WARSAW — President Barack Obama, set to visit Warsaw this month, will announce the details of a permanent move of U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets to Poland from the Aviano Air Base in Italy, the Polish press reports today. If the plan becomes reality, the move will irk Russia and may become a serious test of the quality of the reset in relations between Washington and Moscow, as well as those between Moscow and Warsaw.
The White House announced last December that it would station U.S. military personnel in Poland to “support periodic rotation of U.S. military aircraft” into the country to assist with the training of the Polish air force. U.S. officials said the training was aimed at improving interoperability of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
A U.S. defense official said the F-16s going to Poland would be part of the temporary training and would not be permanently stationed in the country.
Poland has long wanted a permanent presence of U.S. military on its territory. It isn’t currently threatened by a foreign power, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said in his inaugural speech last year. But the memory of occupation and foreign rule — by the Habsburg empire, Prussia, Russia, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union — at various points between the late 18th century and 1989 lives on in this country, as does the memory of abandonment by European allies when Hitler attacked in 1939, igniting World War II.
Among the successors of the foreign powers that occupied Poland, only Russia isn’t a formal Polish ally, but a rival at best and a bully at worst. Poland believes its suspicions of Russia, often portrayed by outsiders and Moscow as a primitive anti-Russian reflex, proved correct during the Russian-Georgian conflict of 2008.
Poland has for years vied for a U.S. military footprint on its soil to complement the guarantees of mutual military assistance given by allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But Russia reacted angrily to even plans for such presence because it would result in NATO military infrastructure on the territory of one of the former Soviet-led Warsaw Pact countries in central Europe.
Russia’s military doctrine still sees NATO as a threat and the country said it would direct its missiles at Polish targets when under George W. Bush the U.S. said it would place elements of its missile shield in Poland. Naturally, Russia has no reasons to fear a NATO-led attack from Poland. But a permanent presence of NATO and U.S. military infrastructure in the country and the region could be a decisive step in reducing Russia’s current and future influence here.
When Mr. Obama scrapped the plan for the Bush-era missile shield with Poland’s participation, Poland’s leadership didn’t hide its disappointment. Russia welcomed the decision, seeing it as the key condition for a warming of ties with the U.S.
A renewed effort to permanently place U.S. military infrastructure in Poland would be a stabilizing factor for a country that has spent the past two decades reintegrating with the West. Hosting U.S. soldiers on its soil would abate its old fears, making it more relaxed toward Russia.
Russia for its part has done all it could to keep U.S. soldiers from moving closer to its borders. It’s likely to resist this time, too.
The Wall Street Journal