Reporting on the Polish government’s plans to establish a permanent U.S. military base in Poland, both RT (in Russian) and Sputnik (in English) – the Kremlin’s two major media channels, propaganda tools and “information weapons” – published articles supporting the narrative that Poland would thus be handing over its military sovereignty to the United States.
To back their claim, they appealed to the wisdom of Alexei Martynov, director of the pro-Kremlin think tank International Institute for New States, regular guest on Russian public television and better known for suggesting that U.S. intelligence services were responsible for the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015. To remain “the United States’ main ally in Europe”, the “political expert” argued, Poland is forsaking its “military sovereignty” and surrendering it to the United States. Warsaw “is ready to give up many other things”, he continued, “and I’m not sure where this could lead the country”.
An obviously disproportionate – and false – statement which, however, gives us the opportunity to talk about an important issue.
A $2 billion U.S. military base in Poland?
Last June, a proposal drafted by the Polish defence ministry was leaked by news portal Onet. The document showed that Poland was ready to set aside up to 2 billion dollars to build a permanent U.S. military base, and was willing “to share the burden of defence spending, make the decision more cost-effective for the U.S. government and allay any concerns for Congress in uncertain budgetary times”.
The offer reflected a long-standing desire by Poland to increase U.S. military presence in the country, where officials and citizens alike see Russia as the biggest threat to their national security and territorial sovereignty – especially since the annexation of Crimea. For many years, Polish officials have been lobbying politicians and high-ranking military officers in Washington, trying to convince them of the need to put U.S. boots on the ground – permanently.
The proposal, however, raised a few eyebrows. In Moscow, quite expectedly, which has long been accusing the Alliance of violating the 1997 NATO-Russia founding act and of unlawfully strengthening its presence in Eastern Europe. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov declared that “when we see the gradual expansion of NATO military structures towards our borders… this of course in no way creates security and stability on the continent”.
But this proposal failed to convince a number of U.S. officials as well. Retired lieutenant-general and commander of the U.S. Army Europe from 2014 to 2017, Ben Hodges argued that “if Eastern Europe wants to enhance NATO’s deterrent effect, a potentially divisive military presence is not the right way to do it.”
Last month, Poland’s defence minister claimed that this project was “highly likely” to become reality. Currently on official visit in Washington, Mariusz Błaszczak met with several U.S. officials, including chair of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee William Thornberry, to discuss the issue. Yesterday, The Washington Times also published an opinion piece in which M. Błaszczak argues that “although the United States and its NATO allies have increased military activities in Central and Eastern Europe, the West is still militarily vulnerable in the region”, adding that “permanently stationing U.S. troops in Poland would be an effective deterrence against Russian incursion and would provide a vital strategic anchor for U.S. engagement in Europe’s currently volatile security environment”.
This topic will most likely be discussed during the meeting between Poland’s President Andrzej Duda (who wasn’t even in the loop of the plan before it was leaked in the press, according to reports) and Donald Trump, scheduled to take place tomorrow at the White House.
Poland has, at the very least, one bullet-proof argument to make its case: apart from the United States, it’s one of the only NATO countries (along with the U.K., Estonia and Greece) where military spending accounts for 2%, or more, of national GDP. Surely music to the ears of the U.S. President, who has been repeatedly slamming NATO allies for not respecting the Alliance’s defence expenditure requirements.
During the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw, the Alliance decided to strengthen its military presence in Eastern Europe amid growing tensions with Moscow. Rotational multinational battalions were sent to that end to the three Baltic countries and Poland (see map below), a move President Duda then called a historic moment “awaited for by generations”.
Far from amounting to Poland’s forfeiture of its own military sovereignty, the establishment of a permanent U.S. military base would nonetheless represent a dramatic shift with far-reaching consequences, most likely to prompt a proportionate response from Russia and give officials in Moscow all the more reason to denounce the West’s military build-up and “provocations” close to its borders.