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Russia’s Strategy, Goals, Means and Ways – A View from Poland

In connection with BASIC’s Risk Reduction Programme we have asked experts and scholars from the 3 Baltic countries and Poland to provide a brief overview of their countries current risk and threat assessments. The authors of each article appearing in this series are solely responsible for the content, and the publications are not to constitute any representation by BASIC. 

Polish threat perception is shaped by Poland’s proximity to Russia. In general, Russia is perceived as a revisionist power that does not accept a post-Cold War regional security architecture. Poland sees Russia’s major policy goal in Europe to be regaining a sphere of influence on the territory of former Soviet republics. It also believes that Russia wants to limit NATO’s ability to defend the Eastern flank countries and by doing so tries to be better positioned to use military intimidation for political influence or even to fight a real conflict.

Despite NATO’s attempts to build a partnership with Russia, Moscow’s priority has been to stop or delay NATO enlargement. Poland has traditionally been concerned that Russia would attempt to exploit concessions offered by the Alliance, which included a self-imposed limitation on the deployment of troops to new members and the special mechanism of political dialogue, the NATO-Russia Council, in an attempt to divide the allies and increase Russian influence on NATO’s policy. In the same manner, Russia’s proposal of a new European Security Treaty in 2008, was seen in Warsaw as an attempt to give Moscow a right to veto the decisions of Russia’s neighbours to join NATO or even EU, and to host foreign troops on their territory. Such attempts to institutionalize a sphere of influence have been supported with a policy of intimidation and aggression, which includes undermining territorial integrity of Ukraine and Georgia.


After Crimea

After the annexation of Crimea, Russia significantly increased military activities close to NATO and EU borders, which included high risk, provocative intrusions into NATO’s airspace. It increased the scale and number of unannounced, “snap” exercises demonstrating the ability to mobilize large forces faster than NATO and shortening early-warning for military crisis. Russia’s hybrid warfare activities include military intimidation, propaganda, disinformation, cyberattacks and assassination attempts on NATO’s territory. In the Polish view, this hybrid warfare is used to limit NATO’s support for Georgia and Ukraine, stall NATO enlargement and discourage the Allies from strengthening the defences of the new members. 

In a Polish perspective, Russia’s military doctrine, capabilities (conventional, dual-use and nuclear), military integration of Belarus, exercises and hybrid operations are also supposed to send a signal that Russia has credible options to fight a war with NATO, and it is believed that Russia wants to convince the Alliance that there is an increased risk of conflict, and should such conflict erupt the risk of the employment of nuclear weapons by Russia would significantly increase. In Poland it is largely believed that Russia is trying to influence the threat perception of NATO members to further weaken NATO’s determination to strengthen the security of its members and partners in Central and Eastern Europe, and to augment Russia’s regional military superiority.


Risk of Conflict

In Poland’s perspective, Russia’s political goals and pattern of behaviour indicate that the risk of conflict with NATO cannot be ignored. Yet, the risk of accidental conflict is low. Instead, Poland considers it more likely that Russia would use military power against NATO in a planned, deliberate way, when it assesses that the benefits will outweigh potential costs and risks. Such a decision could be taken if Russia decided that NATO would be unable to bring the status quo ante by military means and would be forced to negotiate a new political agreement on regional or European security. 

If Russia decided to launch a military confrontation with a NATO member state, a conflict would be extremely fast and intensive. Any such conflict with NATO members in the Baltic Sea region would create a direct military threat to Poland. Poland considers it likely that Russia would try to close the so-called Suwalki Gap – a corridor leading from Poland to Lithuania, squeezed between Kaliningrad (Russian territory) and Belarus to cut off the Baltic States from the rest of NATO reinforcements. Polish territory, which can serve as a launching pad for a NATO collective defence operation, would be a target of pre-emptive missile attacks with dual capable weapons. Russia would use its Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities and a threat of escalation, with possible attacks against the territory of western NATO members, to divide the Alliance, delay or block the reinforcements and enforce the negotiations.


Dialogue and Cooperation

From the Polish perspective after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO has managed to work out a balanced policy towards Russia, which is based on strengthened defence and deterrence, and creating a meaningful dialogue. NATO described Russia as a threat to Euro-Atlantic security, suspended all practical cooperation and stated that there can be no return to business as usual as long as Russia breaks international law and its international obligations. For instance, Moscow attempts to dismantle confidence and security building mechanisms, and has rejected NATO’s offers for a meaningful dialogue in the NATO-Russia Council. It also refuses to engage in conventional arms control talks, unless NATO revokes all the steps it has taken since 2014 to strengthen the Alliance’s defence and deterrence posture. Poland continues to support meaningful dialogue with Russia in the NATO-Russia Council, even though Russia rejects such offers.

For Poland however, it is important not to confuse dialogue with cooperation, as Poland believes that any attempts to return to cooperation with Russia at the NATO level, even at the limited scope, will be exploited to divide the Alliance, with little or no meaningful change in Russia’s policy. Yet, if there is a need for practical cooperation with Russia in some areas, for example the fight against terrorism, this could be done in other formats, but should be supported with strengthened consultations in NATO. The trends in Russia’s behaviour has convinced Poland that Moscow escalates tensions to divide the Alliance and extract concessions. From the Polish perspective any attempts to offer such concessions, for example on NATO’s ability to deploy troops to the Eastern flank countries, could be interpreted by Russia as a sign of NATO’s weakness and a proof of effectiveness of Moscow’s policy. This could only encourage Russia to increase pressure, for example to force NATO to abandon its open door policy and its support for Georgia and Ukraine. The concession could also lead to miscalculation with Russia believing that NATO is not ready to defend the Eastern flank states, which could increase the risk of aggression. 

While the Polish assessment is that Russia is not interested in meaningful dialogue with NATO, because it calculates that the Alliance will not have enough resolve to implement its policy of defence and deterrence in the long term, the implementation of this policy and NATO’s political cohesion is crucial if the Alliance wants to effectively manage the risks and defend its interests.


Polish Priorities

Poland’s priority is to further strengthen NATO collective defence mechanisms based on allied military presence in the Eastern flank countries and credible reinforcement. Although NATO deployed multinational battle-groups to Poland and the Baltic States, the reinforcement part of the strategy is not completed and requires full implementation of the readiness initiative (4×30). It will also require a long term investment in capabilities and technologies, which should assure a military and technological edge over Russia. NATO should also constantly update its plans, support them with exercises and maintain the ability to adjust its force posture to an increasingly aggressive Russian policy. The lack of determination of the allies to strengthen conventional capabilities and to maintain status quo in nuclear policy could seriously undermine Poland’s trust in the credibility of NATO’s security guarantees.

To limit the risks, Poland accelerated the modernisation of its military potential. It already spends more than 2% GDP on defence, and plans to reach the level of 2.5% by 2030. It invests in high-end capabilities including air and missile defence, 5th generation aircraft and heavy armour. It also plans to significantly increase its military by doubling its size to 250,000 professional soldiers and 50,000 territorial defence. By doing so Poland tries to build a maximum level of conventional deterrence at the national level, and Poland is determined to meet its obligations to support the NATO missions proportionately to its potential. 


Wojciech Lorenz is a Senior Analyst in the International Security Programme at The Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM). His areas of research include NATO, Polish security and defence policy, international conflicts and deterrence. Lorenz recently published his book ‘Deterrence: Strategy and Politics’ (PISM) in Polish in 2021. In 2013-2014 he served as a civilian specialist for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Also, prior to joining PISM in 2012 he covered international affairs as an editor in the Polish Section of the BBC World Service (2001-2006).

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