In May, Poland took delivery of its first U.S.-made HIMARS rocket launchers at the 1st Transport Aviation Base in Warsaw. Now it wants more—and that's just part of its requests in the leadup to this summer's NATO summit.

In May, Poland took delivery of its first U.S.-made HIMARS rocket launchers at the 1st Transport Aviation Base in Warsaw. Now it wants more—and that's just part of its requests in the leadup to this summer's NATO summit. Photo by Attila Husejnow/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

With War Next Door, Poland Wants More from NATO

Its ambassador to NATO says investment, weapons, and a real commitment to Ukrainian membership are some of Warsaw’s asks for the upcoming summit.

Poland has long understood “the bargain” with Europe: if the Russians invade, Poles would likely be first in the line of fire. So post-Cold War Poland quickly signed up to receive protection from the toughest neighborhood gang: NATO. 

Today, as NATO nations arm neighboring Ukraine for its battle with Russia, all eyes, roads, and most weapons lead through Poland. The day after visiting Kyiv in February, President Joe Biden took to an outdoor stage in Warsaw and delivered a Kennedy-esque address. “Knowing who stands with you makes all the difference. The people of Poland know that…more than anybody,” Biden said.

Now, with a NATO summit only weeks away, Poland is coming to Vilnius with hat in hand, expecting to be armed, equipped, and backed by their transatlantic partners more than ever. Warsaw wants to see movement toward admitting Ukraine to the alliance, and in the meantime, new investments and unprecedented cooperation among Europe’s defense industry.

“We need to deliver on our promise” to Ukraine, said Tomasz Szatkowski, in an interview for the Defense One Tech Summit that aired on Wednesday. “We believe we need to show tangible progress” toward NATO membership. 

An actual invitation is likely years away. While some European leaders want a more formal security agreement—last month in Slovakia France’s President Emmanuel Macron said Ukraine should receive protection akin to something between full NATO membership and the security the West offers to Israel—Poland seems to be sticking with what already works.

“We believe that the best formula for guarantees in Europe is NATO,” said Szatkowski. “There are discussions on some sort of ‘coalition of the willing’-based guarantees or assurances that may be issued” between now and the end of the war, for long-term commitments. 

“This is a very sensitive issue,” he said. 

Indeed, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and other member ambassadors are flying to world capitals, making their pitches to shape the package of support NATO will pledge to Ukraine in Vilnius. Membership seems off the table, but upgrading Ukraine’s forum to speak at NATO from a commission to a council—similar to the former status NATO granted to Russia—is one change that could happen. 

Executing many of those decisions will fall to the next NATO secretary general, and Poland already is having a big impact on picking the nominee and winner. Jens Stoltenberg is expected to step down from his extra-long tenure, but his replacement remains undecided. Poland opposes one front runner, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, partly because the last two SecGens have come from Scandinavian countries. The other top contender is the popular Prime Minister Kaja Kallas of Estonia. 

In other words, Poland is flexing its muscles to get more of what it wants. Szatkowski reminds that this is Poland’s role in “the bargain” of European security, pointing especially to land forces, air defenses, and cyber capabilities. 

“Poland is, in a way, destined to have greater responsibility” for a land war. “We basically have to provide the mass, the firepower for any sort of Western coalition in the East—we are the lynchpin of the Eastern front.” While they expect to fight alongside exquisite U.S. capabilities, Poland armed forces planners have goals: 1,500 modern tanks after 2023, the 2nd-largest Apache helo fleet in the world, largest self-propelled artillery, and so on. 

Poland is buying U.S.- and Korean-made weapons and systems, but is inking deals to co-manufacture some of those items for itself. 

“We are trying to find a balance,” he said, between expanding capabilities as soon as possible through “very rapid procurement of some of the capabilities off-the-shelf,” from the U.S. and South Korea and “trying to build the defense industrial base, to produce farther systems and maintain them in the country.”

Atop Poland’s wish list: Abrams tanks, but also longer-term contracts with South Korean industry to build tanks and give them a foothold in Europe. 

“We are now in the finance stage of negotiating a deal on building the entire production chain for their K-2 [Black Panther] tanks in Poland. Same goes to rocket artillery.” Soon, HIMARS systems will be based on a Poland chassis with Polish target-acquisition system, and they’re talking to Lockheed about making missiles in Poland. 

“Europe didn’t have what we need. There is an absolute shortage of spare parts for the systems we do have,” he said, declining to name which weapons system. 

The shortfalls highlight the difficulty of arming Europe, much less an autonomous Europe in the near future–the age-old problem of convincing countries to work in joint development of weapons instead of competing to make them. 

“We have declared that we are very much interested in joining the project of the next European tank, but there was no willingness among the European partners. They basically wanted to develop the tank on their own. So that left us seeking solutions elsewhere.” Hence the Abrams buys. Poland will be the first European ally to operate them. 

NATO’s role in solving that problem is mostly advisory. “NATO cannot solve it in a kind of decisive manner. NATO can provide a platform. NATO can incentivize. NATO can provide greater awareness of those issues. NATO can provide common standards.” But NATO members have failed each other, so far, he said. 

For more advanced capabilities, he said, the United States has the benefit of a mature start-up ecosystem that is better suited for developing dual-use and joint efforts. Before Europe can create over-the-horizon technologies, it still has to figure out how to solve problems left over from the last century, like fixing mismatched railway gauges and buying matching 155mm artillery shells.

“It’s like a Sisyphean effort,” he said.