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SECURITY 18 February, 2019 11:00 am   
Editorial staff

Warsaw Institute: U.S. permanent military base in Poland is a favorable solution for NATO


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This following report captures the idea of a permanent US base in Poland in the geopolitical context, along with its consequences for NATO and Central and Eastern Europe. This paper was supplemented with comments from experts from the United States, Lithuania and Romania to show a broader perspective on the creation of a U.S. permanent military facility on Alliance’s Eastern Flank – Grzegorz Kuczyński, Director of Eurasia Program at Warsaw Institute and Krzysztof Kamiński, President of the Warsaw Institute.

A U.S. permanent military base in Poland will unquestionably contribute to the improvement of the security in the key European region while dramatically increasing the potential for deterring Russia and preventing Moscow from carrying out its hitherto activities. Not only does this translate into a greater protection of the territories of Poland and other countries of NATO’s eastern flank but also those of the entire continent as such undertaking results in a lower probability of an armed conflict. Militarily speaking, even a large U.S. unit is not capable of influencing the current balance of power whilst Russia will be granted a considerable advantage over the allied forces in all countries that would be most exposed to a potential conflict. Though, while envisaging the ongoing state of affairs, even the very presence of U.S. troops is perceived in terms of an important undertaking. Russia will not risk the death of American citizens, though; basically, a permanent U.S. presence will deter the Russians to the greater extent than a rotational one as the former is more resistant to any instances of political turmoil in Poland and the United States.

The idea of U.S. permanent military base in Poland is also advocated by Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, and Ukraine, all of them being most at risk from Russian military aggression. Nonetheless, such countries as Russia and Belarus and most of the Western European states, including Germany, seem rather sceptical or even negative about the plan to establish any U.S. military headquarters Interestingly, the diving line between both supporters and opponents of the U.S. permanent base fairly coincides with the one observed in the case of the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

Setting up a permanent military base would be of large geopolitical importance not only for Poland and its bilateral relations with the United States but it would also positively influence the situation in Central and Eastern Europe. In the context of current security ties, it is difficult to talk about purely bilateral cooperation whilst such an alliance should not be opposed to any initiatives taken at a multilateral level. The Polish-American agreement would not impede any NATO structures; quite the contrary, such a deal could potentially strengthen the alliance, complementing multilateral commitments of its allies. Here, two member states conclude a contract supposed to serve the same purpose as the aforementioned multilateral obligations (aiming to stop Russia’s military undertakings), even in spite of any objection from another state, as could be the case of Germany.

U.S. base will thus reinforce NATO’s eastern flank while providing the United States with both political and economic benefits. First of all, the U.S. permanent military base in Poland will unquestionably bolster the potential for deterring Russia. The fact of deploying land forces to the Polish territory will give a strong signal that the United States respects its allied commitments towards Poland and all European states. Located at the strategic point of NATO’s eastern flank, the permanent U.S. military base in Poland corroborates Washington’s commitments to the Alliance and the fact that NATO is perceived by the Americans as the most important means of ensuring security both for Europe as well as for themselves.

The U.S. Army facilities will undoubtedly boost NATO’s military capabilities against two major issues, including threats from Russia’s military grouping in the Kaliningrad Oblast as well as the need to safeguard the so-called Suwalki Corridor. The presence of an American brigade in the immediate vicinity of the latter will first enable the allied countries to hold the Russians in check with a threat in the Kaliningrad exclave while providing them with an opportunity to protect the only land connection between NATO member countries (including Poland) and the Baltic States.

Russia’s violent and hostile reaction to the project is not a surprise, though, neither are threats from politicians and experts that includes a possible nuclear attack. The U.S. base in Poland will neither provoke Russia to conduct any greater invasion against the West nor make it probable to expand the country’s military potential as such a decision had been made before. Some claim that the U.S. permanence presence in Poland is the violation of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act (NRFA), yet it cannot be referred to as an obstacle to set up American facilities on Polish soil. First, Russia has breached the agreement by performing its own actions whilst the Alliance should inform Moscow that such a state of matter does not encompass the arrival of allied forces to Poland under their own flag, which could not take place under the auspices of NATO.

