Credible partner on NATO's eastern flank - Poland's new role in security policy


Security policy has always been a very high priority in Poland, which results from the country`s difficult past and the latent threat posed by Russia. The Russian invasion of Ukraine reaffirmed Poland`s commitment to its security policy and prompted more investment in defence. The country has now become an important player on NATO`s eastern flank. Joanna Maria Stolarek talks about this with Justyna Gotkowska, a security expert and deputy director of the think tank The Centre for Eastern Studies.

Interview with Justyna Gotkowska

Joanna Maria Stolarek: The Russian war of aggression has led to a breakthrough in European security policy. Where do you see the differences between Central and Eastern Europe, on the one hand, and the West, on the other?

Justyna Gotkowska: After Russia's attack on Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states, but also Sweden, Finland and Norway as well as Romania and Bulgaria understood that the security situation in Europe had changed permanently. In Western Europe, this understanding is also there, but the states on NATO's eastern flank know that the outcome of the war in Ukraine, and also the freezing of the conflict, will have immediate consequences for their security. For Poland and the Baltic states, these consequences may even be existential in nature. Unlike in Central and Eastern Europe, where you can feel the threat directly, in Western Europe the Russian attack is understood as a change in the security situation in Europe, but it is still largely seen as a regional war, one which does change European security in the medium and long term, and certainly also relations with Russia, but does not have a direct impact on the security of the Western European states. And that is why the understanding of what is at stake in this war is different here as compared to Western Europe. In Western Europe, in general, it is all about European security, a reinstitution of international law, guaranteeing the European order, and restoring the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. However, people do not think about it in terms of the sovereignty of their own states or as a war which might also affect their own countries in the future.

Does this have any impact on society at large? Or let me put it differently: Are security and defence topics which are discussed within Polish society as such, or rather just on the political level?

This is yet another important difference between Eastern and Central Europe, on the one hand, and Western Europe, on the other. For people in our region, for the Poles, for the Balts, it goes without saying that we need major investment in the national armed forces, in security as such, because the threat is real. Hardly anyone opposes this. The public debate is rather about whether defence expenditure as a whole should not increase even more within NATO, going up to 4% of GDP instead of 2% as it is now. In Western Europe, the situation is different: Politicians who see the need for more investment in defence have to make a convincing case for it when they talk to their voters. In many Western countries, society at large, and even some parts of the political elites, are not aware to the same extent as in Central and Eastern Europe that the permanently changed security situation in Europe should entail a rethink in the field of armament.

How has Poland's role in the security architecture in Europe changed or what role could Poland play?

Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Poland was an important country for the defence of the eastern flank from NATO's perspective. The US built up its military presence in Poland and created a base for the American armoured brigade and for other units involved in the command structures on NATO's eastern flank. Poland's role in the region is comparable to the role Germany plays for the US in Europe. After 24 February 2022, Poland became an important logistical and operational hub for Europe and the US. Rzeszów airport is sometimes compared to Germany's Ramstein airport. It is used to deliver military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Now, Poland has a dual role to play, i.e., as an important country in the West's strategy to help Ukraine in military terms, and also in NATO's strategy to secure its eastern flank. In addition, the country may have yet another role to play in the future. Following the investment Poland has made since the invasion and in the years preceding it, the Polish armed forces could play a much greater role in NATO's defence strategy and on the eastern flank. This means that in the coming years, the balance of power within NATO will change in favour of Central and Eastern Europe.

Does this mean that the centre of NATO is now shifting eastwards?

This is happening anyway. NATO's strategy is clear. Russia is seen as the greatest threat, also in military terms. The processes that are currently underway in NATO are focused on defence and deterrence. All the NATO structures are being adjusted in order to better adapt NATO as a defence alliance to the new situation – i.e., the fact that Russia is not only waging a war of aggression against Ukraine, but may also pose a threat to NATO's eastern flank – with regard to both its tangible actions (violating our airspace, moving nuclear weapons to Belarus, etc.) and its rhetoric. This makes it clear that the Kremlin regards NATO as a strategic adversary it wants to weaken by various means, which are not yet of a military nature. These include, among other things, the migration pressure on the Polish-Belarusian-Lithuanian border, disinformation campaigns in EU countries and political corruption. The risk of Russia attacking a NATO state is low for now. The West seems largely united, and Russia is heavily involved in the war in Ukraine and will not risk further military escalation. But this may change in the future. We do not know what will happen in two years. There might be a completely different president in the US who wants a different security policy. The West might be divided. From the perspective of the region on NATO's eastern flank, one should be prepared for this and adapt one’s view of security to the new situation in both military and non-military terms.

