President-elect Donald Trump has rattled U.S. allies with his NATO skepticism and overt fondness of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But Poland is nonetheless pinning its hopes on Trump shoring up the military alliance, according to a senior Polish defense official.
That’s in part because the Obama administration’s military initiatives in Europe, if they remain in place, may not be enough to stave off Russian aggression. Poland’s Defense Ministry Undersecretary Tomasz Szatkowski hopes for more when Trump takes office.
Szatkowski would like to see “more strategy behind those projects,” under Trump, “so they are not driven by political symbolism but rather by military necessity,” he told Foreign Policy.
Poland has been the epicenter of a tense standoff between Russia and the West since Moscow invaded Ukraine and drove post-Cold War relations into the gutter. NATO scrambled to respond, dusting off its Cold War-era deterrence strategies and defense planning books in a new standoff with its former adversary.
U.S. President Barack Obama, in a bid to reassure nervous allies under Russia’s shadow and shore up deterrence along NATO’s frontlines, agreed to deploy some 4,000 troops on a rotational basis to Poland and ramp up military exercises in the region.
But a permanent presence that does not rotate troops out could carry more deterrent heft, said Szatkowski. And more troops couldn’t hurt, either. Poland is welcoming U.S. troop rotations with open arms, he said, but under Trump, Warsaw “would be glad to see an even more increased presence of U.S. troops in Poland.”
It’s something Poland and the Baltic States have pushed for within NATO for years, fearful of Russia’s military buildup near their borders. Under Obama, the United States pledged a new round of U.S. troops and exercises in Europe under the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI). At a summit in July, NATO also agreed to deploy Canadian-, British-, and German-led multinational battalions to the three Baltic states along with the U.S. troops to Poland.
Conventional and nuclear capabilities are “amassing on Polish borders,” said Szatkowski, particularly in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, where Russia packed with high-end military equipment and nuclear-capable missiles in recent months.
But Trump, who said on the campaign trail he may not defend NATO allies if under attack, and promised fresh and friendly approach to Russia once in office, may roll back the ERI and other U.S. military commitments to Europe.
“There’s a sense Trump will bring a more transactional approach to Europe…as he prioritizes de-escalating tensions with Russia,” said Mark Simakovsky, a former Pentagon official who worked on NATO and Russia issues. He told Foreign Policy that Trump could slash U.S. forces in Europe in a bid to repair tattered U.S.-Russia relations.
Some in Europe are sympathetic to Trump’s more realist tack on NATO, particularly given Europe’s laggard defense spending. Only five of 28 NATO members - the United States, Poland, Estonia, the United Kingdom, and Greece - meet the alliance’s benchmark of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. That has fatigued the United States, says Szatkowski, adding that some NATO allies took U.S. defense guarantees “for granted.”
Poland, a big defense spender, isn’t one of those free-riders. Szatkowski expected this message would resonate in Trump’s White House.
Trump “is aware of our contributions,” Szatkowski said, citing a speech Trump gave to Polish-Americans in September in which he pledged to work with Poland to strengthen NATO. “We expect to be treated as a solid ally.”
Robbie Gramer writes for Foreign Policy magazine. He wrote this column for Bloomberg.