Even though the U.S. military facilities in Poland may exert an impact on the situation east of the borders of Poland and NATO, they might bring about a serious problem for Belarus. Yet Moscow gains a decisive argument allowing it to urge Lukashenko to let Russian troops enter the territory of Belarus. As illustrated by Russia’s policy, it will become clear that the Kremlin’s pressure to deploy its troops to Belarus may only intensify, regardless of whether any U.S. permanent base is eventually set up in Poland. Over the last few years, Belarus has not made any efforts to keep its political, economic or geostrategic distance from Russia. Lukashenko will therefore eventually agree to establish a Russian base in exchange for some economic concessions and promises of further support from Moscow. Speaking of U.S. permanent military base, it may turn out to be a good solution for Ukraine as the country is currently fighting a war against Russia – just like an increase in the American presence in this region of Europe. The constant U.S. presence in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border may additionally impede invasion plans prepared by Russian generals while Moscow is still considering various force scenarios, as exemplified by the recent tensions in the Sea of Azov.

Response to military aggression

For many years, it has been clear that all countries threatened by Russian aggression cannot be fully protected with allied documents, written promises of help or even the expansion of their own defense capabilities. Instead, their security seems best guaranteed by the constant presence of U.S. troops, the more so that Russia is not ruled by a madman who would go on a war with Washington. Any attack on the state where U.S. soldiers have been deployed would potentially serve as a casus belli for igniting an armed conflict. Russia will therefore not dare to attack American soldiers, being aware that such a move could lead to an open clash with the world superpower. The permanent U.S. military facilities are therefore equivalent to a significant reduction in the threat of an aggression as Poland could be then pushed out of Russia’s military reach.

This project constitutes a response to the situation in the west, as Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first one to make a move when expanding his country’s military capabilities in the vicinity of NATO’s borders. The U.S. base will be nothing more than just a response to the current state of affairs, referred to as a defensive step rather than an offensive one. All claims that the U.S. base in Poland will make Putin undertake more aggressive actions as well as develop Russia’s military forces on the western section do not seem particularly accurate as such expansion will take place anyway. The last few years have shown that both inaction and fear of taking some decisive measures make Moscow more prone to take intrusive steps. In addition, Russia has recently aggrandized its offensive military forces westwards. The fact of forming two armies in the western section, both of them fully armed with tanks and missile systems, may eventually lead to strengthening NATO’s defensive potential on its eastern flank.

Similarly, the key problem that underpins the Polish proposal cannot be addressed with significant improvement of logistics and transport capabilities in Eastern Europe that aims to increase the pace of NATO forces movement. As exemplified by Moscow’s hitherto policy, the Russians will start to treat seriously all allied and U.S. commitments to Poland and other countries of NATO’s eastern flank only when American troops are permanently deployed to Polish soil. Yet any promises to displace U.S. forces to Poland in the event of war encourage Russian decision-makers and generals to undertake some intruding measures as Moscow could potentially hope to impede the relief. Russian top officials would probably seek to achieve the goal by exerting political pressure or using military blackmail. Yet it is noteworthy that the Russians are likely to deploy tactical nuclear cargo somewhere on NATO’s eastern flank in order to intimidate Western political elites and public opinion.

The U.S base in Poland would change the military situation both on the NATO’s eastern flank as well as in the Eastern European region while indirectly bolstering Ukraine’s security. Russia is also aware of the fact that the military presence will directly translate into an increase in the U.S. economic and political potential in Poland as well as in the whole region, limiting the scope of Moscow’s ability to meddle with the non-military affairs of Central European countries. Similarly, setting up the U.S. military facilities in Poland, which would additionally strengthen NATO’s eastern flank, will not result in a stronger rapprochement between Moscow and its Chinese partner. This has been decided much earlier. Since 2012, that is the beginning of his previous presidential term, Putin attaches great importance to Russia’s close military cooperation with Beijing, the reason of which was to confront the United States as China’s military ally. It would be extremely naive to consider that the U.S. withdrawal from the idea of building a military base in Poland will make Moscow keep a greater distance from Beijing.

A more reliable ally

It cannot be said that Poland seeks to make the most of the American presence on its soil while the U.S. Army base is to be the only guarantee of the country’s internal and external security. Poles want and are able to defend their territory themselves. Speaking of defense matters, Poland primarily counts on its own capabilities, as illustrated by the state’s military expenditures, subsequent deals for the purchase of weapons as well as some other undertakings, including the creation of the territorial defense forces and the formation of large units on the country’s eastern border. Under the new government, the potential of the Polish army has increased from 100,000 to 130,000 troops on the active list whereas the figures are expected to reach 200,000 servicemen by the end of 2025. The Polish army is actively involved in the buying new weapons, including the recent acquisition of the Patriot missile system for 4.75 billion dollars. In addition, it has recently been possible to form the fourth division of the country’s land forces. Despite such a significant increase in its military potential, Poland is still in a much worse position in a possible clash with Russia. Therefore it does not come as a surprise that the country seeks to intensify its military efforts with the aid of its ally, backed by Warsaw on the occasion of various military missions. Yet such help did not provide Poland with any particular benefits, as evidenced by the example of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Facing such historical background, Poland has the right to expect reciprocal measures, the more so that all parties will eventually be provided by a number of substantial benefits.

