NATO summit: Poland pins its hopes on the USA

Poland is expected to use the Brussels meeting to urge a greater presence in Eastern Europe. Warsaw is also lobbying for what it regards to be a key guarantor for stability: A permanent US troop presence in the country.

NATO is currently debating plans to expand its rapid deployment forces, but that in itself is not a true safety guarantee for Warsaw.

Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak welcomes the new "4 x 30" NATO initiative that aims to significantly raise the troops' preparedness by 2020, but he only sees "real military potential" on the US side, and not among European NATO partners.

"We're striving for a permanent US troop presence," Blaszczak said, arguing that this is important for Poland and the Polish people. Thousands of US soldiers have been stationed in Poland since 2017 in the framework of the "Enhanced Forward Presence" NATO initiative.

These troops rotate every few months, and their numbers are not set. As far as the Polish government is concerned, only permanent military bases equal security.

Read more: NATO desperate to avoid rerun of disastrous G7 summit

A billion-dollar deal

And Warsaw is prepared to pay. A document entitled "Proposal for a US Permanent Presence in Poland" surfaced in the media in May, with the Polish government urging permanent deployment of a US armored division in the country. The Polish government will offer significant funding for this action, about $1.5 billion to $2 billion (€1.3 billion to €1.7 billion), "as it is important to share the burden of defense spending," according to the document.

The Polish Defense Ministry confirmed the document, which was not kept secret but sent to various institutions and think tanks, as real. The government argues it feels threatened by Russia. The US Senate Defense Committee has suggested the Pentagon assess the Polish proposal.

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Treaties? What treaties?

Recent media reports about US President Donald Trump's alleged plans to withdraw troops from Germany and move them to Poland raised hopes in Poland. The reports were denied, but a new debate about a permanent US military presence in Poland was already underway.

No matter their political convictions, most Poles — and not just supporters of the national-conservative PiS (Law and Justice party) government — are in favor of the plan. According to a recent opinion poll by the CBOS polling institute, 67 percent of Poles are in favor of stationing US soldiers permanently in the country.

The 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act forbids stationing troops permanently on the alliance's eastern flank, but Warsaw doesn't see that as a problem.

The Act also obligates Russia to limit troop deployment in Europe. Polish experts argue Russia breached the Act four years ago when it annexed Crimea.

For many Poles, US military vehicles like these are a welcome sight

NATO model member state fears Russia

Poland would also regard a permanent US presence as a reward. The country has long been a model NATO member state, as it is one of the few states that actually spend the required 2 percent of the GDP on defense.

At a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Washington in April, Trump sharply criticized an imbalance in payments in the alliance, while he praised Poland for its NATO commitment. "We appreciate it," he said. The NATO states' financial readiness is one of the issues sure to be addressed at the NATO summit in Brussels.

Poland also plans to shine a light on the entire region at the summit. A statement by the Bucharest Nine states last month stressed the importance of "further strengthening of the Alliance, most notably its deterrence and defense posture," as the countries "remain fully committed to implementing all the initiatives developed as part of NATO's forward presence on the Eastern flank."  

The group that has since 2015 been trying to heighten awareness within NATO of the threat posed by Russia includes Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and the Baltic States, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. 

Trump on NATO: A war of words
Even before taking office, US President Donald Trump's relationship with NATO has been a tumultuous one, to say the least. He has disparaged the trans-Atlantic alliance, once describing it as "obsolete" and a relic of the Cold War. Here are Trump's most memorable quotes about the military alliance, even if they are at times false.
'Days of the Soviet Union'
While on the campaign trail in 2016, Trump made clear that he saw NATO as a relic of the Cold War. "You know, we're dealing with NATO from the days of the Soviet Union, which no longer exists. We need to either transition into terror or we need something else." But his remarks didn't account for how the alliance backed the US well after the collapse of the Soviet Union, especially in Afghanistan.
'Germany owes vast sums'
Trump has made defense spending his main talking point on NATO. But he has falsely accused member states of owing money to Washington, saying: "Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO, and the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany." The problem is NATO doesn't work like that. No money is owed to the alliance for defense or otherwise.
Days before his inauguration, Trump caught NATO members off guard when he claimed the alliance was "obsolete" and threatened to withdraw support. "I said a long time ago that NATO had problems: Number one, it was obsolete, because it was designed many, many years ago." Months later, he retracted his statement, citing changes within the alliance. "Now they fight terrorism," he said.
'Doesn't sound very smart'
Trump had tended to lump trade between US allies with how much Washington spends on defense. "We are spending a fortune on military in order to lose $800 billion (in trade losses). That doesn't sound very smart to me," Trump said. The problem is that while NATO members have agreed to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense, the alliance has nothing to do with international trade.
'We are the schmucks'
During a 2018 rally in Montana, Trump hit out at European allies, saying: "They want (us) to protect against Russia, and yet they pay billions of dollars to Russia, and we're the schmucks paying for the whole thing." Trump was referring to Russia as Europe's primary source for oil and natural gas, but he created a false dichotomy between energy reliance and NATO's defense spending goal.
Montenegro 'may get aggressive and congratulations, you're in World War III"
In an interview with Fox News, Trump was asked why the US should jump the defense of NATO ally Montenegro in the event of an attack. The president said he'd asked himself the same question, appearing undermine the military alliance's collective defense clause. Trump went on to describe Montenegrins as a "very strong" and "very aggressive," and that that aggression risked starting World War III.

Polish people love America

Poland wouldn't mind seeing Trump as the advocate of Eastern European interests in Brussels. It's not just about a stronger NATO presence, but also about history and shared values. Many Poles see it as a given that the US should be responsible for their security, as the country suffered at the hands of neighboring Germany and Russia in the past and feels cheated by other European states.

The PiS government agrees wholeheartedly with Trump's climate and migration policies, as well as criticism of the German-Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. And there are concrete economic interests, too: Poland buys US aircraft interceptor systems and liquefied natural gas, the latter in hopes to decrease its dependency on shipments from Russia.

There is a bit of uneasiness with regard to the fact that during the election campaign Trump called NATO obsolete, and the sure knowledge that the US president meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin right after the NATO summit. But it doesn't shake Poland's great sympathy for the US and the people's belief that America represents safety and stability.

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Date 10.07.2018
Author Monika Sieradzka