The Three-Year Mark
The modernisation of the Polish armed forces has been an active response of Poland to the volatile situation in the CEE resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The ongoing Polish efforts to prepare for the worst-case scenario of armed aggression against Poland can be traced to the adoption of the Komorowski Doctrine in 2015, which, in the aftermath of the Russian annexation of Crimea and the eruption of the conflict in the Donbas, assumed that the greatest threat to Polish security is Russia which took an aggressive and confrontational stance against the West. However, the majority of the modernisation took place after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Starting with the adoption of the Homeland Defence Act, Poland began one of the most intensive rearmament and modernisation programmes aimed at preparing the Polish armed forces for a potential confrontation with Moscow. While at the beginning, it was believed that such a confrontation is many years, if not decades away recent events and a closer analysis of the acquisition plans suggest that such an escalation might happen much sooner.
The first and most obvious factor suggesting the probability of a Russian attack on NATO are the words of the head of Poland National Security Bureau, Jacek Siewiera. Minister Siewiera stated that NATO should assume a three-year time horizon on the potential confrontation with Russia and its aggression on NATO territory. Siewiera argued that the current Russian military industry, heavily empowered due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, working in three shifts, has the ability to fully restore Russian military capabilities within three years time. The head of the Polish Security Bureau stated that in order to prevent a war with Russia, NATO countries should complement forces capable of a direct confrontation with Russia before the three-year mark – that is, 2027. Minister Siewiera also commented on the findings of the German Council on Foreign Relations, whose report on the security situation in Europe and prevention of further Russian aggression argued that Russia could attack within five to nine years’ time. Siewiera commented that the German estimations are too optimistic and that NATO’s eastern flank should be ready within three years’ time.
Minister Siewiera’s words are closely followed by Poland’s raging military materiel acquisition. In the aftermath of the Russian invasion, the Polish government launched a number of acquisition programmes aimed at increasing the capabilities of the Polish army. Starting with the armoured fist of the Polish army, the country’s decision to abandon German Leopard 2 tanks has been a subject of intense debate. The German tanks have been the core of the Polish tank troops, with extensive cooperation with the neighbour partner, and cooperability with other European militaries. The vast majority of them also operate Leopard 2 tanks, and the Polish government’s choice to acquire Korean K2 and American Abrams tanks has been heavily questioned. The choice was further questioned due to logistical problems resulting from using three different main platforms. Thus, the choice seemed highly impractical. However, what swayed Poland on this route was time. The waitlist for new German tanks is incredibly long due to both increasing interest by other states, as well as the limited industrial capacity of the German military industry. This is why Poland decided to acquire 180 Korean K2s and 366 Abrams tanks. Here, it is worth noting the delivery deadlines with the K2s to be delivered in 2022-2026, 116 Abrams in 2023-2024, and the final 250 Abrams in 2025-2026. This would bring the total number of Polish tanks to around 800 units by 2026 (counting the K2s, Abrams, and Leopard tanks) – that is before the 3-year aggression mark.
A similar approach could be noticed with the acquisition of the Korean K9 self-propelled howitzer over the Polish Krabs, which are widely believed to be better than their Korean counterparts. In this case, Poland had an even greater incentive to purchase Krabs – that is, the fact that they are produced fully in Poland by the Polish military industry. In such a case, why would Poland settle on the worse and foreign-made options? Again, the time is of crucial relevance here. The production capabilities for Krab are severely limited, with around 50 units a year being produced. On the other hand, K9s could be delivered much quicker with 218 older K9A1 versions by 2025, and a further 146 Polish modernised K9PL by 2027. However, it is worth noting, that recently, Poland also decided to work on increasing the production output of Krab howitzer, planning to open a new production line soon, and recently placed an order for 152 Krab vehicles. With the potential of increased industrial output, these could be delivered by 2027 (though very dependent on the speed with which the industrial output will be increased).
War in Ukraine
While Poland scrambles to prepare for potential future aggression from Russia, Ukraine faces such a reality today. However, the war-torn country does not possess the luxury of an established and powerful military alliance such as NATO. While the West has been supporting Ukraine since day one of the invasion, recently, the flow of Western aid has decreased from a mighty river to a faint trickle. At the same time, Russian military-industrial capabilities have only grown to such an impressive extent that the head of the Polish National Security Bureau is claiming that the Moscow regime will, in three years, possess sufficient military capability to launch a war against NATO’s eastern flank. Perhaps this is also the reason why the military aid to Ukraine has so greatly been reduced – the West could now be temporarily prioritising the increase of its own military capabilities at the cost of sending support to Ukraine. As stated by Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki, “We are not giving aid to Ukraine as we are now arming Poland”.[i]
This approach also feeds into the current situation of a temporary lack of funds being allocated to help Ukraine. This is being highlighted by the ongoing struggle in the US to approve new funding for aid to Ukraine. The new proposal by President Biden would see an additional 60 billion dollars dedicated to supporting the Ukrainian cause, which could greatly improve the battlefield situation. Unfortunately, the bill has been rejected due to heavy opposition from the Republicans. As of now, the US funding for Ukraine is quickly running out, with only 3% of the previously allocated 62.3 billion dollars still available. According to US officials, these final funds will be used before the end of the year, effectively leaving Ukraine reliant on only EU support, which, as of right now, is somewhat limited.
The lack of funds and other aid comes to Ukraine at a critical moment, as Ukrainian troops are fighting brutal battles to prevent the encirclement of the key fortress city of Avdiivka. For several months now, the city has been battered by heavy artillery fire while its flanks are continuously assaulted by Russian forces, trying to cut the defenders off from the rest of the Ukrainian army. The loss of Avdiivka could greatly shift the battle lines and the general situation in the southeastern part of the frontlines, potentially affecting the entirety of the Ukrainian war efforts. While Russian gains around the embattled city are achieved at the cost of high casualties and equipment losses, the continued Russian ability to replace them offers the Moscow regime a distinct advantage over the Ukrainians.
The threat of Russia once again hangs over Central and Eastern Europe. The words of the Polish Minister Siewiera hang heavily in the collective air of NATO’s eastern flank, with leaders and citizens beginning to think not whether Russia will invade but when. However, This atmosphere of dread obscures a very important fact that war with Russia is already being fought in Ukraine. It is now evermore imperative that the West redouble its efforts to support Ukraine, as the Ukrainian victory could just prevent the dreaded confrontation between Russia and the West.
Author: Sebastian Czub, Analyst, Casimir Pulaski Foundation
[i] Bartosz T. Wieliński, “Broń dla Ukrainy. Słowa Morawieckiego zaszkodzą Polsce i NATO”, Gazeta Wyborcza, September 21, 2023, https://wyborcza.pl/7,75399,30213529,bron-dla-ukrainy-slowa-morawieckiego-zaszkodza-polsce-ukrainie.html.