BRUSSELS/WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland is putting its own spin on a nuanced NATO plan to deter Moscow in eastern Europe without stationing permanent troops on Russia’s borders, prompting disquiet from allies including Britain, which needs Warsaw’s help in EU reform negotiations.
Poland’s defense minister on Thursday seized on Britain’s announcement that it is sending troops for exercises in the country, telling local radio that London would station 1,000 military personnel in Poland from next year.
Britain’s defense ministry declined to comment, but alliance diplomats say there are no such plans. Britain is providing nearly 1,000 troops for two NATO exercises later this year, as well as 1,000 personnel in four years’ time, when Poland will lead the new NATO rapid-reaction spearhead force.
But the subtlety of the language used to promote the new NATO deterrent policy in the east is an opportunity for Poland’s new conservative government. Warsaw, which is hosting the NATO summit in July, has called for a permanent NATO troop presence in the past and the new government has intensified those demands.
NATO’s current compromise aims to have a “persistent” - rather than “permanent” - military in the east, based on a new network of eight small NATO outposts, more war games, and, if needed, a rapid response force, including air, maritime and special operations components of up to 40,000 personnel.
“Some people say ‘permanent’, others use ‘persistent’, other people use ‘rotation’. In fact we are talking about the same thing,” General Petr Pavel, chairman of NATO’s military committee, told a news conference on Thursday.
The idea is to reassure the ex-Soviet countries in NATO that they are protected from the kind of annexation Russia orchestrated in February in 2014 in Crimea, while avoiding a return to the Cold War, when the United States had some 300,000 service personnel stationed in Europe.
NATO also wants to keep a 1997 promise to Moscow not to permanently station forces on the Russian border, thereby avoiding antagonizing a newly-assertive Russia and reach a peace settlement in eastern Ukraine, where NATO says Russia supports the rebels with weapons and troops.
Russia responded on Friday by saying it will form four new military divisions this year to strengthen its western and central regions because of the stepped-up exercises, which NATO set out in a calendar published on Thursday.
That is exactly the kind of reaction NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg wants to avoid, saying last year that he will not be “dragged into an arms race”.
Publicising NATO’s message is a sensitive task, because eastern and Baltic NATO allies hope that a persistent NATO military presence in the east may one day become permanent, whereas NATO wants to avoid giving that impression.
Poland and the Baltic states prepared a joint position in May last year to lobby NATO for the permanent stationing of a brigade. All three former Soviet republics have Russian minorities and fear Kremlin moves to inflame tensions there after the pro-Russian insurrection in eastern Ukraine.
Polish President Andrzej Duda said last week at NATO he wanted any NATO troop presence to be “permanent to the greatest extent possible”.
NATO allies such as Germany and Britain are against stationing forces permanently in the east. But Britain is also wary of publicly criticizing the Polish government as London seeks its support in negotiations aimed at keeping Britain in the European Union ahead of a referendum on “Brexit” expected in June.
Poland is understood to be open to compromise over British demands to limit the rights of EU migrants if London helps build up NATO’s presence in central Europe.
NATO’s main focus is on a 5,000-strong “spearhead” force, part of which can move within 48 hours.
But Poland’s Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said that was not enough. “A few years ago, it was assumed that (the eastern flank’s security) could be guaranteed through a support mechanism, a spearhead,” he said on Thursday at a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Warsaw.
“Today, this position is evolving and is starting to head in the direction of security guarantees being fulfilled through ... a presence of allied troops.”
Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak in Warsaw; editing by Andrew Roche