Is NATO Treating Poland Like a Buffer State?


Last week, the newly inaugurated president of Poland, Andrzej Duda made waves when he said, in an interview with the Financial Times, that NATO is treating his country like a buffer state.  He referenced specifically the “disposition of bases” in NATO, which reveals that Germany is regarded as the alliance’s eastern edge.  Furthermore, Duda argued that if Poland and other Eastern European states are truly to be the alliance’s eastern flank, then NATO military forces ought to be arrayed permanently on Eastern European soil.

Duda is essentially arguing that Poland and other NATO member states east of Germany are somehow second-class allies, without all the rights, privileges, and protections of those to their west.  This rhetoric is fairly inflammatory for a head of state to level against an alliance organization of which his own country is a member.  In fact, it is the kind of language one would expect to be delivered behind closed doors, not spread across the pages of a leading Anglophone newspaper. Of course, if this was to be said behind closed doors, such comments might nevertheless be leaked and attributed to some “senior Polish official.”  But as it stands, Duda’s very public remarks are sure to rankle both Washington and Berlin.

The fact that Poland vocally continues to pursue the permanent stationing of allied military forces on Polish soil, despite the insistence of U.S. officials that this issue will not be on the agenda for NATO’s 2016 summit, reflects the intense insecurity felt by many in Poland and the Baltic states.

But is NATO really treating Poland like a buffer state?

Absolutely not.  A buffer state is typically a smaller, neutral state situated between two greater states or political entities. Historically, one can look to examples such as Afghanistan — a buffer between British India and Czarist Russia — or Belgium — a buffer between France, the German Empire, and the Netherlands in the decades before World War I. Today, if one really wants to speak of buffer states in Europe, then Belarus or perhaps Ukraine are better examples than Poland. After all, Poland is formally allied within NATO, home to a NATO command in Szczecin, a member of the European Union, and host to a rotating U.S. company of infantry since April 2014. Moreover, Poland has the same security guarantee as every other NATO treaty signatory, and President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have been explicit over the last several months in their complete commitment to defending every inch of allied territory from any aggressor, including Russia.

Duda’s comments regarding the disposition of NATO bases are also somewhat inaccurate. There are no “NATO” bases per se.  Instead, there are national military bases on which NATO command and force structure elements are located, and these are spread throughout Europe.  For example, there are NATO command structure elements (high-level strategic, regional, and functional commands) located in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey, and there are NATO force structure elements (corps-level headquarters staff) located in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Poland, and Greece.  The actual ground combat forces that would report to the corps-level headquarters are retained by the member states during peacetime.

The “NATO forces” based in central Europe right now — that is, the permanently forward-based ground forces of the United States and the United Kingdom — are in Germany under the terms of bilateral arrangements.  There is of course a NATO Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that governs the status of forces sent from one ally to the territory of another, but this agreement notes that the decision to send such forces and the conditions under which they will be sent are the subject of separate arrangements between the states concerned.  Therefore, if Poland wishes to host German, U.S., U.K., French, or other allied forces on its territory, it must take up the issue with those states directly.

Despite all of these shortcomings in Duda’s rather inelegant commentary, he is right to push the issue.  The permanent deployment of ground forces from countries such as the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, or others to Poland and the Baltic States would be a wise policy for several reasons. Yet, such an outcome is highly unlikely, at least in the short run, for political reasons.

First, domestic political pressure in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom to limit or further reduce defense spending makes such a commitment difficult to initiate and sustain, especially since many in Congress already think Europe isn’t carrying its fair share of the collective defense burden. Compounding this political sense is the incorrect assumption — as the U.S. Army is now learning — that permanent presence is always more expensive than alternatives such as rotational presence.

Second, elsewhere in the West, and especially in Germany, many are reluctant to violate the terms of the 1997 NATO–Russia Founding Act. The key language cited by the Germans and others notes that “… the Alliance will carry out its collective defence and other missions [through] reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.” Interestingly, this same agreement obligates Russia to “…exercise similar restraint in its conventional force deployments in Europe.” Clearly, Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its unfolding invasion of eastern Ukraine are not examples of “restraint,” yet NATO remains collectively hobbled through some members’ interpretation of the Founding Act.

In addition to those political issues, there remains an important policy difference between those like Duda — who are unambiguous in their desire for a permanent NATO presence in the East — and allies such as Germany. For the latter, permanent forward presence in the East would not simply be a violation of a nearly 20-year-old agreement with Russia, but it could also represent an unhelpful escalation of the West’s standoff against Russia over Ukraine.

For all of these reasons, Duda is likely to be disappointed in his pursuit of “NATO bases” in Poland or elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The challenge now facing the other allies – especially in light of the fact that the next NATO summit will occur in Warsaw – is to convince Duda to back down from these demands in a face-saving way.


Dr. John R. Deni is a Research Professor of Security Studies at the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. He is the founding editor of and a frequent contributor to the SSI Live podcast series, and you can follow him at @JohnRDeni.


Photo credit: U.S. Army Europe