Poland is pressuring the United States to deploy troops in the country and reaffirm its commitment to collective self-defense under NATO. Warsaw sees Washington in an uncomfortable position in its dealings with Russia and entanglements in the Middle East. Poland is applying pressure both because it sees an opportunity to extract concessions from the United States and because it wants to test just how much it can rely on the United States to fulfill its security commitments.
Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich told Polish media Oct. 1 that his Sept. 30 talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates involved discussions on the expansion of U.S.-Polish military cooperation, including a potential U.S. troop deployment in Poland. Klich also said he stressed to Gates the need for the upcoming NATO Strategic Concept — to be unveiled at the November NATO summit in Lisbon — to reaffirm and emphasize NATO's Article V of collective self-defense. Klich brought to the United States a long wish list that Washington will find very difficult to fulfill. The United States is currently attempting to extricate itself from a complex situation in the Middle East, where it is not only trying to end two wars but also dealing with post-war arrangements, specifically what to do with Iran's growing influence in the region. The last thing the United States needs is to upset Russia, which has shown a willingness to back Washington against Iran for a price, by positioning troops on the borders of the Russian sphere of influence. This is exactly why Poland is applying pressure: It wants to see where the United States stands when it is most uncomfortable for Washington to meet the demands of its allies. Warsaw has reasons to be doubtful of the U.S. commitment. Polish history is replete with geopolitical failures prompted by allies breaking their promises to Warsaw. The fundamental Polish problem is that it is nestled between two European heavyweights, Germany and Russia, and as such, any alliance commitment places a great burden on its purported allies: facing off against Moscow and Berlin essentially in their own territory for the sake of Poland. Moreover, and more contemporarily, Poland has faced U.S. dithering on its commitments to place ballistic missile defense (BMD) and Patriot missile batteries in Poland. Warsaw was stunned in September 2009 by the U.S. decision to replace the planned deployment of 10 Ground-based Midcourse Defense interceptors (the so called Bush-era BMD plan) with a more "phased" approach of deploying Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors on U.S. BMD-capable Aegis-equipped cruisers and destroyers. Washington tried to allay Polish fears of abandonment immediately after the change of BMD plans by offering to deploy a Patriot missile battery to Poland, but this quickly became a fissure in U.S.-Russian relations as well. The deal was only finalized in May 2010 and only in a non-permanent training deployment capacity. Ultimately, the United States has redrawn its BMD plans to include deployments of ground-based SM-3 interceptors in Poland by 2018. However, from Warsaw's perspective, the U.S. decisions to alter BMD plans and only temporarily commit Patriot missile deployments clearly were more of a message to Russia than they were a gesture to Poland, aiming both to secure alternative shipping routes to Afghanistan via Moscow’s sphere of influence in Central Asia and to pressure Russia not to deliver the S-300 air defense system to Iran. (click here to enlarge image) Thus, Poland is testing the U.S. commitment to the continuation of this close bilateral security relationship. Klich said he talked with Gates about the potential stationing of U.S. troops and aircraft in Poland, including F-16s and Hercules transport squadrons. These moves would be significant enhancements of the Polish-American security relationship; in fact, the deployments of U.S. troops and aircraft in Poland would be a significant geopolitical step by the United States to encroach on the former Soviet sphere of influence — and Moscow would definitely see it as crossing a line. However, Klich also hinted at two other suggestions that may be far easier for the United States to meet. First is to readdress NATO's Article V on collective security in the upcoming NATO summit, an issue Poland worries about along with the rest of the Central and Eastern European countries fearful of the ongoing Russian resurgence. Second is to enhance Polish-U.S. cooperation on special operations forces. Poland, according to STRATFOR sources in Warsaw, wants to see the United States give it a major command in the NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ). The United States is currently the NSHQ's "Framework Nation" — the nation that provides the strategic impetus and logistics for a particular command — and Warsaw wants to see the Polish military in that role. In the short term, Poland may be aiming high (troop deployment) to get something lower (NSHQ leadership) out of the United States. However, in the long term, Warsaw wants a clear commitment from the Washington — as it has throughout its history wanted from its allies — which certainly would be demonstrated by long-term troop deployments. Poland is specifically choosing a very uncomfortable time for the United States to prove its commitment in order to gauge just how much it can rely on Washington for security cooperation in the future.