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Poland seeks to deter Russia with huge military parade – DW – 08/15/2023

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August 15 is a date steeped in symbolism for Poland. On this day in 1920, Polish soldiers and volunteers halted the Red Army’s advance on Warsaw, changing the course of the Polish-Soviet War in the process.

In the months preceding this victory, Soviet troops had notched up several military successes and were on the cusp of capturing the capital of the Second Polish Republic.

The Soviets had hoped that the subjugation of Poland would be a milestone in a much bigger campaign: Leaders Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky had both wanted to reach Berlin “over Poland’s dead body.” Once there, they intended to start a world revolution.

Poland’s victory that day, which went down in history as the “Miracle on the Vistula,” put a stop to the Soviet march westwards.

Celebrating victory over Soviet Russia

Since the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe more than 30 years ago, Poles have celebrated this historic victory. The Polish parliament declared August 15 Armed Forces Day in 1992.

People wearing the Polish national colors and waving Polish flags wait for the start of Poland's Armed Forces Day military parade, Warsaw, Poland, August 15, 2023
Poles have celebrated Armed Forces Day since 1992, when the Polish parliament declared August 15 a national holidayImage: Czarek Sokolowski/AP/picture alliance

Even though a military parade has been held on this day every year since 2007 — except during the years of the COVID-19 pandemic — this year’s weapons display put all previous parades to shame.

Biggest military parade since 1989

On Tuesday afternoon, crowds gathered in the scorching summer sun to watch 2,000 soldiers and 200 military vehicles — including US-made Abrams tanks and South Korean K2 tanks — parade along the River Vistula and past Warsaw’s Royal Castle.

The airspace over Warsaw was secured by Black Hawk helicopters and F-16 fighter jets. Soldiers from the US and a number of allied European countries marched alongside their Polish counterparts.

A message to Moscow

Addressing the troops and the crowds, Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said that it was “a perfect day to show our strength, to show that we have built powerful armed forces that will effectively defend our borders without hesitation.”

Members of a military band arrive for the military parade on Armed Forces Day, Warsaw, Poland, August 15, 2023
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, said earlier this week that the Polish army must be increased to 300,000 soldiersImage: Kacper Pempel/REUTERS

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Poland’s government launched a massive program to modernize the country’s army as quickly as possible. According to the Polish Defense Ministry, almost 140 billion Zloty (€31.5 billion/$34 billion) will be spent on weaponry this year alone.

Deterioration in Polish-German relations

The government will be cooperating not only with the US, which has long been an important partner, but also primarily with South Korea.

The close cooperation with Germany, which was an important partner for Poland in the years after the collapse of Communism, has deteriorated in recent years because the leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, views Berlin more as a threat than an ally.

All attempts to arrange a so-called “ring exchange” — whereby Poland would supply Ukraine with its old Soviet-designed tanks and get modern German Leopard tanks in return — ended last year with ill-feeling between the two neighboring counties. 

Poland aims to have Europe’s biggest army

Several years ago, Defense Minister Blaszczak made it clear that he wants Poland to have the biggest army in Europe. He recently announced that Poland now has more than 175,000 soldiers under arms. Experts estimate that of this number, only 125,000 are professional soldiers. The rest is made up of members of Poland’s Territorial Defense Force and other volunteer formations.

A woman aims a submachine gun while practicing shooting in a simulator belonging to the Polish Armed Forces under the guidance of a polish army officer, Poland, October 22, 2022
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Poland decided to increase the size of its army, which organized one-day ‘train with the army’ events to generate interest among civiliansImage: Doris Heimann/dpa/picture alliance

Party leader Kaczynski on Monday also stressed the importance of a large army, saying that “the Polish army must be increased to 300,000 soldiers. We have to buy very large amounts of weapons.”

He also quoted the old Latin adage “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

But making Poland more secure is apparently not the only objective of this defense policy. The intention is plainly that the policy should also help the ruling PiS get re-elected on October 15.

Speaking in a televised debate on Sunday, Andrzej Zybertowicz, an advisor to President Andrzej Duda, openly admitted as much, saying that “the military parade is intended to mobilize patriotic feelings, thereby helping the PiS in its election campaign.”

‘Military picnics’

Since last Friday, so-called “military picnics” have been taking place across Poland. In more than 70 locations around the country, soldiers have been meeting locals and tourists and showing off their state-of-the-art weapons.

Army recruitment officers were also on hand to generate interest in army careers among young people. State television later showed images of excited children in uniforms and helmets handling real weapons.

PiS politicians also attended the picnics, demonstratively showing themselves alongside soldiers and officers. There could be no doubt that they were campaigning, even though the Polish constitution expressly states that the country’s armed forces must remain neutral in political matters.

A first sergeant in the Polish army shows a civilian woman how to handle and hand grenade correctly, Deblin, Poland, October 22, 2022
Demand for the first ‘train with the army’ events in October and November 2022 was so high that more were organized in early 2023Image: Doris Heimann/dpa/picture alliance

Speaking on the Polish private television channel TVN, Retired General Boguslaw Pacek spoke of a “monopolization of the army by [political] parties.”

Blaming the opposition

PiS accuses the opposition liberal Civic Platform (PO) under Donald Tusk of allowing Poland’s armed forces to become run down during its time in power. It argues that between 2007 and 2015, many barracks were closed down and severe cuts were made to military spending.

What PiS politicians do not say, however, is that many Polish soldiers were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and that numerous armament projects — such as the procurement of the Patriot air defense system — were launched in this period. 

Belarusian border a major election issue

Another topic that is inextricably linked to Polish security is the question of the Polish-Belarusian border, which is also becoming an election issue.

After the Russian mercenary Wagner Group was moved to Belarus, Poland announced that it was sending 10,000 soldiers to the border region.

The fence erected along the Polish–Belarusian border is proving to be more porous than intended: Despite the barbed wire, undocumented migrants succeed in entering Poland every day.

Polish servicemen patrol the area around the Polish-Belarusian border, Gobiaty, Poland, August 12, 2023
Poland’s defense minister said on Saturday, that the country has increased the number of troops protecting its border with Belarus as a deterrent amid ‘destabilizing’ actions by its pro-Russian neighborImage: Michal Dyjuk/AP/picture alliance

PiS accuses opposition leader Tusk of having opened Poland’s borders for this kind of illegal immigration. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has referred to Tusk as “the greatest threat to our security,” while Kaczynski has said he is the “greatest enemy of our nation” and accused him of wanting to provoke a civil war in the country. 

Loaded referendum questions

PiS would ideally like security to remain on the campaign agenda right up until election day in exactly two months’ time.

In a further bid to improve its chances at the ballot box, the government will also be holding a referendum on a number of hot-button issues on election day. Polish voters will be asked, among other things, whether they “support the removal of the barrier on the border between Poland and Belarus” and whether they “support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa.”

The opposition has warned that this is “election manipulation” and is calling for a boycott of the referendum.

Adapted from the German and updated by Aingeal Flanagan

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