the U.S. provides what Warsaw has long sought – an ally powerful enough to safeguard the Polish people from European or Asian invaders. Poland has had capable militaries in its history, but the nation is smaller than its neighbors Russia and Germany, who have subjugated Poland in the past.
The Russian assault on Ukraine has gifted to Warsaw a capable military alliance that now understands Polish warnings of the ongoing Russian threat. Along with a stable economy, Poland now has a security that may prove to be transformative for the country.
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Understanding Why Poland Needs Better Security Starts with Understanding Its Geography
To understand Polish security concerns, it is vital to understand Poland’s geography. The Great European Plain is one of the most dominant geological features of the European continent.
However, the name can be misleading. The Great European Plain is comprised of several distinct plains and small highlands, stretching from northern France to the Ural Mountains in Russia.
Of particular concern to Poland is the North European Plain, where Poland resides. It sits between two powerful nations – Germany and Russia. Both Germany and Russia – and their predecessor states – also sit within the North European Plain and suffer from the same lack of security normally provided by geographical features such as mountains or oceans.
To protect their precarious situation, Russia and Germany have often tried to enlarge their nations by pushing their political boundaries towards areas that can provide improved security. Unfortunately for Poland, sitting between these two powers often meant a loss of sovereignty. Poland has tried on several occasions to bring its smaller, neighboring nations into a security alliance to better protect against the expansionist proclivities of Germany and Russia, but to little avail.
For its part, Russia, too, has been subjected to invasion along this wide-open plain that vexes its smaller neighbors. As a result, Russia is particularly aggressive towards its European border and rails against any attempt on behalf of the European nations to form a political or security alliance.
The Atlantic Council notes that Moscow’s attitude was best summed up by the late U.S. diplomat George Kennan: “The jealous and intolerant eye of the Kremlin can distinguish, in the end, only vassals and enemies, and the neighbors of Russia, if they do not wish to be one, must reconcile themselves to being the other.”
Warsaw has had a taste of what it means to be a Russian vassal and would much rather take its chances on alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union. But it was only with the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resulting enlarged U.S. military presence in Poland that Warsaw felt that Poland’s security concerns have finally been heeded.
Improved Security and a Stable Economy Has Improved Power
With the physical presence of an allied military acting as a security guarantee and a stable, growing economy, Poland has not only become a strategic asset of the U.S., but also a power of growing importance in its own right.
Consider that while Poland, like nearly all European nations, suffers from poor demographics, it is not nearly as bad as its historic rivals Germany and Russia. While Russia continues to bungle its military operation in Ukraine, Ukrainians who have been able to flee the violence in their country have largely chosen Poland as their first destination.
In fact, Statista notes that Poland has accepted over 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees. For refugees, going to Poland not only makes sense from a proximity standpoint, but also because there are some cultural similarities between the two peoples, most notably in southern Poland.
While these refugees may not stay in Poland and may not offset a demographic decline in Poland, they will have a positive impact on Poland’s economy if the Polish government handles the situation well. Any nation will strain to handle a rapid influx of refugees when disasters occur, but Poland has done better than most of the other countries.
There is a chance that Polish nationalists will push back against accepting more Ukrainian refugees should they do well in the next elections, However, Poland may be able to leverage the extra labor that refugees can offer.
Of course, this additional labor force isn’t guaranteed, but the opportunity is there. Because of these recent regional changes, Poland is now in a more powerful position that it hasn’t had in nearly 400 years and will be a nation to watch over the coming years.