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What Is Happening to Poland’s Military?

The government is making changes that may make sense politically. But are they undermining the country's defense in the process?


Exactly one year ago to the day, Poland’s minister of defense, Antoni Macierewicz, was quoted as saying he wanted to grow Poland’s army from 100,000 to 150,000. He called it “the minimum which is necessary to respond to military threats.”

Macierewicz did add 50,000 troops. But they did not join the military, per se. Rather, they were considered a separate entity — volunteer troops to trained and ready in three years and equipped with Polish-made materials; who focus not on operational maneuvers, but on local tasks; and who are not in the military structure, but are answerable to the Ministry of Defense.

The territorial defense brigades were one part of a larger change in Poland over the past year. It included the government returning military manufacturing to Poland and giving more control to the Ministry of Defense. Yet as Warsaw and the world looks ahead to an incoming U.S. president who has been openly critical of NATO, the reforms also perhaps have undermined Poland’s own national defense in the process.

In addition to the territorial defense brigades, the return of Polish military manufacturing makes sense in terms of domestic politics, said Marek Swierczynski, senior analyst at Polityka Insight. But it is less logical in terms of geopolitics — namely, the always-looming threat of Russia and need to meet certain NATO standards, particularly at an uncertain time.

Macierewicz’s Law and Justice party came to power in late 2015 on a platform of returning to Polish values and social programs for Polish people. Admittedly, the previous ruling party had put in place a very expensive armament program.

But the current government “almost turned upside down what is being procured,” Swierczynski said in an interview with Foreign Policy. It postponed and reduced, for example, the purchase of search and rescue helicopters for the Navy (and will now likely not meet NATO and the EU’s search and rescue requirements), and will instead focus on the purchase of small drones.

This is in part because of the extensive social programs promised by the Law and Justice party, which probably cannot be enacted if the government is also spending 8 to 10 billion zloty annually on new military equipment. Moreover, the military equipment being bought can be made in Poland — specifically, in eastern and central Poland, home to the Polish defense industry, and also to many Law and Justice voters.

To be clear, Poland has not entirely stopped purchasing from foreign countries (like, for example, from the United States, which recently sold Warsaw state-of-the art JASSM-ER missiles). But Law and Justice, which cancelled a deal with France’s AirBus and said last month it would instead buy locally-manufactured helicopters — is re-industrializing Poland.

It’s “very much like Donald Trump, actually,” Swierczynski explained — Law and Justice is making Poland great again, one small Polish drone at a time. But they are doing so for political reasons, and not, necessarily, because that is will best serve the army or, by extension, the safety and security of Poland.

Perhaps more unsettlingly for the future of Poland’s military is the reality that Macierewicz and the Defense Ministry spent the past year making changes to the army without consulting its most senior personnel. The chief of defense was not consulted when the ministry replaced his deputies. People are appointed to positions without the necessary ranking required. The NATO-Corps deputy commander is supposed to be a two-star general, but a colonel was given the post instead. The Washington military attache — also at least a one-star position — has been empty since April.

The lower ranks, Swierczynski explained, are quite pleased with these changes. They have been getting more pay raises and promotions. They are allowed to serve as privates for as long as they like now (there used to be a 12 year limit, after which they were expected to try to move up the ranks). Now, they can gain pension entitlements without being promoted.

But the higher ranks are displeased. On Dec. 15 and 16 — the same day Warsaw was engulfed in protest after the government tried to pass a law limiting media access to parliament — Miroslaw Rozanski, commander general of the armed forces and Adam Duda, in charge of purchasing for the Polish army, resigned. Adam Gocul, chief of general staff and Poland’s only four-star general, also is said to be leaving soon.

Polish Defense Ministry Undersecretary Tomasz Szatkowski told Foreign Policy that Polish allies understand personnel changes are natural, and suggested that the general’s resignation was in part because he did not agree that efforts should be concentrated around Eastern Poland. The ministry puts “real professionals into these posts,” he stressed.

But Macierewicz has the mentality that professionalism is not of the utmost importance. His belief is that “You can gain professionalism in due time,” Swierczynski said. “First, you have to be loyal.”

That’s what was seen in 2016. Whether the Polish military will be better served by loyalty than it was by professionalism in the age of a potential alliance between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will be seen in the year, and years, to come.

Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer contributed reporting to this post.

Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin