Russian attack on Ukraine made many stop to associate independence barely with annual celebrations. Almost half of the Poles fear that it may be lost. At the same time, their trust in the army is stable and high, and the support for NATO membership is higher than ever.
Izabela Siekierska until recently worked in the office of international recycling company. Today, she is in the middle of the training, after which she will be a truck driver in the 34th Panzer Cavalry. She joined the army on September 1, taking advantage of the new regulations on voluntary military service. “It had been my quiet dream. I come from a military family. Service in uniform has always been treated in my home as a prestigious one,” she emphasizes. With that comes also a sense of professional and financial stability, although currently the timing for her first steps in a military career is definitely not an easy one. The aggression of Russia in Ukraine made the risk of a global conflict suddenly become quite real. “Am I afraid of war? I would lie if I said I am not,” admits Pvt Siekierska. “It’s hard to find anyone who would think otherwise…”
In NATO We Trust
As the March survey by the Center for Public Opinion Research (CBOS) reveals, according to 85% Poles, the events in Ukraine are very dangerous to our country. 75% thinks that the war caused by Russia may transform into a global conflict. At the same time – as the result of the May survey indicates – 42% of the respondents claim that the loss of independence is a real threat. 43% of the respondents think the opposite. “The armed conflict at our borders is always a factor increasing fear. It’s enough to look at what happened after Russian annexation of the Crimea. At the time, a percentage of the respondents who expressed their anxiety about Poland’s security increased from 30% to 72%, and the number of respondents who were afraid of losing independence reached 47%,” recalls Professor T. Kwiatkowski, a sociologist at SWPS University. Professor Cezary Trosiak, a sociologist at Adam Mickiewicz University (UAM) in Poznań, puts it even more bluntly. “The result of the survey shows that on February 24 Polish nation was in shock,” he emphasizes. “In 1991, Poland as the first country in the world recognized the independence of Ukraine. For many years it has been supporting Ukrainian aspirations to become a member of the European Union. Meanwhile, Russia has shown that in order to hold them back, it is even ready for an open invasion, what in the post-war Europe is unprecedented”, adds the specialist.
As if this is not enough, the representatives of the Russian authorities at every step emphasize that their enemy is not only Ukraine, but also – or perhaps mainly – it is the West. The threats of Putin and his supporters rarely apply directly to Poland. “This is a psychological operation, which is to weaken our society,” Professor Trosiak has no doubt about it.
All the above makes the word ‘independence’ become real, it’s no longer a term found barely in school books. “Today, we almost physically experience what this independence means, and we see potential consequences of losing it. This experience escapes any political or social divisions,” says the Professor.
In these harsh times, most of the Poles seem to think reasonably. Proof? An exceptionally high trust in Poland being part of NATO structures. In the spring, 94% of the CBOS respondents supported this solution. To compare, only two years earlier, the number of supporters of the Polish membership in the North Atlantic Alliance oscillated around 85%. That’s not it yet. Never before such a significant number of respondents was sure that on the territory of Poland foreign military forces should be stationed, and in case we need it, NATO should help us. In the spring of 2022, this belief was confirmed by respectively 85% and 81% of the respondents.
To complement the above, the Poles increased their trust in the Polish army, which for years was rather constant, but the March CBOS survey revealed 76%. In another survey, conducted in April this year by the IBRIS Market and Social Research Institute commissioned by Rzeczpospolita daily paper, pollsters asked the Poles whether they would accept the obligatory 16-day military training for all citizens aged between 18 and 55. 39% answered it was a good idea, and 31.3% defined it as “rather a good idea.” The survey results clearly show that we’re living in uneasy times. With that, a change in the way we think has also come. A significant one, although it can hardly be called a revolutionary one. “The patriotism of peace, based on a civil society and a well prospering economy, does not have to be in contradiction to the investment in the alliances or a strong army. One attitude stems from the first. Still, after 1989, when we entered the period of relative peace and stability, we have neglected to build something that can be defined as the defense culture. There is a long way ahead of us,” thinks Professor Kwiatkowski.
“Independence so far seemed like an abstract idea. Something obvious, yet a little imperceptible. War in Ukraine changed a lot in this matter,” thinks Marcin Medeński, a secondary school student at the military preparation unit (at Zespół Szkół in Rzepin). At the time of our conversation, he is on the training field in Wędrzyn, where with his male and female classmates he does one of the trainings included in the program. “During such training, we learn about the military tactics, topography, map reading, etc. Most of us knows how to use a gun,” he explains. In the future, he would like to join the mechanized forces. “For me, patriotism not only means singing a hymn, it’s also a military training. Although I do hope that I will never have to use my military skills on the battlefield. I hope that NATO is strong enough to deter potential aggressors,” emphasizes Medeński.
