The Threat of Polish Involvement in Ukraine
“In economics,” wrote John Kenneth Galbraith, “the majority is always wrong.” Galbraith might have added that in military affairs, there is a mountain of historical evidence to suggest that American generals and military analysts are always wrong, too.
When the Spanish Civil War ended in March 1939 after three years of brutal fighting that saw Soviet, German, and Italian equipment, advisors, and troops in heavy combat, senior military leaders in London, Paris, and Washington found surprisingly little evidence to suggest a profound change in warfare. In fact, a U.S. Army officer who later became a major general witnessed the fighting and suggested that, “In Spain, the theories proclaimed for the devastating power of Panzer divisions and other massed armored formations used ‘independently’ are apparently refuted by actual events.” Five months later, events in Poland would repudiate these words, but at the time, his views were widely shared in the West.
The war against Russia in Ukraine is different from the Spanish Civil War. It’s a proxy war designed to employ the full range of American and allied capabilities against Russia in Ukraine. If Americans are beginning to wonder whether Washington’s enormous investment in Ukrainian assistance has colored the opinions of U.S. analysts and their evaluation of events in Ukraine, their suspicions are justified.
Within days of the war’s outbreak, President Biden signed off on an emergency spending package that included $13 billion in aid to Ukraine, half of which was allocated for military purposes. Combined with the recently promised $33 billion in additional military assistance to Ukraine, the total cost of U.S. taxpayer-funded military assistance to Ukraine in 2022 approaches the Russian army’s annual budget. Perhaps most important, in Ukraine, U.S. advisors provide intelligence and targeting guidance along with the rapid resupply of critical war-fighting equipment.
As the fighting raged in Ukraine, as if on cue, retired U.S. Army generals appeared on television to herald an imminent Ukrainian victory based on the country’s allegedly spectacular battlefield successes and Russia’s extraordinary incompetence. Russian forces, they argued, were doomed to defeat by serious tactical errors, logistical shortfalls, and weak execution. In retrospect, some of these comments involved “mirror imaging,” but much of the criticism almost certainly reflected the sunk costs of U.S. investment in Ukrainian military capability.
It did not take long for American analysts to insist that the Russian military leadership had made the unpardonable mistake of not “front-loading” the Russian offensive in Ukraine with strikes from precision guided missiles, Desert Storm-style. American military pundits and their British colleagues were also quick to pass judgement on the failure of Russian ground forces to race west along two or three major axes. If Ukrainian forces could inflict enough human and equipment losses on Russian forces, the narrative went, Moscow would abandon its objectives and withdraw its forces. Of course, expecting the Russians to suspend operations on such spurious grounds makes about as much sense as expecting Washington to sue for peace after Pearl Harbor.
The retired generals paid little attention to the operational situation. Contrary to the picture painted by Western analysts, Russian ground forces pressed forward, moving methodically along a 300-mile front to identify and selectively attack Ukrainian forces.
Few analysts in the West knew or cared that Russian commanders were instructed to avoid collateral damage to the civilian population and infrastructure. Initially, concerns about collateral damage clearly constrained the Russian army’s action, but in time, Russian operations encircled key urban areas in Eastern Ukraine where Ukrainian forces sought to establish defensive strongholds stocked with ammunition, food, and water. Russian operational intent changed, focusing on systematically reducing the encircled Ukrainian forces and not on capturing metropolitan areas.
Russia’s enormous advantage in strike forces—rocket artillery, tactical ballistic missiles, conventional artillery, and aircraft—combined with significant Ukrainian deficiencies in mobility, air defense, and strike assets, made the Ukrainian decision to defend inside urban areas inevitable. But Ukrainian forces’ inability to effectively maneuver and coordinate counteroffensives on the operational level ceded the strategic initiative to Russian forces early. It also simplified the conduct of Russian “attrition by strike operations.” Key Ukrainian airfields, bridge sites, railway junctions and transportation assets were neutralized or destroyed, isolating forward deployed Ukrainian forces from resupply or reinforcement.
Ten weeks after the conflict began, it is instructive to re-examine the strategic picture. The war against Russia in Ukraine has evolved, but not in the way Western observers predicted. Ukrainian forces look shattered and exhausted. The supplies reaching Ukrainian troops fighting in Eastern Ukraine are a fraction of what is needed. In most cases, replacements and new weapons are destroyed long before they reach the front.
Confronted with the unambiguous failure of U.S. assistance and the influx of new weapons to rescue Ukrainian forces from certain destruction, the Biden administration is desperate to reverse the situation and save face. Poland seems to offer a way out. More important, Polish President Andrzej Duda and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have both expressed the desire to erase the borders between Poland and Ukraine.
Unconfirmed reports from Warsaw indicate that after Washington rejected the proposals for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, along with the transfer of Polish MIG-29 aircrafts to Ukrainian pilots, the Polish general staff was quietly instructed to formulate plans for intervention in the Ukrainian conflict by seizing the western part of Ukraine. Naturally, military action of this scale would require Kiev’s approval, but given Washington’s de facto control of the Zelensky government, approval for Polish military intervention should not be a problem.
Presumably, the Biden administration may hope that a collision involving Russians and Poles in any form—including air and missile strikes against Polish forces on the Ukrainian side of the border—would potentially call for the NATO council to meet and address Article V of the NATO treaty. Whether a Polish military intervention into Ukraine justifies the commitment of NATO members to war with Russia is unclear. Action still would be left up to the judgement of each NATO member state.
About the most that any analyst can say with confidence at this point is that Polish military intervention would confront NATO members with the specter of war with Russia, the very development most NATO members oppose. Setting aside whether Polish ground forces are ready to execute the mission in the face of Russian opposition, Polish action would satisfy the neocons in Washington, D.C. Poland may well be the key to widening NATO’s war with Russia in Eastern Europe.
Why? Because the Polish catalyst for conflict with Russia presents the American people with a war that Americans do not want, but cannot easily stop. Such a war with Russia would be a war that began without an objective appraisal of American vital interests, the distribution of power inside the international system, or the existence of any concrete threats to U.S. national security.
Douglas Macgregor, Col. (ret.) is a senior fellow with The American Conservative, the former advisor to the Secretary of Defense in the Trump administration, a decorated combat veteran, and the author of five books.