Lt. Gen. Wieslaw Kukuła in 2020.

Lt. Gen. Wieslaw Kukuła in 2020. Krzysztof Zatycki/NurPhoto via Getty Image

Polish support for Ukraine brings lessons, but also risks

Warsaw is learning just what is killing its donated field guns, and battling Russian spy rings back home.

WARSAW, Poland—For Lt. Gen. Wieslaw Kukuła, Poland’s military support for Ukraine isn’t just a matter of national security, but a golden chance to learn about the future of war.

“We never had such an opportunity to gather intelligence and data and really quickly translate that” into military lessons, said Kukuła, who heads the country’s Armed Forces General Command, responsible for training and equipping Poland’s rapidly growing army. 

Poland’s key role in supporting Ukraine comes with a catch: it’s also in Russia’s cross-hairs. Officials say disinformation is on the rise since the invasion, and that Moscow is using novel espionage tactics to build networks of spies on Polish soil. 

Poland, which was already a NATO and EU leader in defense spending by GDP, has upped its commitment in the past two years. Shortly after Russia’s full-scale invasion, Warsaw said it would seek to double the Polish Army’s size to 300,000 soldiers over five years. This year, the Polish government has said it will raise its defense budget to 4 percent of gross domestic product, more than double NATO’s 2-percent target.  

Poland has also been on a buying spree, purchasing 980 K2 tanks and 648 self-propelled howitzers K2, and 48 FA-50 fighter jets from Korea last year. Poland also intends to buy 366 U.S.-made Abrams tanks, as well as 96 Apache helicopters

Although Poland’s re-armament campaign comes amid inflation of more than 10 percent, its government sees it as a necessity. 

“Of course, we would like to spend it on hospitals, education, and development,” said Minister Jacek Siewiera, who heads the National Security Bureau, an agency under the office of the Polish president. “We are forced to spend this 4 percent of GDP on defense because we are facing the biggest threat in Europe since the Second World War.”

The aim of this is to build up overwhelming firepower to counter what Kukuła called Russia’s  “infinite capability” relative to Poland.  

As Poland watches the war in Ukraine unfold, though, it recognizes that heavy guns alone may not be enough. 

Kukuła said Poland closely tracks the battlefield progress of the equipment it has sent Ukraine. 

Among the lessons of the war next door is the importance of loitering munitions, otherwise known as suicide drones. 

“Every day we analyze how they’re being used,” Kukuła said. “Most of the damages we’re recording to howitzers are from drone attacks.”

Poland is therefore considering drones as yet another way to offset Russia’s enormous advantage in soldiers and equipment. Kukula said Poland is planning to invest “heavily” in drone technologies, including building their own drones. He also flagged acquiring anti-drone technologies as a top priority. 

Kukula sees the war as transformative for those willing to learn, regardless of the outcome of the battlefield. “The result of the war will be not so much in the field but very much in industry,” Kukula said. 

Kukula expressed frustration with at least some industry players. 

Defense firms often had good intelligence on what was happening on the battlefield, Kukula said. However, when it comes to delivering weapons, defense firms would often rather sell Poland weapons that have been in production for the last 30 years but “won’t be okay for the next 30 years,” Kukula said. 

Poland’s support for Ukraine, from hosting over a million Ukrainian refugees to serving as the main staging ground for foreign military aid, means that the threat from Russia is far from hypothetical. 

Poland has seen an increase in disinformation targeting its support for Ukraine and alliances with the U.S. and NATO since the start of Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine, said Stanisław Żaryn, acting deputy of the Minister Coordinator of Special Services, or Poland’s intelligence agencies. 

It’s also seen creative Russian attempts to use intelligence agents to advance its agenda in Poland. 

In March 2022, Poland expelled 45 Russian diplomats that it accused of being spies. Moscow then turned to amateurs to get the job done, using social media to recruit a spy ring charged with sabotaging infrastructure.   

In March of 2023, Poland announced it had arrested six members of one spy ring, and had arrested a total of 16 spies by August. 

Żaryn said there were likely other spy networks formed or attempting to form. “Poland is very actively penetrated,” he said. Amateur or no, such spies are also harder to identify than those working under diplomatic status, he added. It “is more challenging for us, because they were typically looking for people who want to do something for money.” 

Reporting for this article was made possible thanks to a press tour organized by the Polish government.