There are more students like him. “This year’s plans initially included organization of 40 military preparation units at schools. The interest exceeded our expectations. We have increased the number of the units, and in the school year of 2022/2023, new 115 units were created. Every unit counts from 25 to 35 students,” informs us LtCol Justyna Balik, the Spokesperson for the Central Military Recruitment Center. The high school uniformed military units are to be the start for the future students of military schools, and what comes next – for future soldiers. But this is barely a drop in the sea of needs. According to the Homeland Defense Act of March 11, 2022, the army strength should systematically grow until it reaches the level of 300,000. The act also introduced a number of mechanisms, which are to accelerate the process. A novelty is the above-mentioned voluntary military service. The volunteers, who decided to apply, go through a 28-day basic, and then 11-month specialist military training. After they finish the training, they can ask to be transferred to a professional military service, territorial defense forces or reserve forces. Until October 12, the number of applications for joining a voluntary military service reached almost 20,000. The statistics show that in the last months, the recruitment centers observed a significant increase in the number of applications. In August, their general number was less than 11,000.
Even those who will not later join the permanent military service should essentially contribute to rebuilding the culture of defense or – to put it differently – society’s resilience. Such activity should constitute a part of the project of total defense, modelled on Scandinavian solutions. In Finland or Sweden, all citizens and civil institutions are to engage into the fight with an aggressor. It is not only about the fight with a gun in one’s hand, it is also about knowing how to behave in crisis situations – store necessities, help in evacuation, or be resilient to propaganda and defeatism.
Army Goes Shopping
In the meantime, the army should be strong, not only in terms of its strength. The new act anticipates that already in 2023 Poland should be spending on defense 3% of its GDP, while the level required in NATO is “barely” 2%. Such increase translates into hundreds of billion zlotys, which in the perspective of over dozen years will be spent on new equipment. The list of planned purchases is long – from Abrams MBTs, through Korean K-2 tanks and FA-50 aircraft, to the 5th-generation machines – the F-35s.
The preparations to receive this equipment in many cases are fully on. In mid-October, on the training field in Toruń, the tests of the Patriot batteries started. Since recently, also in Biedrusk, where the objects belonging to the Land Forces Training Center (CSWL), under the supervision of the instructors from the USA, a future Abrams MBT crews are training. PFC Paweł Sydorowicz (CSWL) also participates in such training. “For 12 years, I’ve been a PT-91 Twardy tank driver. I know this machine through and through. That’s why with most certainty I can confirm that a shift from Twardy to Abrams is a real technological jump,” he emphasizes. “The firepower of a new tank is one thing. But equally important are the solutions ensuring safety to the crew. Abrams surely was not designed to suffer a heroic death in it. It was designed to keep soldiers alive and help them to achieve their combat goals. This seems especially comforting, considering the ongoing situation in Ukraine. When I saw on the news the flying tank turrets, which still remember the USSR times, I thought to myself: ‘Good thing we’re going to have those Abrams’,” summarizes PFC Sydorowicz.
Readiness for Defense
The soldiers of the 2nd Tactical Air Wing are also getting ready for piloting the F-35. “When I heard what machines we’re going to buy, I was sceptic. I thought that it would be better to buy another F-16s,” admits Maciek, who for years has been the F-16 pilot (as a future F-35 pilot, he cannot reveal his name). Then, he went to the USA and changed his mind. “I had an opportunity to train on the F-35 simulator. Under the instructors’ eyes, I had conducted several missions: from contact missions to composite air operations (COMAOs), and with my own eyes I saw the potential and capabilities of this type of machine. The differences between F-35 and F-16 are significant. It’s mainly about the data quantity, which a pilot receives during a mission. On the other hand, the experienced F-16 pilots should easily handle the F35, as the machine is very intuitive. Up in the air, it can cooperate with the F-16, and still purchasing these machines means jumping up one level,” Maciek emphasizes.
In the upcoming years, a new equipment will arrive at the military training fields, where the Polish army does intensive trainings with its allies. In Poland, a country of the NATO’s western flank, this commotion is particularly visible. On a regular basis, there are about 10,000 soldiers stationed in Poland – mostly from the USA, but also from other NATO states. Several months ago the US Army V Corps Headquarters (Forward) was stationed in Poznań. All the above is to show that the Alliance is ready to defend the territories of its member states, as well as deter potential aggressors. Maciek, the F-16 pilot, admits: “I have always believed in saying: »If you want peace, get ready for a war.« I have served with a feeling that one has to be ready for whatever happens. The war in Ukraine did not change much in my service, still, to some extent, it turned out to be an ‘eye-opener.’ War is now closer then ever before. Sometimes, I think to myself: what if in a moment you will have to fight to defend your country, family, friends?.” Times are a-changing. Perhaps we should even more appreciate the fact that we can enjoy peace and independence.
autor zdjęć: Wip-Studio / Shutterstock