Marcin Waszczuk is ready for action. Dressed in camouflage fatigues with a Polish flag on the shoulder, the heavyset 41-year-old is the head of Strzelec, one of Poland’s largest paramilitary organisations, and he wants to be prepared in case of a Russian attack.
His office sits in a notable location: the PAST office block, one of Warsaw’s few pre-war skyscrapers. During the 1944 Warsaw uprising, fighters from Poland’s Home Army, the largest partisan force in Europe, battled for 18 bloody days to seize the building from German troops, and held on until the two-month-long uprising was finally crushed.
Now Mr Waszczuk wants to draw on Poland’s history of guerrilla warfare to cope with the challenges of an increasingly unpredictable Russia. “We are the continuation of the Home Army,” he says. The goal is to form light infantry units scattered around the country able to continue the fight “if there is an invasion and the Polish military is destroyed”.
These ideas are not entirely far-fetched. In early December, Poland’s defence ministry approved an upgraded national defence plan that includes an effort to co-ordinate better between the regular military and informal paramilitary outfits. Strzelec counts about 5,000 members; several hundred thousand other Polish civilians, including military re-enactment enthusiasts, are thought to be keen on the programme. The military already aids paramilitary groups with surplus uniforms and training sessions.
The strategy also shifts more of Poland’s military assets to its eastern border, in keeping with the so-called Komorowski Doctrine. Bronislaw Komorowski, the president, has pressed the country to focus more on territorial defence and less on far-flung excursions to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. And while reviving the Home Army may seem quixotic, security experts worry that Poland’s army, which still relies heavily on outdated Soviet-era weaponry, would be unable to withstand a full-on Russian attack.
“Is the Polish army prepared? No it is not,” says Zbigniew Pisarski, president of the Casimir Pulaski Foundation, a defence and security think-tank which recently completed an assessment of Poland’s military. Mr Pisarski admits that a Russian attack is an “extreme scenario”, but Russia’s actions over the last year in Ukraine have made it seem less improbable. Even before the latest tensions arose, Russia and Belarus had practised a simulated tactical nuclear strike on Warsaw during the 2009 Zapad war games.
Spooked by the revival of its age-old enemy, Warsaw has embarked on a $US30 billion decade-long rearmament programme, one of the most ambitious in NATO. By 2022 the country should have modern missile defences as well as helicopters, tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery, communications and a larger fleet. Poland spends 1.95% of GDP on defence, one of the higher levels in the Atlantic alliance, and has committed to raise that to 2%.
But until the rearmament programme is completed, Poland is vulnerable. Current plans call for Poland to hold off an attack until Poland’s NATO allies can swing into action and come in to help. “One-on-one we have no chance,” says Mr Pisarski.
Worryingly, that is largely the same doctrine employed by the Polish military in 1939, when the doctrine was to hold off the Germans long enough for France and Britain to attack. That help never came, forcing Poles to go underground with the Home Army to continue the fight.”We supposedly had a strong alliance in 1939, and no one came to help us,” says Mr Waszczuk. “Now we’re hearing that Germany is in no shape to help us and that NATO is unclear about sending troops here. In the end, the best defence is to rely on yourself.”
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