Importantly enough, Poland’s political elites almost unanimously agree to establish a permanent U.S. base. Also, the majority of society is in favor of such a solution. Moscow is trying its utmost to emphasize that any actions undertaken by Poland’s government and the President do not enjoy strong support in the country. Even though if the statement of Andrzej Duda was criticized, it was rather about how the offer was presented to the public and not its substantial content. None of the major Polish politicians criticizes the creation of a permanent U.S. base in Poland. In its turn, the poll commissioned by Poland’s Defense Ministry found that 55 percent of Poles are currently in favor of setting up permanent U.S. military facilities in their homeland, believing that the constant presence of American troops will positively influence the country’s internal and external security. Only 27 percent of Polish citizens are against any U.S. military facilities while 4 percent claim that the permanent presence of American soldiers will lower the state’s protection (as opposed by 56 percent who responded in affirmative)[1]. Poland’s determination is best illustrated by the government’s offer to provide a financial aid of up to 2 billion dollars over 10 years to back the U.S. military presence in the country. Importantly, such sum would not force defense ministry officials to spend funds that had been previously allocated for upgrading military equipment.

German fears

Some of the Western European countries remain sceptical or even hostile to the plan of establishing a permanent U.S. military base in Poland. For instance, the group of the greatest opponents of the project involves Germany as Berlin is afraid of diminishing its influence in the region and weakening its stance towards the United States. Interestingly enough, the diving line between both supporters and opponents of the initiative base fairly coincides with the one observed in the case of the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

The Germans fear of Russia’s reaction as the two countries has recently kept intensifying their mutual cooperation. At the same time, they do not intend to lose their hitherto privileges provided by the presence of U.S. military facilities. Therefore, Berlin objects the idea of an American base in Poland, regardless of whether it would be a unit deployed to the Polish territory from Germany or not. Germany refers to purported informal agreements inked with Russia in the 1990s, under which the West had committed not to deploy Allied bases in these countries while Moscow had raised no objections against the admission of Poland and the Baltic States to NATO structures. According to German opponents of the project, the countries do not dispose of adequate infrastructure, yet in fact, the criticism of new U.S. base derives also from Berlin’s ever-increasing belief that Europe should no longer fully rely upon the U.S. aid as it needs to develop its own military forces.

After the Second World War, U.S. military bases in Europe served two predominant purposes. First, they constituted a barrier against a possible Soviet offensive while, secondly, their ultimate aim was to stop Germany’s militarist ideas, which had previously led to the outbreak of great conflicts, two of which involved the engagement of the United States. Though the latter reason seems no longer valid as Berlin is currently outlining its most pacifist views in history, as evidenced by the recent measures undertaken by both German elites and society. The country is now willing to conduct the economic expansion even though it does not spend the demanded 2 percent of its GDP on defense expenditures. This ratio is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, especially bearing in mind the attitude of German society and plans to take advantage of this fact by some politicians, with particular regard to those of left-wing political groups. Germany’s defense spending is among the lowest in Europe while the army’s operational readiness should not even be discussed in the following report. According to a poll, 42 percent of Germans say they want U.S. troops out of the country, compared with 37 percent who want[2] military personnel to stay. Only 40 percent of Germans are in favor of deploying their army in order to defend another European country against Russian aggression. In the United States and Poland, this indicator amounts to 62 percent.

Also, the first reason for the American presence on German soil has ceased to be valid. A potential frontline in the event of a NATO-Russia war runs far to the east of the German borders. The German sense of security is also due to the lack of a visible Russian threat, making Berlin the least keen to defend its eastern allies against Russian aggression. If the Russians sought to carry out an unexpected attack and seize control over the Baltic States, putting NATO in front of a fait accompli, they would be able to do it without much effort. Before any large U.S. unit would be dispatched from Germany to the front, it would be already too late to conduct any complimentary actions, also because the number of American forces in Germany is much smaller than it used to be, dropping to 35,000 from as much as 250,000 in 1985. So why would America need 35,000 servicemen in the country that would like to push them out of its borders and that keeps sealing deals for Russian gas supplies, thus making it dependent on Moscow’s aid?

