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NATO’s Eastern Front Is Being Tested

The alliance should renew its vows in Warsaw – loudly and clearly enough to be heard in Moscow.

ZAGAN, POLAND - JUNE 18:  A soldier of the Polish Army mans a tank as a NATO flag flies behind during the NATO Noble Jump military exercises of the VJTF forces on June 18, 2015 in Zagan, Poland. The VJTF, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, is NATO's response to Russia's annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Troops from Germany, Norway, Belgium, Poland, Czech Republic, Lithuania and Holland were among those taking part today.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
ZAGAN, POLAND - JUNE 18: A soldier of the Polish Army mans a tank as a NATO flag flies behind during the NATO Noble Jump military exercises of the VJTF forces on June 18, 2015 in Zagan, Poland. The VJTF, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, is NATO's response to Russia's annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Troops from Germany, Norway, Belgium, Poland, Czech Republic, Lithuania and Holland were among those taking part today. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The history of modern Poland used to be a story of annexation and perennial partitions — a subjugated nation that time and again has fallen prey to more powerful neighbors.

Poland was sometimes regarded as a geopolitical trouble spot. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945 — a summit that unfortunately saw Great Britain and the United States concede our country to Josef Stalin – U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt even said that Poland had been a headache to the world for more than five centuries.

But now, it is a headache no longer. Since Poland signed up for NATO in 1999, since becoming a full member of the alliance and the European Union, we have been a robust and reliable partner. Our troops have stood strongly shoulder-to-shoulder with Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. Poland and the United States are now more than strategic partners: We are close friends and allies with shared values and interests. Regrettably, Poland’s previous leadership neglected relations with the United States, but the new Law and Justice government wants to rebuild them and, as equal partners, bring our countries even closer together.

We all cannot escape difficult geopolitical reality: We are witnessing a dramatic deterioration of the security situation in Europe’s eastern and southern neighborhoods, including directly on Poland’s doorstep. So we are pressing our allies to take a more dynamic approach to NATO, one that recognizes the menace posed by a restless and intrusive leadership in Moscow. It is not the time for passivity or complacency. NATO’s Eastern flank must be strengthened to ensure real security for Poland and the region. We have to send a powerful message in defense of democracy and respect for the sovereignty and integrity of international borders.

As Russia flexes its muscles on Poland’s – and NATO’s – eastern border, the only rational response is to tighten transatlantic solidarity. To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy: “History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners, and necessity has made us allies.”

Poland and the United States have been long-term allies since the Polish and American general Tadeusz Kościuszko, friend and advisor of George Washington, built West Point and helped win the Revolutionary War. Now we share not only the same norms and values but also a special interest in European security. That is why both sides of the Atlantic need to be concerned that institutions set up to defuse regional tension and foster dialogue – such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – are being sidelined. Their soft power is ignored and discounted while our hard power and resolve are constantly being challenged. This is creating a vacuum that is being exploited by the Russian leadership. It is increasingly drawn to the politics of force. Poles — but not only Poles — well remember the misery inflicted on 20th century Europe by such policies.

Poland is not in the business of causing political migraines. NATO remains the cornerstone of Polish and transatlantic security. Warsaw has demonstrated its credibility as a reliable, active member of NATO, having raised military spending to the benchmark of 2 percent of GDP. But it has earned the right to give its friends and allies a bit of a shake. What we are telling our friends is that the alliance does not in itself guarantee security. What Europe and the United States need is a more active, energetic NATO that takes practical steps to ensure the real safety of its citizens.

And the place to start is the alliance’s Eastern flank. Only a substantial investment in infrastructure, the deployment of military units on the ground – reinforced by precise contingency plans in the event of attack – can give Poland and its neighbors the security we need. These measures are not meant to provoke anybody. Rather, they are important steps toward reducing the risk of conflict. Build up defenses and we eliminate the temptation to test NATO’s cohesion.

