Will Russia Attack Poland Next?

The Australian version of 60 Minutes recently aired this 17-minute segment about the level of apprehension and preparation now going on in Poland over the possibility of war with Russia.  According to it, Poland is taking the possibility of a Russian attack very seriously.  The military is exercising near the border and is actively expanding and mobilizing.  And also, ordinary Poles are terrified about the possibility of war and are making plans on how to flee if worse comes to worst.

I disagree.  I am an American expat who has lived in retirement in Poland since 2007.  Admittedly I live in the western portion of Poland hundreds of miles from the Belarus and Ukraine borders; nevertheless, I think I have my finger on the pulse of what Poland is really thinking I have yet to meet one single person who is at all worried that Russia might attack Poland next.  I think Aussie 60 Minutes cherry-picked the most frightened Poles it could find and falsely made them representative of Poland as a whole.

The first question is, does Putin have any interest in attacking Poland and absorbing it into the greater Russian empire?  Theoretically, he might.

There are two reasons why Putin decided to attack Ukraine.  One of them, in a word, is NATO.  To Putin, but really to any competent ruler of Russia, Ukraine in NATO is a red line, just as Russian missiles in Cuba in 1962 were a red line to JFK.  NATO is why Putin attacked South Ossetia in 2008 – to prevent Gruzia (Georgia) from joining NATO – and is why he annexed Crimea in 2014 after the Maidan coup d’etat overthrew the pro-Russian government.

But the other reason why Russia attacked is Putin’s vision of a Russia with the restored borders the USSR had when it collapsed.  And part of his vision for a restored Russia is his belief that the three great Slavic peoples of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine really are one people and belong together, much as Adolf Hitler felt about Volksdeutscher everywhere when he anschluss’d Germanic Austria into the Greater German Reich in 1938.  Putin expressed such views recently in a paper he wrote, On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.

A Polish legend holds that once upon a time, all the Slavic people lived together as one nation and had a common language, but the three Slavic brother-kings decided to split up and go their separate ways because their homeland wasn’t big enough to support everybody.  Rus went east and founded Russia.  Czech went south and established, more or less, Bohemia.  And Lech went west and founded Poland.

If Putin wants to take this idea of pan-Slavic brotherhood farther to include Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, he could.  And by the way, this logically could also even include Bulgaria and the south Slavs of the former Yugoslavia.  It was Russia’s historic ethnic and Orthodox affinity with Serbia that caused it to declare war on Austro-Hungary after the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princeps shot Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 which provoked Austro-Hungary to declare war on Serbia, all of which set off the great chain reaction of the Guns of August that launched WWI.  I don’t think Putin’s idea of a pan-Slavic union includes the south Slavs.  But then again I never thought he’d attack Ukraine either...

But will he attack Poland?  I still think not for six reasons

1) Demographics:  According to this site, Russia’s population in 2018 was 146.9 million, and has dropped slightly since then to about 146.2 million.  As for Poland’s population, different Internet sources give slightly different numbers but, basically, its population has held steady at around 38 million from 2016 to now.  That yields a population ratio of 3.85 to 1. Given Russia’s need to spread out its armed forces to cover thousands of miles of borders and Poland’s ability to concentrate everything on short borders – see below – this ratio lowers in Poland’s favor.

According to this site, Poland has 120,000 troops on its eastern borders now, plus 10,000 Americans and small amounts from other NATO countries.  That compares with the 170,000 that Russia mobilized to attack Ukraine – less now by however many thousands of troops have been killed / captured / surrendered / wounded in action, and otherwise maimed by non-combat causes such as frostbite, self-mutilation, and radiation exposure at Chernobyl.

Furthermore, Russia’s numbers have been in steady decline because of emigration and the aging of its population, whereas Poland’s population can remain as young as ever thanks in part to immigration from Ukraine.  For years Ukrainians have seen in Poland the same thing that indigent Mexicans see in the United States: a wealthier country that is worth emigrating to. 

