The US Presence in Poland Is a Pain in Russia's Neck

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A U.S. Army soldier guides an M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank to a fueling station in Poland.
A U.S. Army soldier guides an M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank to a fueling station during Phase II of DEFENDER-Europe 20, Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area, Poland, July 20, 2020. (U.S. Army/Jason Johnston.)

Stanisław Żaryn is spokesperson for the Minister-Special Services Coordinator. He also serves as head of the National Security Department in the Chancellery of Poland's prime minister.

The American presence on Polish soil plays a key role in safeguarding the West against the Kremlin's hostilities. The level of aggression of Russian propaganda demonstrates that keeping the eastern flank strong is a necessity for NATO as a whole.

In November 2020, Warsaw and Washington made a major step toward further strengthening their mutual military ties. Namely, Polish President Andrzej Duda ratified the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, a document signed earlier this year by Poland's defense minister and the U.S. secretary of state. As an instant manifestation of the deal, two weeks later, the forward-based headquarters of the U.S. Army's reactivated V Corps was inaugurated in the Polish city of Poznań.

It was not long before the Kremlin and the regime in Minsk, Belarus, took this opportunity to redouble their propaganda efforts against the two allies and NATO as a whole. Their idea was and still is to repeat like a mantra that the West is the aggressor, one that poses a threat to Russians and Belarusians. That is of course obvious nonsense.

What is in the EDCA for both parties to want it? Most importantly, the agreement significantly increases the U.S. rotational presence in Poland -- from the current 4,500 troops whose deployment started in 2017, to 5,500 troops. This includes the 200-strong Poznań-based forward command post.

The agreement also paves the way for further increases in American troop numbers in Poland and for more joint exercises. Moreover, the EDCA provides a new legal framework for the activities of U.S. soldiers on Polish soil. And on top of it all, the deal regulates the scope of logistic and infrastructure support to be provided by the host country.

But apart from setting the practicalities of military cooperation between Washington and Warsaw, the EDCA carries two powerful messages: one of deterrence against a potential aggressor and another of assurance to NATO. First, should Poland feel threatened, the infrastructure it undertook to prepare (some of it is already in place) will allow for an immediate deployment of additional U.S. troops to our country, bringing their total number to 20,000. Second, Poland, the biggest country on NATO's eastern flank, has just become host to a U.S. Army outpost at a very high level of command -- the highest to date in this part of Europe.

The aim of all these efforts is to significantly boost the alliance's defense capabilities in the region, period. But what we see as "building up defense capabilities," Russian and Belarusian propaganda will always refer to as "developing a military potential."

"We are concerned over NATO's continuing course on a military buildup closer to our borders and the North Atlantic Alliance's growing military activity near our countries," said Sergey Lavrov, Russia's top diplomat, at a joint meeting of the Russian and Belarusian Foreign Ministries' boards.

"The buildup of military presence of the USA and NATO near western borders of the Collective Security Treaty Organization is a cause for serious concern," Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said at the latest session of the CSTO Collective Security Council.

These bogus statements, along with many similar ones from the mouths of Russian and Belarusian officials of various levels and military ranks, were made and then amplified by the propaganda mouthpieces of both countries shortly after Poland ratified the EDCA.

Those quotes reveal the method behind the Kremlin's and Minsk's information warfare activities against Poland, the U.S. and NATO. Immediately after it became known that the allied forces would be deployed to Poland as part of the reinforcement of NATO's eastern flank (the 2016 Warsaw Summit), Russia launched a smear campaign against these efforts. And it has been keeping the water boiling ever since. The campaign never stops. It often grows more intense as a response to events such as joint allied military drills, increases in the allied troop numbers, the aforementioned ratification of the EDCA, etc. The regime in Minsk, usually more restrained than the Kremlin, eagerly joined the latter in its propaganda offensive after the disputed presidential election in Belarus, to the point that sometimes it is even hard to tell who is taking the lead. All in all, it is a joint campaign now.

This information warfare offensive takes different forms. Sometimes, it has a strategic edge to it, in which top Russian or Belarussian officials warn of a looming war provoked by NATO). In fact, it is always more of a threat than warning. "Should someone try to carry out an act of aggression against Russia through Belarus or near Belarus, our 60,000-65,000-strong army will go to war, because the West is our zone of responsibility in accordance with the Collective Security Treaty and the Union State treaty," Lukashenko said in September.

But most often, it is just a coarse, fake news campaign designed to denigrate the NATO soldiers stationed in Poland and pit them against the local communities. This was the case of the Defender-Europe 20 exercise. The Kremlin's propaganda mouthpieces or media outlets, including the Polish ones, notorious for amplifying its hostile narratives, repeatedly accused U.S. troops of spreading COVID-19 in villages and towns located near the training area. Or they portrayed them as "occupational forces" and not partners.

This was also the case in the recently held TUMAK-20 military drills involving the NATO enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group Poland, dominated by the Americans. In a booze-and-brawl smear campaign, the Russian "Regnum" news website and the Polish "Niezależny Dziennik Polityczny" suggested the exercise had been a failure because the Polish and U.S. soldiers had had drunk fights. And who started them, according to those accounts? The Americans, of course.

Russian propaganda will waste no opportunity to besmirch U.S. troops stationed in Poland. The aim is to instill in Poles' minds that the Americans are wrongdoers and bringers of nothing but harm. To achieve this, the Kremlin will overhype even the least important or least harmful incidents connected with the U.S. presence in Poland.

The allied military presence on NATO's eastern flank is strictly of a defensive nature. It poses no threat to anybody. Moscow and Minsk are fully aware of that fact, but they will not give up their information warfare offensive. For them, it is a high-stakes game.

Shifting NATO's strategic area of defense in the East toward the territory of Poland undermines Russia's operational possibilities in Europe and makes Central and Eastern Europe less vulnerable to the Kremlin's influence. So the presence of Americans in Poland is a pain in Russia's neck.

The Kremlin will do its utmost to smoke U.S. troops out of Poland. The intensity and level of aggression of Russian propaganda demonstrates that keeping the eastern flank strong is a necessity for all of NATO. The American presence on Polish soil plays a key role in safeguarding the West against the Kremlin's hostilities.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. Find more information on how to submit your own commentary.

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