For more than a week, the mock battles spanned day and night, hopscotching the length of NATO’s eastern flank. The blue sky bloomed with white parachute canopies. American amphibious assault vehicles plunged through crashing Baltic surf. Elite troops carved a stealthy path through dense forest foliage. Artillery fire lighted up he dark skies.
Large-scale military exercises last month on Russia’s doorstep — in Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia — were meant to signal Western unity, resolve and readiness in the face of any potential threat.
But that message could be muddied this week when President Trump takes center stage at what is likely to be a contentious gathering of NATO allies — and then moves on, a few days later, to a summit in Helsinki, Finland, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a leader Trump praised anew at a raucous campaign-style rally last week.
For Poland, so often caught in the pincers of clashing empires, this could prove to be a moment of heightened opportunity — or of deepening peril.
Only three decades removed from being a near-vassal of the former Soviet Union, Poland is now touted as a major U.S. military partner and a key player in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s core mission, seemingly poised to at last turn geographical destiny to its advantage.
The right-wing government in Warsaw has forged friendly ties with Trump, who seems little inclined to criticize a raft of authoritarian measures. In a visit to Poland a year ago, the U.S. president hailed the country as a bulwark of Western civilization, which some critics interpreted as a ringing endorsement of the same populist-nationalist style that helped propel Trump to power.
Poland’s leaders have taken a clever tack with this most transactional of American presidents, floating the idea of handing over up to $2 billion to help cover the cost of a permanent U.S. military deployment on Polish soil.
But despite a glow of warmth in dealings with Washington, Poles wonder whether Trump’s sit-down with Putin could yield an off-the-cuff reassurance from an unpredictable U.S. leader about scaling back ambitious joint military activity on Moscow’s doorstep.
In his Singapore encounter with North Korea’s dictatorial young scion Kim Jong Un, Trump readily adopted Pyongyang’s bellicose rhetoric regarding U.S. military exercises with ally South Korea, describing the large-scale, long-standing American-led readiness drills on and near the Korean peninsula as “provocative” war games.
“The repeat of a Korea scenario is on everyone’s minds, not only Poland’s,” said Tomas Walasek, director of the think tank Carnegie Europe and a former Slovak envoy to NATO. Of the transatlantic alliance’s gathering, he said: “I don’t make any predictions.”
Unlike most NATO members, including major powers such as Germany and France, the Warsaw government has met a target threshold of spending at least 2% of its gross domestic product on defense. Although alliance members agreed previously only to try to achieve that aim by 2024, Trump has pounded away on the topic in advance of the NATO gathering that begins Wednesday in Brussels, publicly upbraiding countries he describes as laggards.
“I’ll tell NATO, ‘You’ve got to start paying your bills,’” Trump told a cheering crowd in Montana on Thursday. “We are the schmucks who pay for the whole thing!”
Poland is likely to escape a blast of Trumpian opprobrium at the Brussels gathering, but might have more to fear from the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki next week.
“The Polish existential nightmare is a great-power deal with Russia, made over their heads,” said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
Russia has previously made angry protestations about the deepening entwinement of Poland’s military with the Atlantic alliance. This year, after Poland signed a nearly $5-billion contract to purchase a U.S.-made Patriot antimissile system, Moscow charged that such a deployment would violate a 1987 arms treaty and could be used to attack Russian territory.
The Kremlin also voiced recent criticism of the prospect of a Warsaw-funded deployment of a U.S. tank unit in Poland, saying such a step “will not benefit in any way the security and stability on the continent.”
After Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 — a territorial grab that sent shock waves across Europe, but about which Trump appears sanguine — NATO moved to beef up its presence to protect vulnerable neighbors such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
One of the most visible signs of the NATO commitment to Poland and the Baltic states is the massive 8-year-old annual exercise that took place in June, involving about 18,000 troops from 19 allied countries, mainly NATO members.
Additionally, the U.S. military set up a new Army headquarters in Poland last year, overseeing about 6,000 troops deployed in the region.
In advance of this week’s NATO summit, the alliance’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, paid a visit to Warsaw, saying he expected members to make decisions on “reinforcement, readiness and military mobility.”
Like last year’s maneuvers, the exercises held in Poland and the Baltics last month took in parts of the strategic Suwalki Gap, a 60-mile corridor along Poland’s border with Lithuania that, in the event of any confrontation, would be a vital but vulnerable pipeline for troops, weaponry and supplies.
Moscow denounces NATO drills as aggressive, but Russia regularly holds exercises of its own on territory close to Baltic states’ borders. Analysts say that over the last decade, the Kremlin has poured resources into airborne, artillery, armored and electronic-warfare forces.
In Poland’s far northwest, near the provincial town of Drawsko Pomorskie, U.S. paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade conducted a “heavy drop” of Humvees and M119 howitzers as part of last month’s drill.
A U.S. sergeant on the ground shouted “Hurry up, hurry up!” — rushing his artillery crew into action to unpack and ready the equipment. A Polish field commander, 1st Lt. Piotr Skrzypinski, called the exercise a “unique opportunity” to work with American counterparts in a field setting.
Even if Poland can stay on the sidelines of tensions between other NATO members and Trump — and even if it seizes on the summit as a sideline opportunity to better its own relationship with the U.S. leader — Warsaw has nothing to gain by any overall weakening of the alliance, said Jedrzej Graf, editor in chief of Defence24.com, an influential Polish security news website.
That’s why Trump broadsides at the alliance as a whole, even if not specifically directed at the Poles, cause a distinct undercurrent of nervousness.
“The general climate in U.S.-European relations, including the trade disputes, is hardly helpful here,” said Graf. “Reinforcement of the alliance’s collective defense capability is the top priority of Poland for the summit.”