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Poland is on a quest to have Europe’s strongest military — with U.S. arms

Patriot missiles at Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport in Jasionka, Poland, on March 25. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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At Poland’s Rzeszow airport, where President Biden’s plane touched down this week on his way to Kyiv, U.S.-made Patriot missile batteries point toward the skies. The first American M1A2 Abrams battle tanks are expected to arrive by train this spring, with hundreds of U.S.-manufactured rocket artillery systems to follow.

It is part of a mammoth military spending spree spurred by the war in neighboring Ukraine. Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak hopes the influx of arms will help build “the largest land force in Europe,” and he sees Warsaw signing billions in weapons contracts with U.S. suppliers.

“This modern weaponry will elevate our armed forces to a completely new level of defense capabilities,” Blaszczak said in a written interview with The Washington Post. With relations between Warsaw and Washington at a high when materiel can’t be manufactured in Poland, it’s only natural “we look at our closest ally,” he added.

How Russia’s war made Poland a key pit stop for Biden and other leaders

The buying spree comes as Poland attempts to solidify a position as a leading pillar of European relations with the United States, with the war in Ukraine shifting the balance of political power in Europe further to the east. That was hammered home this week as Biden — who has yet to visit Paris or Berlin during his term — made his second visit to Warsaw since the war began.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine sent shockwaves around the world as millions of refugees fled the country, grain shipments were delayed and Russian gas curtailed. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Germany — a traditional bulwark of the transatlantic relationship — has shied away from a military leadership role. And Poland, which is losing out on $37 billion in European Union cash because of its democratic backsliding, can claim moral high ground when it comes to security and its long-standing skepticism toward Moscow.

For years, Polish politicians “have been insisting that Russia is a real, existential and civilizational threat,” Blaszczak said. He cited a warning from Poland’s late president Lech Kaczynski in the wake of Moscow’s 2008 invasion of Georgia: “Today Georgia, tomorrow Ukraine, and then it well may be my homeland — Poland.”

So Poland is now on a quest to create a military so mighty that Moscow would not dare attack it.

President Vladimir Putin’s war accelerated Poland’s plans to modernize and expand its military. This year, Poland is expected to spend 4 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, double its requirements under NATO. Blaszczak said the aim to double the size of the military to 300,000 troops is “within reach and realistic,” though he did not give a time frame.

Older, Soviet-era weapons donated to Ukraine, including 240 T-72 tanks, are being replaced with more technologically advanced systems.

A $4.75 billion deal to buy 250 M1A2 Abramses was in the works before Russia’s invasion a year ago, while Poland signed another deal, worth $1.4 billion, to buy 116 older M1A1s in January.

Earlier this month, the United States gave the green light to another package of up to $10 billion, including the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) and 185-mile long-range tactical missile systems. Poland has also signed a deal with South Korea to buy 980 K2 Black Panther tanks.

“There is no other option for Poland other than to increase money on defense,” said Jacek Siewiera, head of the National Security Bureau. “A country in our geographic position has little choice.”

In addition to the access it gives Poland to high-technology systems, the decision to turn to the United States is also a “strategic choice,” Siewiera said. “The most important part is the strategic alliance,” he said, pointing to the fact that Poland is also boosting ties in other key arenas such as energy.

In October last year, Poland picked the U.S. firm Westinghouse Electric to build its first nuclear power plant, in a project that the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw said “represents 100 years of new strategic cooperation between the United States and Poland.”

“What we see in Poland is the usual frontier state reaction,” said Gustav Gressel, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, comparing it to West Germany’s reliance on the United States during the Cold War. “They’ve seen what Russian occupation looks like,” he said, with a nod to the Soviet Union’s invasion and subsequent occupation of Poland during World War II.

But Poland is also reacting to its political isolation from allies in Europe, with unresolved disputes with the E.U. and thorny relations with Germany, said Gressel, who questioned whether some of Poland’s aims are economically feasible.

The export misbalance is putting the currency under pressure, he added. “One wonders economically how a lot of the stuff that’s been announced will be achievable,” he said.

“Somebody has to pay for all that, and you really wonder who it will be. The issue of economic sustainability is there,” Gressel said.

The Polish government, led by the right-wing populist Law and Justice party, has failed to unlock $37 billion in E.U. pandemic relief funds held up until it enacts changes related to the rule of law. It is also being fined $1 million a day for not complying with an E.U. court order related to judicial changes.

Last year, the U.S. Congress approved $288.6 million in military financing for Poland to “deter and defend” against the increased threat from Russia. The cash would relieve some of the economic pressures of Poland’s spending, amid sharply slowing economic growth and 17 percent inflation.

With such high spending, one can’t “just be a client,” said Siewiera, citing plans to step up the domestic Polish defense industry.

Against that backdrop, some of the decisions on buying arms from the United States appear “over-ideological” said Gressel, given that European manufacturers are more open to joint ventures that would help develop Poland’s arms industry.

“The Americans have no interest in cooperating much beyond exporting ready-made stuff to Poland,” he said, noting the size of the market.

But new U.S. weapons aren’t the only additions. The United States has around 11,000 troops stationed in Poland. In the country’s east, the Fifth Corps Forward Headquarters is being made “permanent,” becoming the U.S. Army’s most easterly presence on NATO territory.

A base near Rzeszow, the Polish city where Biden landed this week, is home to hundreds more U.S. troops. The city’s restaurants have started putting steak on the menu to cater to their new customers, Mayor Konrad Fijolek said. There are daily flights of humanitarian and military aid for Ukraine, and military production in the area is taking off.

“In the past, we used to be a city on the outskirts of Poland and the E.U.,” said Fijolek. “Right now, we’re in the center.”