POLAND: NATO on Russia’s Border, a Propaganda War and Whispers of Invasion

By Hammad Sarfraz

Pawel spends every weekend with his grandchildren in the courtyard of the imposing Palace of Culture and Sciences, a gift from Stalin to the people of Warsaw and a symbol of how strategically important Poland was to the Soviet Empire.

“The Soviet Union collapsed decades ago…but Russia is still there to haunt us,” Pawel, 82, said while his eyes raced around the vast grounds looking for his 7-year-old grandson.

The boy was frolicking in the park under the shadow of the towering 42-story stone and sandstone structure that still dominates the city skyline.

The palace now houses an art house, cinema, museum and club space. But for the people of Warsaw it serves as an unceasing reminder of Moscow’s past tyranny.

“Like this building… Russia is still there… it is a threat,” said Pawel with a quiver in his voice. “I hope the younger generation in Poland don’t have to face the threat of oppression from Russia,” said the retired teacher, who survived the communist rule in Poland.

Building Tension on the Baltic Sea

Communist rule ended in Poland in 1989, but the threat of Russian encroachment is still felt strongly in Poland. Grievances against Russia remain fresh.

Territorial concerns in Poland have been exasperated by the buildup of Russian troops in Kaliningrad, the Russian Baltic Sea enclave 200 miles north of Warsaw, which remains the most militarized area in Europe. Kaliningrad, formerly known as Königsberg and one part of East Prussia, was annexed by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.

On the other hand, Russia sees Kaliningrad as an outpost vulnerable to NATO aggression. Its fears have been exacerbated by the deployment of four battalions of combat groups in Poland and three Baltic States in July 2016 at the end of NATO’s Warsaw Summit, including 1,000 additional U.S. troops to Poland to bolster NATO’s eastern flank.

'Poland has Always Been a Problem for Russia'

Poland’s rapid Westernization and its Atlanticist stance have long irked Moscow.

“Poland has always been a problem for Russia. We have always been against all Russian moves in Europe, including the intervention in Ukraine,” said Dr. Lukasz Jasina, an expert at the Polish Institute of International Affairs and fellow at Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.

“Moscow is always waving a stick at Poland, they want to effectively mute us.”

Jasina expresses fears Poland has in light of history that it could be abandoned if Russia ever decided to invade. “Poles are very proud of being a part of Europe and NATO but if some day Putin tests NATO… the action will be slow,” he said, while sipping coffee at a chic café on Krakowskie Przedmiescie street, dotted with restaurants catering to Warsaw’s style-conscious youth, mostly in their 20s and early 30s.

A Symbolic Location for a NATO Summit

Twenty-eight heads of state and government gathered at the NATO summit to discuss additional deployment of multinational battalions to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, all of which border Russia.

"These battalions will make clear that an attack on one ally will be considered an attack on the whole alliance," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated during a news conference after the summit's first working session in the Polish capital.

For Poles, there was great symbolism in the venue of the meeting. The event was held in Poland’s national stadium on the east bank of the Vistula, the location where, in the summer of 1944, Stalin halted the advance of the Soviet army, enabling the Nazis to systematically crush the mass uprising by the Polish resistance and raze Warsaw.

Weeks after Hitler’s brutal assault, Soviet troops invaded eastern Poland. Subsequently, Warsaw spent four decades under Soviet domination. Tales of mass murder and incarcerations by both Germany and then Soviet Union still haunt many in the eastern European country.

Moscow is always waving a stick at Poland — they want to effectively mute us.

—Dr. Lukasz Jasina, Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute

Warsaw's Transition into Thriving European City

The 2016 NATO deployment evoked anger at the Kremlin. The presence of U.S. troops, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, “threatens our interests,” complaining that the United States was “a third country that is building up its military presence on our borders in Europe. It isn't even a European country.”

The renewed military tensions came as Warsaw, once a gloomy capital in the Soviet bloc, was transitioning into thriving eastern European city. The booming Polish capital has scrubbed most symbols of communism. Even the monolithic, 1950s-era Soviet-style building that once served as the Communist Party headquarters now houses several luxury western retail outlets.

Yet Poland still depends on Russia as almost sole supplier for their energy needs, a reality that makes some Poles anxious. As young Varsovians enjoy their consumption of high end western brands and American fast food, they continue to rely on the relationship with the United States as their ultimate protection.

“Russia is a threat but we look toward the United States for everything… if the United States keeps its troops in Poland… we will always be safe,” said a 25-year-old student at the University of Warsaw.

Russian intervention in Georgia was the first sign for the political class in Poland to understand that Russia is not so peaceful.

—Retired Brigadier Gen. Jarosław Stróżyk

Russian Threat is Highest Priority of Polish Military

Relations with Poland became an early test for Russian President Vladimir Putin, in January 2000, just weeks after he had taken office, Putin reacted angrily after Polish officials expelled several high-ranking Russian diplomats allegedly involved in espionage.

