Poland is arming itself. The military parade on Tuesday (15 August) is intended as a demonstration of strength against Russia. Defense policy also plays an important role in the election campaign.
August 15 is considered a symbolic date in Poland. On this day in 1920, Polish soldiers and volunteers stopped the attack of the Red Army in front of Warsaw with their last strength – the turning point in the Polish-Soviet War. Soviet troops commanded by Mikhail Tukhachevsky had scored several military victories in the preceding months and were on the verge of taking the capital of the re-established Polish Republic after World War I.
The subjugation of Poland was only intended as a milestone – the Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky wanted to get to Berlin “over Poland’s corpse” in order to start a world revolution from there. Poland’s victory, which went down in Polish history as the “Miracle on the Vistula”, thwarted these plans.
The day of the battle has been celebrated since the collapse of the communist bloc 30 years ago. In 1992, the Polish Parliament proclaimed August 15 as the Armed Forces Holiday. Military parades have been held on this occasion since 2007, with an interruption due to the pandemic. This year, the arms show is set to eclipse all previous parades.
The largest military parade since the fall of communism in 1989
On Tuesday afternoon, 2,000 soldiers are to march along the Vistula, past the Royal Castle in Warsaw, flanked by 200 military vehicles, including American Abrams and South Korean K2 tanks. Black Hawk helicopters and F-16 fighter jets are to ensure airspace security. Allied soldiers from the USA and some European countries should also be there. “This is the biggest parade since the fall of communism in 1989,” the Ministry of Defense proudly announced in advance.
The parade is designed to demonstrate the strength and advancement of the Polish Armed Forces. After the Russian attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Poland’s government began to rapidly modernize its army. According to the Ministry of Defense in Warsaw, almost 140 billion zloty (about 31.5 billion euros) will be spent on weapons in 2023 as well. In addition to the traditionally important partner USA, the national-populist government is primarily focusing on cooperation with South Korea.
Close cooperation with Germany – an important partner of Poland since the democratic transition – was dropped because the head of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), Jaroslaw Kaczynski, sees Berlin more as a threat to his country than an ally. An attempted ring swap, in which Poland was supposed to hand over its old Soviet-designed tanks to the Ukraine in exchange for the modern German Leopard tanks, ended last year with serious disagreement between the countries.
Soon the largest army in Europe?
The goal for the army is clearly stated. Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak announced years ago that Poland should have the strongest army in Europe. He recently announced that Poland now has 175,000 gunmen. Analysis by experts shows that only 125,000 of them are professional soldiers. The rest are members of the territorial defense and other volunteer formations.
“The Polish army must be expanded to a strength of 300,000 soldiers. We have to buy very large quantities of weapons,” Kaczynski said on Monday in Uniejow near Lodz in central Poland. He referred to an ancient Roman wisdom: “We are preparing for war, but we want peace.”
Military picnics to help voters
The defense policy should not only make Poland safer, but also help the ruling party PiS win the parliamentary elections on October 15. “The military parade is intended to mobilize patriotic feelings and thus help the PiS in the election campaign,” Andrzej Zybertowicz, an adviser to President Andrzej Duda, openly admitted in a television discussion on Sunday (13 August).
Since last Friday (August 11), so-called “military picnics” have been taking place all over Poland. Soldiers met with the local population and tourists in 70 towns and presented their modern weapons – hands-on, so to speak. The local recruiting offices tried to make a military career attractive to young Poles. State television later showed pictures of enthusiastic children in uniform and helmets handling real weapons.
As a matter of course, however, PiS politicians were also present at the picnics, who showed demonstrative proximity to soldiers and officers and no doubt campaigned at the same time – although according to the Polish constitution, the armed forces are supposed to remain neutral in political matters. Boguslaw Pacek, a retired general, spoke on the Polish private television station TVN of the “army being taken over by parties”.
The PiS uses security and defense policy sometimes more, sometimes less openly for its election campaign. Her main accusation: the opposition ran Poland’s army down. Because in the years 2007 to 2015, when Donald Tusk’s liberal civil platform PO ruled, many barracks were closed and defense spending was massively cut. The PiS politicians remain silent about the fact that Polish soldiers proved their worth in Iraq and Afghanistan during this period and that many armaments projects, including the purchase of the Patriot air defense system, were initiated at the time.
Border with Belarus as an election campaign issue
The situation on the Polish-Belarusian border is closely linked to the security issue – and it is also becoming a campaign issue. After the Wagner group was exiled to Belarus, Poland announced that it would transfer 10,000 soldiers to the border region. The fence erected along the Polish-Belarusian border has turned out to be full of holes: despite the border installations with barbed wire, illegal migrants enter Poland every day.
The PiS accuses opposition leader Donald Tusk of opening Poland’s border to illegal immigration. “Tusk poses the greatest threat to our security,” said Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. He was “our nation’s greatest enemy,” said Kaczynski some time ago, accusing the opposition leader of wanting to start a civil war in Poland.
If the PiS has its way, the security question should remain present until the election day itself on October 15th. In order to improve its chances in the parliamentary elections, the PiS has announced a referendum for the same day. “Do you want the border barrier removed?” is one of the questions asked there. “Are you supporting the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa?” another. The opposition warns that this is “election manipulation”. She is now calling for a boycott of the referendum. Security and defense policy is likely to remain a much-discussed topic.