The founding principle of NATO is to deter an external aggressor, share military capacities, and demonstrate the solidarity to make that deterrence credible. It means re-invigorating NATO’s basic tenets. It means the United States sticking to the idea that it shares a common worldview with its European partners — and Western Europeans recognizing the geopolitical reality by extending more support to their allies on the vulnerable eastern fringes of NATO.

We should send a strong signal to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which seems to base much of its foreign policy on trying to divide us. This is no time for America to withdraw into its shell and pursue an isolationist foreign policy. That is why we welcome the U.S. decision to deploy a heavy armored brigade in our region. The deployment is an important step toward greater security of the region and the whole continent and goes a long way in strengthening NATO’s Eastern flank.

The forthcoming NATO summit in Warsaw in July should be the moment and the place where the alliance renews its marriage vows — loudly and clearly, so that the mutual commitment can be heard all the way to Moscow. Once operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Haiti bound us together and required our support. Today it is NATO’s Eastern flank that demands special attention.

That does not mean of course that the alliance should set aside other global challenges. The collective fight against the threat of Daesh, or the so-called Islamic State, is a civilizational struggle, and we hope to overcome it together. Poland knows what is entailed in the transition from dictatorship to democracy and will always try to play a part in the stabilization of the Middle East and North Africa. Although sensitized to the threat from the east, we are not turning our back on the wider world. On the contrary, we are opening new diplomatic missions in Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa and returning to trouble spots such as Baghdad, Damascus, and Tripoli. Diplomatic presence is vital even — or especially — when the thunder of war rumbles around you.

But the Warsaw summit will above all give leaders a chance to analyze how the world is being changed by force, how the rule book is being ripped up. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, our eastern neighbor, is a reminder of the Kremlin’s aim to revise the post-Cold War European order. Russia constantly and stubbornly seeks to expand its sphere of influence to the Eastern European countries. This policy is underpinned by the expansion of the Russian military potential and hybrid activities, including propaganda.

However, as Polish President Andrzej Duda pointed out recently, “Poland has no eternal foes.” Despite a very difficult past we have managed to build friendly relations with Germany. A similar process could happen with Russia one day.

Social changes, armed conflicts, economic crises, and migration have upset our basic assumptions about what constitutes a safe world. It is our hope that today, as in the past, NATO will be able to strategically adapt to the changing security environment and geopolitical situation. We must use the Warsaw summit to give the alliance a new dynamic and make it stronger in the long run.

We want Warsaw to be the place where, through practical steps, the alliance reaffirms the credibility of security guarantees toward all its members. Our fundamental goal is an equal security status for all NATO member states across the entire territory of the alliance. So our quest for security cannot be limited to classic military defenses – the political and economic stability of the Eastern flank are also priorities.

Some politicians and pundits seem to think that when our government pursues these goals it is acting in an anti-European way. They’re totally wrong. We want to be in the European Union, but we understand it as a democratic European Union rooted in solidarity. This of course does not make us Euroskeptics — we simply want a union that cares about the interests of all its members – also because that is the very core of modern security.

Poland’s new government – the first in our history to win an absolute majority in Parliament – is trying, in this spirit, to rebalance Polish society. Although a quarter-century has passed since Poland’s liberation from the suffocating influence of Moscow-imposed communism, Poland has still not achieved a lot of the demands voiced by Polish society in 1989. Poles voted for the Law and Justice Party last October hoping it would deliver social justice and democratize the political process. This is what our reforms of media and the Constitutional Tribunal have set out to do. At their core is a conviction that a strong country needs strong, democratic institutions.

If the alliance is to defend itself effectively each of its members must be clear what it is ready to fight for, what values, what kind of society. Confusion about this could sap the resolve of the West and sow doubts as to whether any challenge justifies sacrifice. But there is no place for defeatism in this great alliance to which we are so proud to belong. Only a tightening of ties between the United States and Europe and a discernible consolidation of the alliance’s Eastern flank can guarantee the long-term safety of the region — and ensure that Europe’s stability will never again become a headache for the world.

Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Witold Waszczykowski, Ph.D., is the minister of foreign affairs of Poland

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