Why We Should Keep An Eye On Poland
The standard narrative of Poland that surrounds us is that of a constantly oppressed and dominated people that have had to constantly fight for their freedom till the collapse of the Soviet Union. A European victim of colonialism and Great Power politics. Poland’s eagle, however, may soon be ascendant, though maybe not as a superpower in the traditional sense.
Poland has previously been something akin to or very close to a superpower from the late 16th century to the late 17th century after its union with Lithuania into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Unfortunately, it would later all come crashing down in the latter half of the 1660s, in a series of catastrophic political events and wars collectively known as the Deluge.
In a scenario deemed unthinkable today, the forces of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth under the command of General Stanisław Żółkiewski nearly conquered the fledgling Tsardom of Russia and almost enthroned Polish crown prince Władysław as the Tsar of Russia.
Indeed, Poland’s foreign policy and military plans have been shaped in large part by Russia in one form or the other, as it continues to this day following half a century of domination by the Soviet Union.
With the transition to liberal democracy away from communism in 1989, Poland was one of the ex-communist countries that eventually saw explosive economic growth and stabilizing inflation in the late 90s due to a skilled workforce and economic cooperation with Western European powers. This was in contrast to other ex-communist and ex-Soviet countries which experienced economic downturn, spiraling inflation, and a sharp decrease in the standards of living around the same period.
It was in the same period that Poland joined NATO, on March 12, 1999. The Polish government itself claims that since accession to NATO, the Polish armed forces have become “a catalyst of change for the most significant changes in the Polish Armed Forces: technical modernization, the transition from a military force based on conscription to an all-volunteer force, and thorough reform of its command system.”
The drive away from a Soviet-style military command structure and into a more efficient NATO-style command structure that encouraged initiative-taking by junior officers, and the principles of combined arms doctrines set Poland on the path of becoming a force to be reckoned with. Overseas combat deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other theatres under the UN have also gone the extra length to further develop Polish military capabilities and gain experience.
Poland’s defense industry got a massive boost following the end of communism, and its skilled gunsmithing talent spread out across a few private enterprises and re-energized public ones. The Polish defense industry has slowly come to supply some of the most basic arms required by the Polish armed forces, such as the FB Beryl and now the FB MSBS Grot service rifles. Other examples of home-produced Polish military equipment include the PT-91 Twardy main battle tank and accompanying it, a whole host of related vehicles based on the same platform.
If a country is supposed to take strides towards becoming a superpower or at the very least, a major world power, it must arguably always boast a serious military deterrence that is most important, highly skilled, and influential in the global defense community. Self-reliance is where that starts and the Polish defense industry currently does not have production of modern and reliable ammunition for tanks as well as armor-piercing rounds, anti-aircraft missiles, and guided artillery.
If the rate of ammunition expenditure from all sorts of weaponry in the current Ukrainian combat theater is to be held as the new standard going forward, it is absolutely crucial for Poland to build up a robust domestic production capability for it.
Diplomatically, Poland’s moment of truth in standing up against Russia came in 2014 following the latter’s annexation of Crimea and the support of ethnic Russian separatist militias in the Donbas region. Poland emerged as the most active supporter of Ukraine through military training and equipment, and a vocal proponent in calling the world’s attention to the Ukrainian cause.
The decision to actively oppose Russia was instrumental in raising Poland’s mark on the world stage, setting it on a path whose end remains uncertain, even if promising.
In addition, Poland has been increasing its defense spending with a recently stated goal of dedicating 5 percent of the GDP towards defense, a significantly higher proportion than the targeted 2 percent expected by NATO. Poland has also sought greater cooperation with other Central European countries such as Czechia, Hungary, and Slovakia. These countries together comprise the Visegrad Group and this alliance dates back to 1991 upon the release of all the members from communism.
Now, let me go back in time to the emergence of the so-called Second Polish Republic which was founded after the end of World War I. It was led by the Chief of State and later Marshal Józef Klemens Piłsudski. Widely considered to be the founding father of modern Poland, he was an astute statesman, general, and committed nationalist who dreamed of revitalizing Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the form of a ‘federation’ or alliance.
It was during the Polish-Soviet War of 1920 that he came up with this after surmising that any Russian state would always be hostile to an independent Poland and any German state would not be of much help either.
To stand up to both, this ‘federation’ consisted of Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Quite ambitious due to the fact that Ukraine had been subjugated by the newly gestating Soviet Union despite a brief period of independence and that Belarus was never its own polity prior to that point. Ultimately, the plan fell through but the idea had always persisted.
The idea of an alliance also expanded to include Romania, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, all of whom had ample reason to want to be free of Russian domination. Georgia in particular, was invaded by Russia in 2008 with a military operation eerily similar to that which was later carried out in Ukraine.
Poland’s resolute support of not only Ukraine but also anti-Lukashenko protestors in Belarus and defense of Hungary against the wider EU of which it is also a member, may hint that some within the Polish state structure. Making something like this work in the current century is fraught with a myriad of challenges and roadblocks, some of which may be insurmountable in the long term.
In case of a total Russian defeat in the current Russo-Ukrainian war, a synthesis of the Visegrad Group along with the core members of Piłsudski’s federation, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltics would be the best-case scenario if Poland is to emerge out of the 2020s and 2030s as a major world power, directly challenging Germany on the continent.
With recent events of the Germany-led EU bloc pressuring Poland on a series of political and social issues to the point of blocking COVID relief funds in a rather egregious low-blow, one may reason that they are quite aware of such designs and would prefer it not happen. The balance of European power shifting towards Poland is unprecedented in the current EU infrastructure and it is extremely difficult to predict what may happen.
Any Poland-led military or political alliance larger than the Visegrad Group would undoubtedly have to be bankrolled and protected by a militarily and economically powerful Poland.
Government-released plans for the Polish armed forces by 2032 envision it as “one of the most modern and most numerous militaries in Europe” and that “Poland will make every effort to ensure that it remains a guarantor of peace and prosperity in Europe.” This would admittedly be within the good graces of the US but it is hard not to think of Poland taking charge of Eastern Europe as a whole in a post-Vladimir Putin space.
The economic side of things is also quite promising. Poland is considered to have one of the most diversified economies in Europe, with rather robust energy security in comparison to Germany. The quality of human resources is also ever-increasing, with the Brookings Insitute stating that “every second young person studies at the university level, above the EU average, up from only one out of ten in 1989.”
Future projections for Poland’s economy are showing good indicators. To top it all off, Poland is blessed with a decent magnitude of natural resources such as copper, zinc, and lead to name a few. These resources could be crucial for the next high-growth niche for the country.
Many would be justified in arguing against the whole premise of Poland rising up to become its own superpower or even major world power at the head of its own military alliance. Of course, there are too many variables to account for at this current stage and nothing is certain. What is certain though, is that Poland is already one of the most important countries in Europe and its role is only going to be strengthened in stature going forward.
[Photo by Artur Łuczka, via Pixabay]
Fatin Anwar is a student of Geography at the University of Dhaka and a freelance writer/researcher.