Poland’s Defense Minister Answers the Question: What Does Putin Want?

Antoni Macierewicz discusses the nature of the Russia's threat to NATO.

Poland’s Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Since coming to power in late 2015, Poland’s right-wing government has been a lightning rod for criticism at home and abroad. Opponents have castigated the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS in Polish) for its conservatism and resistance to the European Union, de facto led by Germany’s Angela Merkel, on a host of issues, above all Muslim migration.

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No PiS official has attracted more opprobrium than the minister of National Defense, Antoni Macierewicz, a hero of the Solidarity movement and Polish resistance to Communism. Since 1991, Macierewicz has held numerous positions in government, mostly in the national security realm, and he possesses deep insights into issues of defense and intelligence—which are very topical now given the rising Russian threat on Poland’s frontiers.

Time has moderated Macierewicz’s piquant views only slightly in his 69 years, and the defense minister ranks among the most straight-talking politicians I’ve ever met. I recently sat down with him in Warsaw to discuss what’s on his mind. Our conversation started with Poland’s impressive defense modernization efforts and the nature of the Russian threat to NATO, then moved on to issues of counterintelligence—where Macierewicz rightly considers himself an expert. We concluded with the sensitive matter of Smolensk, the mysterious April 2010 air crash that decapitated Poland’s government, an issue that rests close to the heart for Macierewicz and for the many Poles who fear Vladimir Putin’s intentions. 

What would you like the American public to know about Polish defense modernization?

We want to do everything we can to have a military that is able to defend our country and to be a solid partner of the United States and NATO—but first and foremost, as our top objective, we want to have a military that is able to defend ourselves and our allies. And we want our friends in the United States to know exactly this: We are of course grateful to the United States for the support that we have received in the dramatic situation in which we find ourselves and share a joint-Polish American awareness of this threat, which is a threat to all off Europe.

Poland was the first country in NATO —in the autumn of 2013, six months before the Russian invasion of Crimea—to re-embrace territorial defense. We look to the Poles to understand this threat better than many Alliance members do.

Yes, but it happened with encouragement from the Americans—and it was, in reality, patriotic sentiment from average Poles, with American support, that caused this change in 2010 after the Smolensk tragedy.

About that patriotic spirit, you have recently created a new Territorial Defense Force (WOT in Polish) designed to prevent “Little Green Men” from causing problems. Where does WOT fit into Poland’s defense reforms?

They are a permanent part of the Polish Armed Forces. They are the fifth branch of our military, alongside the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and Special Forces. The primary role of the Territorial Defense Force is to link the military closely to society, so that there will be someone on hand in the event of an emergency to organize our defenses at the local level. WOT is a very important element because it binds civil authorities to Poland’s defense forces. In the event of a crisis, some Territorial Defense units will remain in their local areas, away from the front lines, to secure their regions. It will rapidly increase resilience against any hybrid threat as well as help fighting sabotage and diversion. It is due to the fact that small SPETSNAZ (Russian special forces) groups really don’t like a high density of forces against them, because once they are detected, dealing with them is a matter of time.

You now, finally, have American troops in Poland. It took a while.

Only 70 years (smiles), but I’ve always believed that this day will come.

Are they enough?

No, absolutely it’s not enough! It is a symbolic presence, but a very important one. It changed history. We now have peace in Europe today only thanks to this deployment of American troops to Poland. There were European countries who resisted this deployment right up to the spring of 2016. It was only thanks to the support of the American military and the American public, especially Polish-Americans, that the deployment to Poland happened. I want to particularly highlight the role played by General Breedlove* here, in ensuring that American troops came to Poland as well as the Baltic states.

We just had, in September, very large Russian military exercises called Zapad (West) on the Polish border. What is the perception in Warsaw of what Zapad really represented?

Moscow wanted this to be a final rehearsal of sorts. In our view the real Zapad started a long time before a set date and ended well after. Everything was ready, troops and equipment, in preparation for a real major offensive stretching from the Arctic Sea to the Black Sea. This included nuclear-armed vessels intended to block any American help from arriving. Russia even included practice launches of nuclear ICBMs to demonstrate they can attack the United States. They wanted to show that they are ready to attack but at the same time together with our allies we see their weaknesses.

