Polish "peacekeepers" for Ukraine: threats and prospects

24.03.2022

An emergency NATO summit will be held in Brussels on March 24. The second meeting of NATO leaders in the last month will be devoted to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Even before Russia launched a special military operation in Ukraine, NATO countries began to provide active military support to Kiev. During the military operation, the supply of weapons to Ukraine increased several times. The issue of NATO countries entering the conflict zone is being actively discussed. This topic is expected to be put on the agenda in Brussels on March 24.

The Polish-Ukrainian Idea

The main initiator of NATO troop deployment on the territory of Ukraine is Poland. According to the Polish media, President Andrzej Duda will propose concrete plans for the implementation of this idea at the upcoming summit. 

A week ago, Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski made a proposal to send an "armed NATO peacekeeping mission" to Ukraine. He was supported by Ukraine's ambassador to Poland, Andrzej Deshchytsia, the former acting foreign minister in the first months after the 2014 coup.

"An international peacekeeping mission in Ukraine is necessary to provide humanitarian corridors," said Bartosz Cichocki, Polish Ambassador to Ukraine . Ukrainian and Polish public opinion is actively prepared for the prospect of "repelling Russian aggression". Thus, in the same days when Poland and Ukraine initiated discussions about "peacekeepers", Ukrainian sociologists from the Active Group company conducted a "poll" of Russian residents (!), where the majority allegedly spoke in favor of the subsequent capture of Poland. This is blatant manipulation. Most likely, no one conducted any poll, or the results were manipulated. It is hard to imagine Ukrainian "sociologists" actually conducting a poll in Russia these days, even if they allegedly concealed their identity.

It is about justifying the occupation of part of Ukraine allegedly in order to stop the subsequent aggression against Poland. The real purpose of all manipulations is to save Ukraine  as pro-NATO state, to stop the advance of Russian troops, to put Russia in front of the fact of NATO troops in Ukraine, which would be tantamount to defeat. It is to prevent this that Russia started the military operation.

Area of operation

Of all the countries on NATO's eastern periphery, Poland is trying to play the most active role in Ukraine. Traditionally, Warsaw perceives the whole territory of this country as a zone of its influence and values expansion in accordance with the dominant concept of Giedroyc-Meroszewski, aka ULB (Ukraine, Lithuania, Belorussia) in relation to its eastern neighbors. Russia is seen as a dangerous geopolitical and historical enemy, which must be defeated and weakened as much as possible. Poland, as the vanguard of the West in the East of Europe, is the main idea of the "Jagiellonian" geopolitical paradigm. It is what the current Polish leadership adheres to. And the same idea perfectly fits into the Atlanticist geopolitical strategy of using the countries of Eastern Europe ("buffer zone"), against Russia.

Therefore, in the case of a theoretical appearance of Polish troops on the territory of Ukraine, one should not expect Warsaw to limit itself exclusively to the territory of the former "Eastern Crests" (Galicia and Volhynia). Warsaw does not think in terms of national irredenta* (especially since there is relatively little Polish population in Western Ukraine), but conceives of itself as the nucleus of an anti-Russian geopolitical project. This Jagiellonian project historically develops the legacy of Jozef Pilsudski, while national irredentism goes back to an entirely different line in the history of Polish political thought - the national democracy of Roman Dmowski.

The present elites of Poland are the heirs of the ideological line of national-conservatism of Pilsudski under whose leadership in 1918-1920 Poland already tried to occupy the whole Ukraine and the Polish troops entered Kiev. Therefore, at the very least, the appearance of Polish military advisors in Kiev or in eastern Ukraine, as well as individual groups of "peacekeepers," is not ruled out. However, for logistical reasons, it would be more convenient for the Poles to concentrate on the border territories.

Doubts within NATO

Naturally, any appearance of Polish military or mixed NATO mission in Ukraine will be perceived by Russia as a geopolitical escalation. Therefore, it is desirable for Warsaw to enlist the support of the entire Alliance, so as not to be responsible alone. However, the experience of discussing the sending of Polish MiG-29s to Ukraine shows that it is not so easy. Three weeks ago, the Ukrainian Air Force already reported that Bulgaria, Poland and Slovakia would deliver 70 military aircraft to Ukraine. For its part, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. is "working with Warsaw" on the issue. https://www.wsj.com/articles/ukrainian-president-asks-congress-to-help-secure-russian-made-jet-fighters-11646511532 In the end, Poland agreed to send the planes, but not directly, but by transferring them to the US. The U.S. rejected such a scheme. Neither Warsaw nor Washington wanted to become extreme in an issue that threatened direct confrontation with Russia.

Also, the U.S. and Britain refused to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which was called for by the authorities in Kiev. Key members of the alliance are not taking the necessary responsibility. Instead, they are trying to shift it to smaller members with Soviet-era air defense systems and to Turkey (Russian S-400s). In the latter case, they hope to kill two birds with one stone: to bring down the Russian-Turkish relations (to then deal with Turkey itself or at least the Erdogan regime), and to supply Ukraine with the weapons it needs, thereby prolonging the conflict. Perhaps this issue will also be discussed at the NATO summit in Brussels. If this initiative fails, U.S. diplomats can always play nice with a bad game and say "we tried".

