NATO Summit in Warsaw – the Polish perspective

What are strategic expectations of Member States to be addressed during the Summit in Warsaw? Which major challenges will it face? What marks the Polish position vis-a-vis NATO and EU issues? Analysis by former Polish diplomat Piotr Łukasiewicz.

NATO strategy

Poland and NATO – introduction

Poland became a NATO member in 1999 and joined the European Union in 2004. Being a part of the two most powerful alliances in history has given Polish governments and elites the sense that national security is the strongest it has ever been for the last 300 years. Every Polish government since the fall of communism in 1989 has strived to follow the national goal of joining these two clubs of stability, prosperity and development and securing a position within them. Additionally, the policy of close alliance and partnership with the USA has been followed and has been perceived as an even better way to secure Poland’s newly gained independence and sovereignty. Ever since 1989, the United States has been seen almost unanimously as a guarantor of Polish independence. During this process, it has often been noted that other European countries have expressed a reluctance to share the Polish view on the role of Russia and its reemergence as military threat to European stability. This way of thinking has its roots in the national history of World War II and a sense of “betrayal by the West” that Poland fell victim to in 1939.

The United States is perceived as a real protector, and this perception has been strengthened by Polish participation in US-led military coalitions over the last 15 years – in Afghanistan, Iraq and recently against Daesh. Despite the human and economic cost of such coalitions and their political fallout (including, for example, CIA prisons in Poland), Polish governments are willing to support US military initiatives on the premise that the USA will rush with military support should any dangerous situation arise near Polish borders. This double paradigm of thinking about national security lies behind the consistent Polish demand to deploy international military units, preferably American, in Poland to hold Russia back from any form of aggression on Polish territory.

NATO Summit in Warsaw

The decision to hold the forthcoming NATO Summit in Warsaw was agreed in 2014 at a time of aggressive Russian manoeuvres against Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea. It was designed to show assertiveness towards Russia and to reassure the countries of NATO’s “Eastern Flank” (Russia’s European neighbours) that the Alliance noted the changing situation and showed resilience and a dedication to collective defence. 

The previous NATO Summit in Wales reacted against Russia’s violent breach of international stability with decisions of a rather tactical nature (the deployment of high readiness units and a strengthening of forward presence). Expectations towards the Warsaw Summit lie more in the political and strategic dimension, with a view to the construction of a stable and almost automatic mechanism of allied response to any threat that arises to NATO borders from the east.

There are several strategic expectations of Member States to be addressed during the Summit, which should restore the sense of purpose of NATO and reaffirm its position as a provider of European security. NATO should revert to its basic role of providing collective defence of its territory. A military presence should be established on the Eastern Flank in the form of allied military units in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. It is expected that NATO will show resilience and a resolve to counter, at least politically and numerically, Russian air and naval provocations and propaganda. Terror organisations should also be addressed with substantial military power in order to prevent them spreading. One of the main goals of a strategic shift should be better coordination with the political power of the European Union in order to solve the migrant crisis with more flexibility. A few fixed NATO issues, such as nuclear deterrence and expansion policy, will also arise during Summit sessions and bilateral meetings.

Currently NATO finds itself in a difficult and precarious position. Over the last 15 years it was deeply involved in operations in Afghanistan – this gave the Alliance a much needed sense of indispensability in a world deprived of global challenges to its power. The long-lasting period of “peace dividend” allowed several countries to cut their military budgets to levels that allow only basic readiness. Overseas operations and global dominance seemed a viable future for the Alliance.

Now the NATO Summit faces two grave challenges. Firstly, one should expect a heated and potentially divisive discussion on military spending, centred around the figure of 2% of countries’ GDP (with 20% of this sum set aside for modernisation). This issue has drawn much attention during the presidential campaign in the USA, and both Republican and Democratic candidates and their supporters will ask questions as to whether NATO countries share US concerns. Although very populist in nature, this discussion unifies both candidates in calls for stronger pressure on allies that lag behind financially, and includes the suggestion of using disciplinary mechanisms within NATO.

Secondly, NATO faces an internal rift, with Southern and Eastern Flanks calling different kinds of threats and paying no attention to the positions of the other allies. Eastern Europe presents the need for a militarised approach to Russia, while the South is searching for a political and economic approach to terrorism and migration. NATO faces overlapping and sometimes exclusionary solutions drawn from a military arsenal (the NATO way) or political drawers (the EU way). It is expected that Germany and France will lead the effort to combine these two worlds and produce some form of compromise.

The Polish position vis-a-vis NATO and EU issues – a critical look

Polish elites have indicated with one voice that there are no legal obstacles to the deployment of NATO soldiers on the territory of Poland or the Baltic States and that no Russian objection should be entertained. They have pointed out Russian assertiveness and the alleged confrontational path with NATO it took during the wars in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014. For a great number of the Polish elite, both in government and opposition, it is incomprehensible and naive to call for any “normalisation” of dealings with Russia. Such “over our heads” negotiations with Russia would, for them, reestablish appeasement policies from the years before World War II.

Polish thinking on NATO’s role is marked with calls for the militarisation of relations with Russia and with demands that seem hard to satisfy for several Western leaders (“One NATO brigade”?, “Two US tank divisions”?, “Nuclear weapons”?, “Bases, bases, bases”?). On the other hand, Western European countries hold their own problems with terrorism and migration at a level much higher than the supposed Russian menace. Many Western military experts are of the opinion that conventional Russian potential is overestimated and NATO deployment near Russian borders unnecessary troubles fragile relations – relations which are much needed in solving global issues.

Almost in the same breath leaders of European public opinion point out the visible issues with democratic procedures in Poland and the recent alleged breaches in the trichotomy of authority that undermine EU foundations and values. Only close cooperation between the European Union and NATO is seen as a proper medicine for the plagues of modern times. Torpedoing the political standards of the union is thus seen as also undermining the Polish position within the NATO military setup. It is worth mentioning that the Polish government’s breach of solidarity in dealing with the migrant crisis is also perceived as an issue that prevents the Polish voice from being heard more loudly.  

Brexit has also revealed certain gaps in recent Polish foreign and security policies. The attempt to build a strategic partnership with the United Kingdom within the EU has failed and the original idea behind it – building an alternative coalition against Russia based on an “Intermarium” of Visegrad partnerships –also collapsed, with the UK becoming a weakness in the European family and regional countries (some of whom have already adopted the Euro) scurrying under the German and mainstream European umbrella. The long-lasting effects of Brexit are hard to predict now but one can expect that the dual response to Russia – political sanctions plus military strengthening – has just lost an important British (or English…) voice.

Poland has recently been mentioned as an example of the intensification of military modernisation and as one of very few “2% GDP” countries. The incumbent government and its predecessor both promised substantial spending on air defence systems, helicopter programmes, long-range artillery and the navy. Currently all these programmes appear endangered by cancellation or delays. Overblown social programmes and promises are a strong reminder that all Polish governments in times of budget squeezes are willing to cut military spending no matter how pressing external dangers may seem. This was the case for the modernisation programmes in 2009 (5 bn PLN cuts after the war in Georgia) and in 2013 (3 bn PLN cuts before the war in Ukraine).

NATO approaches its bi-annual Summit with several issues still needing careful attention and heated discussions will take place in Warsaw right up to the publication of its final communiqué. The proposed solutions for many problems NATO faces still seem like halfway ones and they require a nuanced approach, within which Poland should play a responsible part. The internal political situation and the sense of being gradually pushed out of mainstream discussion has put Poland in the awkward position of a former star pupil struggling with a temporary decline.


The information and views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.