Ties between the two countries have been uneasy since the diplomatic spat. Both nations have steadily increased their military budgets.

“The threat from Russia is the highest priority of Poland's defense and increase of spending is directly related to steady increase of Russian defense budget,” said retired Brigadier General Jarosław Stróżyk, who served as Poland’s Defense Attaché in Washington, D.C. and Deputy Director of the Intelligence Division, International Military Staff, NATO.

“Moscow is always trying to exploit the weak spots in Poland, Europe and the U.S.,” Stróżyk said.

He warned that the Russian intervention in Georgia was a wake-up call for the West and Poland.

“Russian intervention in Georgia was the first sign for the political class in Poland to understand that Russia is not so peaceful,” the former general said. “Moscow has been trying to seize each opportunity to destabilize Poland.”

'Russia is Our Enemy'

The Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine has left many of the eastern NATO countries, including Poland nervous and anxious.

When asked to name the one country that poses the biggest threat to them, 69 percent of Poles interviewed in a 2016 Gallup survey said that Russia is a major threat to their sovereignty.

“Russia is our enemy in many areas historical way. Nothing has changed,” cautioned retired Brigadier General Stanislaw Koziej, who was head of the National Security Bureau under the Civic Platform government.

“Moscow wants to create a political border and bring Poland back into its sphere of influence,” said the 72-year-old former general.

“They want a Poland that is not integrated with the West. That’s the most convenient way for Russia,” Koziej said, interviewed at a busy Warsaw café near the presidential palace.

Russia is undoubtedly the biggest threat to our security because they are in a hybrid cold war with Poland ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

—Former head of National Security Bureau Brigadier Gen. Stanislaw Koziej

Whispers of a Russian Invasion?

The Washington-based Atlantic Council has called on the United States to “counter a burgeoning Russia” but deploying more missiles in the region. A 2016 Atlantic Council report said that Russia could make easy work of invading Poland overnight if it decided to.

The report by the non-profit, “Arming For Deterrence,” does not predict the timing of a Russian invasion but that it could come as a result of NATO being “distracted by another crisis.” Russia, the report warns, “rarely disguises its true intentions.”

Political analysts in Warsaw say that Russia's annexation of the Crimea and its support for ethnic Russian rebels elsewhere in Ukraine has made Poland and Baltic states increasingly nervous about their own security.

“Russia is undoubtedly the biggest threat to our security because they are in a hybrid cold war with Poland ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Gen. Koziej. “Poland is on the frontline of this war,” he stressed.

In 2014, for example, a German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung reported that Vladimir Putin privately threatened to invade Poland, Romania and the Baltic states in a conversation with President Petro Poroshenko, his Ukrainian counterpart.

Propaganda and 'Non-Linear' Warfare

Since the Warsaw Summit, Poland’s contentious relationship with Russia has continued to deteriorate. Mutual cooperation projects have stopped, ending “Kaliningrad triangle” meetings involving Germany, Russia and Poland, and local cross-border traffic has been suspended. And Russian propaganda efforts involving fringe groups in Poland have intensified.

Gen. Koziej, who also served as the first Polish representative to NATO for nuclear policy and strategy, said that Moscow aims is to fragment the already fractured union of European countries and particularly to isolate Poland.

He warned that Russia could use special operations forces, known euphemistically as green men, in non-linear warfare against Poland.

“The Russians can use green guys in Poland who might disguise as local criminals and orchestrate a gang war situation. They can also use the propaganda machine to project the unrest as a civil war,” he added.

I prefer a Russian occupation than a EU occupation.

—Janusz Korwin-Mikke

Poland and Russia: Natural Allies?

While many in Poland view support for Russia as a cardinal sin, there are voices that support better ties with Moscow.

A far-right Polish politician and Member of the European Parliament, Janusz Korwin-Mikke, who is no stranger to controversy, believes that Poland and Russia are natural allies.

Korwin’s pro-Russian views haunt many like Pawel in Poland. But the far-right leader does not shy away from expressing his opinion, that many believe is on the same wavelength with President Putin on the existence of European Union and NATO.

“I prefer a Russian occupation than a EU occupation. The European Union and NATO are a bigger threat for Poland than Russia,” the conservative leader said in a series of rapid-fire sentences.

Strolling around the column-lined walls of the Palace of Culture and Science with his grandchildren, Pawel only wished that the future generation in Poland continue to live what he called the ‘Polish dream’.

“Decades ago, Poles didn’t even know to dream the life they’re living today,” Pawel said in a soft tone punctuated by several pauses.

“I just hope my grandchildren live in a Poland free of the fear of Russian oppression,” he said looking at the skyscrapers that dilute the presence of the Communist-era building.