Euro-Atlantic unity

However, the Americans need to take into account the opinion of both Berlin and other European capitals, also those being against ideas put forward by the Polish government as Warsaw’s initiative may introduce some changes to the NATO system. Critics have already pointed out that Washington-Warsaw bilateral agreement, which excludes the participation of other allies, may give a strong signal that the United States seeks to distance itself from maintaining a stable and uniform military bloc (critically assessed by President Donald Trump) while favoring bilateral alliances with the most loyal states. It is probable that Moscow will employ this tool to pose a threat to the “old” Europe while Poland may be ultimately depicted as a country that seeks further confrontation. When discussing the permanent U.S. base project, the Russians may intend to achieve their strategic goals, namely to soften the EU’s current stance on economic and political sanctions. In this context, any feasible Polish-American agreement could hardly come as a complete novelty as bilateral deals on deploying U.S. troops have already been signed by other NATO countries, including Norway and Greece. The former has recently negotiated an increase in the American contingent, which will also be the case in Germany. Therefore, all bilateral agreements and cooperation with the United States fit into the Alliance’s current scheme as the presence of U.S. troops has no intention to serve only one country, aiming rather to bolster NATO’s combat readiness. Notwithstanding that, the main purpose is to enhance the Alliance’s defense in Europe, as mentioned in the U.S. Senate report on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)[3]. The new project would be part of the wider process of expanding the American military presence in Poland. After all, the U.S. Army is currently involved in constructing an anti-missile defense system in the Polish town of Redzikowo. As many as 3,000 American troops are garrisoned in the western town of Zagan where they are being trained on a rotational basis as part of the armored brigade combat group. Almost 1,000 U.S. soldiers were deployed to Polish towns of Orzysz and Bemowo Piskie within the framework of a multinational NATO battalion program.

An increased presence of U.S. forces in Poland would result in greater credibility and effectiveness of NATO’s deterrence and defense missions on the Alliance’s eastern flank, constituting thus its integral part. This would aim to safeguard security in the region as well as protect the Alliance while bolstering its political coherence and military effectiveness. Not incidentally, the idea of the permanent U.S. presence in Poland was backed by Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis, who stressed that such a step “would substantially enhance NATO’s deterrence and defense posture and is therefore very much in line with Lithuania’s security interests.” The states that later joined NATO structures do not want to be categorized as “second-class” member countries to which distinct security requirements apply. Unfortunately, some “first-category” states keep behaving as if they sought to maintain the hitherto state of affairs.

Poland’s proposal takes on a new importance in the light of the idea of forming a “European army”, put forward by French President Emmanuel Macron and backed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Interestingly, such a military unit could be founded regardless of all existing U.S.-European alliances. Bearing in mind the relations between some large Western European states – with particular regard to Germany – and Russia, and an ever-growing crisis between the so-called “Old Europe” and the United States, it comes as a surprise that Warsaw keeps recognizing its alliance with Washington as the most reliable manner to safeguard its security. So if it is to be allegedly recognized that an American military base may harm the unity of Euro-Atlantic defense, what the Macron’s idea can be referred to as? The U.S. military facilities aim to reinforce the Euro-Atlantic ties while the European army may contribute to their gradual impairment.

Poland’s attempts to protect the American military facilities, which translate into the actual shift of the NATO border a thousand kilometers to the east, seem to arouse concerns of some allies, who are afraid of exacerbating its ties with Moscow. Russia would consider the U.S. permanent base as a breach of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, though this has no major significance. It is not only due to the fact that Moscow was the first to violate the provisions of the deal, as illustrated by the statement of Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, who claimed that “one cannot break what is already broken.” Furthermore, it is also because that the rotational presence of NATO troops in the countries of the former Eastern bloc was considered as a breach of the 1997 deal.

Some claim that the West, unlike Moscow, should not violate bilateral obligations while demonstrating its moral superiority. This makes neither political nor military sense, though, and will not change Russia’s approach, making Western countries less powerful and giving the Kremlin more reasons for taking any further intrusive steps. Still, there is no use in sticking to the rules of the games when the rival keeps disregarding them in an overt manner, in fact introducing its own principles. Most Western European states keep expressing the very same strong conviction, to a large extent rooted by Moscow’s agents of influence and probably dating back to the Cold War period, according to which one should not poke the Russian bear. Some pundits, political writers, and politicians consider the alleged fears of the Russians as much more important than the real needs of the allied nations of Eastern Europe that had been given to Stalin at the Yalta Conference, which resulted in many decades of the painful communist regime and Soviet domination.

More: Warsaw Institute