Whatever Russia’s ambitions, arguably the only real bulwark against its expansion in Europe is, if not in a brave defense by Ukraine alone, in Poland.
To understand this statement — which upends much conventional thinking — one needs to know not merely the recent history of Eastern Europe (in which Poland was brutalized by Germany and Russia) or the distant history (when Poland was one of the most powerful states in Europe), but rather the time period since 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union.
Warsaw has spent twenty-odd years not merely working to completely divorce its economy from dependence on Russia (natural gas notwithstanding), but has adopted American and more generally European force and military doctrine with the specific intent of stopping Russian infantry and armored cavalry long enough for a NATO response; or at the very least, so bloodying Moscow as to make every square inch of ground costly beyond recent memory. Joint exercises in NATO have been largely aimed at breaking Russian mass tactics, and Poland has worked very hard to make the Great European Plain defensible ground (a project of the last ten centuries or so).
Which leads to the present. Poland today announced that it is suspending its visa program with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, the ‘oblost that is basically an island outpost of Russia in the heart of Central Europe (a relic of the Potsdam Agreement and the capitulations to Russia there). Three days ago, NATO increased its military presence in-country, part of a buildup now nearly two months old, and joint exercises are again underway. Polish armor and infantry have been on high alert for some time, and for all of the talk of Russian forces on Ukraine’s border, very few observers have noticed the increase of Polish forces on the other side.
An interesting question, one that hopefully will never be answered, is whether Poland’s armed forces are capable of creating a defensive line not at the Ukrainian border, where they have trained for twenty years, but east of Kiev. There are somewhat defensible positions in the area, though whether Belarus contributes space to a Russian maneuver might be dispositive. Yet the bigger point in all of this is not what chance Poland has against Russia’s military, but rather whether any member of NATO would fight to preserve Ukraine other than Poland?
This is the hard question facing Poland, and the West, today. Pray that it never need be answered.
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