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New Polish president demands better NATO protection from Russia

New Polish president demands better NATO protection from Russia
Polish President Andrzej Duda, inaugurated on Thursday, kneels before a military flag as he takes on the role of commander-in-chief of Polish armed forces at a ceremony in Warsaw. (Marcin Obara / European Pressphoto Agency)

New Polish President Andrzej Duda used his inauguration Thursday to call on NATO to better protect Eastern Europe from Russian aggression and pledged to make Poland a key force in resolving the conflict gripping neighboring Ukraine.

Speaking to lawmakers, the 43-year-old conservative said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization needed more than a promised rapid-reaction force to bolster regional defenses and respond to destabilizing interference, such as the Moscow-backed separatist rebellion ravaging Ukraine.

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"We need more guarantees from NATO, not only we as Poland but the whole of Central and Eastern Europe, in the current difficult geopolitical situation," Duda said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin's claim to a right to influence in formerly allied communist countries. "We need a greater NATO presence in this part of Europe."

Russian troops last year seized and annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, home of the Black Sea Fleet that protected all of the former Soviet Union before the communist federation fell apart in 1991. The Kremlin also sent troops into Georgia in 2008 and retains control of two strategic regions in that now-independent former Soviet republic.

Poles are particularly wary of newly aggressive Russia's intentions. A survey of 39 countries by the Pew Research Center that was released this week showed that Poles have the highest degree of negative sentiment against Russia, with 80% of respondents expressing distrust of Putin and his government.

Duda, who pulled off a surprise election victory over incumbent liberal President Bronislaw Komorowski in May, appealed to NATO to commit to stationing troops and defenses in Poland. The alliance gathers for a summit in Warsaw next year.

The rapid-reaction force announced at NATO's last summit, in Wales in September, is envisioned to have about 3,000 troops poised to respond to an invasion or attack on any of the alliance's 28 member states. NATO headquarters in Brussels has said the force is now assembled, but the troops designated for duty remain in their home countries pending completion of training and preparation of forward bases.

But Poles, like many of Russia's nervous neighbors, worry that the more likely threat they could face would not come as an immediately identifiable aggression, such as an aerial attack or swarms of soldiers flooding over the border. In Ukraine, Russia is accused by leaders in Kiev and their Western allies of sowing chaos in the country with a "hybrid war" strategy -- disrupting the economy and driving tens of thousands of people from their homes under the guise of a grassroots revolt by Russians and Russian-speaking citizens opposed to Ukraine's new alliances with the West.

The pro-Russia separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine was sparked by the February 2014 overthrow of Kremlin-allied President Viktor Yanukovich, who angered many in central and western Ukraine when he scrapped a meticulously negotiated association agreement with the European Union.

Duda's taking the helm in Poland is also expected to bring considerable domestic change. He promised during the campaign, as candidate for the opposition Law and Justice party, to lower the retirement age, currently on a graduated rise to 67 from as low as 60 three years ago, and to drop more of the lowest-earning Poles from the income tax rolls.

The Polish presidency is nonpartisan, but Law and Justice has been enjoying a political tailwind since Duda's election and leads in the polls ahead of general elections scheduled for October.

Although his post is mostly ceremonial, the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces in Poland and also has the power to shape foreign relations and to propose and veto legislation.

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