Are you saying that if Poland continues to invest so much in defence and armaments, then in two years it will be well prepared to defend itself and also others as a solid partner on NATO's eastern flank? Can Poland do it alone? And can Poland afford to do it alone, or does it rather need help – from the European Union, for instance – and if yes, to what extent?

Poland cannot do it alone and it would be unfair if only the eastern flank states spent 3, 4 or 5% of GDP on defence while the other European states did not. In the past, it was not only West Germany that invested heavily in defence. So did the whole alliance. There were not only American but also French and British soldiers in West Germany. Now NATO's eastern flank countries expect their Western European allies, such as France and Germany, to contribute much more to defence and deterrence than they do now. There is hope that Germany will start and continue to spend 2% of GDP on defence. All this is because the crisis we are in now is a longer-term one that may significantly change the security order. There are two countries which want to change the existing global and European order: China and Russia. We must prepare for this and invest more in our security strategy in terms of our military, politics, economy, infrastructure, and energy policy.

As to the role of the European Union: Most people in Europe now understand that NATO, as a defensive alliance, serves defence and deterrence purposes. I would see the EU as a subsidiary rather than an independent actor in the field of security policy. The EU supports NATO by creating Europe-wide instruments and cooperation between its member states with regard to munitions production or the European single market, for example. Within the EU framework, military assistance to Ukraine has been launched through the European Peace Facility, which finances the delivery of weapons from EU member states to Ukraine. In addition, there is a military training mission for Ukrainian soldiers which is underway in Poland and Germany, for example. These areas of cooperation at a European level can still be strengthened.

What does Poland's new security policy mean for German-Polish relations?

In a perfect world, Germany and Poland would be the most important strategic partners working together to guarantee Europe's security: Poland in its role as a strong partner on the eastern flank, investing heavily in security given the threat it faces, and Germany as an economic power that has an interest in its immediate neighbours living in peace and in security in Europe remaining inviolable. Germany would need to assume more responsibility, which in reality means more investment in the Bundeswehr, more activity on the eastern flank and more responsibility within the framework of the NATO deterrence and defence strategy. It would be perfect if this were done in close cooperation with Poland and the Baltic states, with regard to logistics, in particular.

In reality, things look a little different. Germany is still unwilling to take on this responsible role in Europe and within NATO, even if there is at least partial consent for additional military expenditure. As a result, Germany is not seen as a credible partner in the region. The countries on NATO's eastern flank take a sceptical view of German policy as a result of Germany’s hesitant actions with regard to arms deliveries to Ukraine in the first months of the invasion. German policy on Ukraine is still seen as cautious, especially with regard to Ukraine's NATO membership and arms deliveries. Now there is a debate about long-range Taurus missiles. I think some people in Germany still cannot quite grasp the fact that we live in a different reality now, one in which Russia is becoming a threat in the long term, and that there is no room for negotiation with Moscow. Therefore, Poland wonders how Germany would react if the NATO collective defence clause were triggered. These doubts are palpable even though it is clear that cooperation with Germany within NATO is immensely important. Also, I do believe that Berlin is looking with some unease at Polish investment in its armed forces, and the region's ever-increasing role within NATO, because this could raise fears that Germany's own role is being undermined.

Poland’s policy on Ukraine is sometimes seen as too offensive. The reserved, cautious approach of our German partners is, in turn, incomprehensible to the Poles. On the German side, I often hear scepticism but also fear that closer cooperation with Poland could result in Germany being drawn into a conflict with Russia. In short, what is missing is mutual trust to start a far-reaching military cooperation between Germany and Poland. I believe, however, that this will come about within the NATO framework anyway. We have the new regional defence plans, and Poland and Germany will have to cooperate closely within NATO. Nonetheless, this cooperation could turn out to be greater if the two countries moved closer to one another on defence and if there were less mistrust with regard to the threat perspective, the relationship with Russia, and the policy on Ukraine.

On 15 October, a new parliament will be elected in Poland. What influence do these questions of security policy have on the election campaign and the elections as such?

Polish security policy is not a divisive issue. There is a consensus between the ruling party and the opposition. The importance of investing in our defence, developing our defensive capabilities, strengthening NATO and deepening our cooperation with the US are undisputed. There might be some differences as to the details, but not in principle. This will not change after the elections in any significant way, regardless of which political parties form the new government.