Most analysts doubt Putin plans to invade a NATO country this September, which would mean war with the Atlantic Alliance, but Warsaw is preternaturally cautious, knowing the Russians as well as they do. The strategic Suwałki gap in northeastern Poland, a narrow sliver of land between Belarus and Kaliningrad, remains tempting for Moscow. In the event of war, there can be little doubt that Russian forces would charge through that gap—where they would meet the Polish military.
And it’s not just Poles. This spring, NATO finally came through, following years of pleading from Warsaw, and deployed 1,100 troops in northeast Poland. Some 900 of those troops are American, and this NATO battalion group, which is based 35 miles south of Kaliningrad, is merely a tripwire. They would be quickly flattened by Russian tanks if war breaks out, but they guarantee Poland will not be fighting alone.
That fear is widespread in Poland and is no surprise given the country’s painful history of abandonment by unreliable Western allies. No NATO country has taken the threat of a resurgent Russia more seriously. In fall 2013, months before Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, Warsaw was signaling that NATO could no longer avert its eyes about Russian misconduct. Poland’s defense ministry postulated a new military doctrine based on territorial defense, which was viewed as unduly alarmist by some NATO countries still eager to appease Putin.
How prescient the Poles had been was soon painfully clear, with the Kremlin’s theft of Crimea and its invasion and occupation of eastern Ukraine in spring 2014. Since then, the Atlantic Alliance has been forced to ponder major war in Europe again, and Poland has led the way. Warsaw is one of the few NATO countries to spend the “required” minimum of two percent of GDP on defense (the others, aside from America, are Britain, Estonia and Greece).