Summit Perspective

A number of NATO members have already spoken out against sending NATO "peacekeepers" to Ukraine. Hungary is categorically against the transfer of weapons, no-fly zones and peacekeepers. However, just in case, Budapest has concentrated troops on the border with Zakarpattia Region, where the Hungarian minority lives compactly. German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit spoke out against sending NATO troops to Ukraine. "No NATO military and personnel should enter Ukraine. We have a clear red line on this issue," the German representative said.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfried said Washington will not send its military to Ukraine, but "other NATO countries may decide that they want to put troops inside of Ukraine. That will be a decision that they have to make." Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, also opposed the presence of Alliance troops in the conflict zone.

With this position, it is obvious that getting a mandate to introduce "peacekeepers" on behalf of NATO to Ukraine will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Poland to obtain. Therefore the most expected decisions on the NATO level are: sending humanitarian goods to Ukraine, intelligence support to Kiev (which is already underway), increasing U.S. troops in Eastern Europe, and new sanctions against Russia. Problems may already arise with sending weapons because of Hungary's position. As for troops, the summit is unlikely to approve a formal NATO military or "peacekeeping" mission or the introduction of a "no-fly zone" on behalf of the entire alliance.

Biden's blessing

However, Poland can count on the willingness of the United States to "turn a blind eye" and even bless the creation of a "coalition of the willing" ) of NATO member states willing to invade Ukraine under the guise of a peacekeeping mission. In 2003, because of disagreements within NATO, the U.S. and the U.K. invaded Iraq on behalf of just such a "coalition." Polish government spokesman Piotr Mueller said Poland had received positive responses from individual NATO countries, despite official skepticism. He did not disclose which countries, but officially Lithuania and Denmark had previously expressed support for such a mission.

So, for now, it is up to the Poles and others who wish to take the burden of responsibility on their own, acting not on behalf of NATO, but on behalf of a group of countries. If this does not happen on March 24, negotiations will continue.

What would happen if such peacekeepers from NATO countries, but not under the auspices of the alliance, appeared in Ukraine? First of all, they would become legitimate targets for Russian troops, because they would be guarding weapons corridors. No humanitarian corridors were or are threatened by Russia.

According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, sending NATO "peacekeepers" to Ukraine will lead to their direct confrontation with the Russian armed forces.

 Avoiding hostilities would be unlikely. The Russian General Staff has special deconfliction  mechanisms of communication with the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, but not with Poland and other small NATO countries; such mechanisms are absent even in Russian-British relations. The U.S. decision to push Poland into a conflict with Russia (at least with its non-resistance) means a willingness to escalate, but at someone else's expense.

Conflict with NATO?

What is NATO's possible response if Polish troops are hit by Russian forces in Ukraine?

This requires reference to Articles 5 and 6 of the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949, the basic document of the Alliance. Article 5 reads: "The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area" . Nowhere is there an obligation to go to war. And Article 6 clarifies what counts as an attack and what does not:

"For the purpose of Article 5, an armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack:

  • on the territory of any of the Parties in Europe or North America, on the Algerian Departments of France 2, on the territory of Turkey or on the Islands under the jurisdiction of any of the Parties in the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer;
  • on the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties, when in or over these territories or any other area in Europe in which occupation forces of any of the Parties were stationed on the date when the Treaty entered into force or the Mediterranean Sea or the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer.

    That is, from the point of view of the basic NATO document, a strike on Polish troops outside Polish territory, if they act only on behalf of themselves or a "coalition of the willing", would not be considered a reason for activating Article 5. Only the "occupation troops" stationed there at the time of the entry into force of the treaty (1949) are protected outside the territories of NATO countries. This clause has nothing to do with Poland or Ukraine and was previously about US, British and French military forces in Germany and Austria.

However, the unwinding of the conflict in the event of a strike on Polish troops, could theoretically lead to further strikes on Polish territory and simultaneously on Russian territory (the Kaliningrad region) and Belarus. In this case, the activation of Articles 5 and 6 of the North Atlantic Treaty is possible. However, some time must pass between a possible strike on the Polish forces in Ukraine and the extension of the conflict zone already on the territory of Russia, Belarus and Poland proper. This time gap would not exist if the NATO mission itself were present in Ukraine. That is why Washington is pushing Warsaw towards a "coalition of the willing" in order to use this gap to its advantage.

 The U.S. position toward Poland implies that Washington would be willing to throw the Polish military into the fire of war. The goal is then to use their eventual destruction to pressure Russia. The ambiguous position of the Poles in Ukraine, with no guarantee of automatic protection for their NATO big brothers, would give the Americans room to maneuver. They can start raising the stakes and threatening, but will be ready to retreat themselves at any moment. There would be no binding legal obligations on Washington to Warsaw, only moral ones. But even these could be overstepped, explaining their unwillingness to get involved in a nuclear war. The question is whether Poland will be ready to continue participating in a potentially dangerous game for the United States. What will outweigh: the thirst for geopolitical self-assertion or the instinct for self-preservation?

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*Irredentism is a political and popular movement in which its members claim, reclaim (usually on behalf of their nation), and seek to occupy territory which they consider "lost" (or "unredeemed"), based on history or legend.