2) Short Borders: Poland would have about 200 km of borders with the Kaliningrad Enclave to defend plus about 350 km with its border with Belarus, and less than 100 km more to defend were Russia to attack Poland via Lithuania through the Suwałki gap.  Poland also has 400 km of borders with Ukraine

3) NATO:  Relative to Russia, NATO is stronger than ever.  For this reason alone it is almost inconceivable that Russia would ever attack.

4) Quality of Equipment: Poland has all the latest NATO equipment and training that Ukraine lacks.  NATO hasn’t given Ukraine everything that Poland has, but even what NATO has donated is giving Russia fits.

5) Historical Motivation: Ukraine has profound historical motivation to fight Russia.  If nothing else, the Great Famine and Holomodor of around 1930 profoundly motivates Ukraine to fight with far more vigor than the Russians have.

And Poland has at least as much motivation.  The 18th-century partitions of Poland left half of Poland under Russia’s thumb for over a century – and don’t forget the fourth partition of Poland in 1939 too!  Poland drove off a Bolshevik assault on Poland in 1920 immediately after establishing independence on the very day WWI ended in 1918. 

Poland's changing borders (credit: Krzysztoflew  CC BY-SA 3.0

To this day, Poland feels more aggrieved about the Katyn Forest massacre of 20,000 Polish Army officers than it does about the 3 million Polish Christians (not to mention Poland’s additional 3 million Polish Jews) all of whom perished at German hands during WWII.  Poland had to put up with a quasi-Russian occupation of Poland after WWII for about 45 years.  

I live outside Legnica which for years was known as “Mała Moskwa” – “Little Moscow” – because half the inhabitants were Russian soldiers.  It was the headquarters for the entire Western Front; if the USSR had ever decided to attack NATO and Western Europe, Moscow would have sent the orders to the Western Front headquarters in Legnica which then would have processed them in detail.  The locals were extremely happy to see the Russians go, and then to take and possess via squatters’ rights the thousands of housing units that had suddenly become vacant and available for nothing when the Russians left.

To this day, many Poles believe that a vile Russian conspiracy consciously killed off dozens of top leaders in the Polish government on a crashed flight to Katyn about 12 years ago.  On that occasion, Russia was trying to make a good-faith effort to atone and make amends for the Stalinist crimes at Katyn during WWII.  The accident was caused by the Polish leadership on the airplane who insisted on flying to Smolyensk in the midst of thick fog instead of diverting either to Minsk or Moscow because they were in a hurry to make it to the ceremony on time.

But many Poles nevertheless believe in this conspiracy theory because it complements and reinforces their natural antipathy to Russia.  Conclusion: Poland – will – fight.  Understand that. 

6) Quality of Manpower – Despite the fact that Russia has many fine military units, it continues to bulk out its forces with draftees who are poorly trained, supplied, and motivated.  According to “Victor Suvorov” (a pseudonym), writing in the 1980s in his Inside the Soviet Army, Russia does semi-annual induction classes, so that at any given time, there are four classes of draftees who are all doing 2-year terms in the Russian army.  The system is brutal and dehumanizing and results in the poor morale and lack of motivation that has characterized the Russian Army’s recent performance in Ukraine.  And now word is, Putin is calling up ex-soldiers who were already discharged after fulfilling their military obligations and is having a supplemental and universal draft on top of this, all to replace his losses.  They will be so much cannon fodder.  Lotsa luck with that.

Russia’s experience in Ukraine has shown that its army is incompetent.  At one time Poland also drafted as per the Soviet / Russian model, but wisely went all-volunteer about a dozen years ago.  Unlike Russia’s army, Poland’s army is wholly professional.  Its soldiers want to serve.

Russia’s army has taken a fearsome licking at the hands of a Ukraine whose valiant army simply fights well below Poland’s weight class.  It will take Russia many years to recover.

Conclusion: Russia will never attack Poland.  Take that, Aussie 60 Minutes!

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