Russia attacks Poland and NATO every day in what I’ve called Special War—that’s aggressive espionage, propaganda, disinformation, Active Measures, and cyber is just one piece of this.

Every week the Ministry of Defense here experiences a cyber-attack from Russia!

I call this the New Normal. The Russians aren’t going to stop doing this; this is just how we live now. On that, Poland has been very forward-leaning on pushing back. You’ve had many cases, most recently that of Dmitry Karnaukhov, the Russian “academic” who was just expelled from your country for espionage, which sends an important message to Moscow, I think. Do you think that NATO as a whole takes the threat of Russian Special War seriously enough?

The Alliance has started to, yes. Now cyber is part of our operational responsibility. It was one of the most important decisions of Warsaw NATO Summit, which changed the history of Europe.

Poland and Estonia, frankly, have understood this threat for a long time. Not coincidentally, you’ve just had the NATO Centre of Excellence for Counterintelligence open its doors in Cracow. This gives Poland a leading role in pushing back.

This is a huge challenge, of course, but it shows that NATO is aware that Poland has practical experience with Russian activities—in fact more than any other Alliance country—and I’m pleased that NATO has acknowledged this. I gave our Military Counterintelligence Service a handbook on Chekist espionage practices written by Polish officers in 1922. It’s still relevant. I think I should have this handbook translated for all of NATO! It gives deep insights into Soviet/Russian espionage theory and practices, which isn’t just of historical interest, since Moscow’s spy methods have changed very little over time, from Lenin to today.

Counterintelligence isn’t just about passing information on the street, it’s much more than that. It’s about knowing your enemy’s activities and objectives, and without understanding history, civilization, mentality, you can’t be effective at counterintelligence. We’re very pleased to have the Counterintelligence Centre of Excellence in Cracow, where we will create counterintelligence doctrine for NATO, because this is especially important for Alliance members.

We’ve had this very strange case over the last year of two Russian military intelligence (GRU) officers who were expelled from Poland in 2014, who less than two years later appeared in Montenegro—under their true names, even though they’re known to NATO —and they were caught before they executed a violent coup against that little country’s parliament. This was poor tradecraft. Are the Russians getting that arrogant and careless?

Yes, they are getting that arrogant and careless, after 25 years of freely getting away with such things. This is because almost nobody in Central Europe stopped them. Russian spies openly went from general to general, from minister to minister, from one banking official to another, doing anything they wanted. After we entered NATO, our military intelligence had 200 officers with falsified documents, holdovers from the Communist era. I got rid of them, though many in Warsaw objected to this. As I always say, the Russians aren’t that good if you are dedicated to fight against them using all the tools of offensive counterintelligence. We cannot fall for this myth of invincible Russian security apparatus; this is their Active Measures as well.

Speaking of Western perceptions, this government is frequently criticized in Western countries, including my own, by people on the political Left, but not only on the Left, for all kinds of reasons. Does this bad press effect your relationship with NATO, with the Americans, or is this just noise?

Not at all. It’s noise, absolutely. I don’t like Communists and Putin’s people, and they don’t like me. It’s normal. They are afraid of me and want to ‘kill’ me using propaganda tools. This is only a technical problem that doesn’t affect anything in the defense realm.

NATO reform and chain of command issues are under discussion, now that things have gotten more complicated on the Alliance’s Eastern border. Are current arrangements adequate, or is reform needed?

This is in process now, we don’t know what the end-state will be. The current direction is good. Not too fast, but positive. The Russians are ready for war. NATO needs to be ready too. We are running late. It’s a problem. But things are going in the right direction and NATO has shown its ability to adapt during the Warsaw Summit in 2016. I think it was a very unpleasant surprise at the Kremlin, they didn’t expect this.

To many Americans, it sounds far-fetched that Russia would consciously choose to wage war against a NATO member—Estonia, Poland, anyone. Many think a misunderstanding leading to war is more likely. Do you think the Putin regime plans to start a war against NATO?

They don’t exclude it. The first move, I think, is Ukraine. But I don’t exclude a military attack in the Far East. They want to distract American attention, prolong the front of confrontation in order to create a favorable situation for aggression in Europe. If you look at the map, Russia is always helping the enemies of America: deep ties to North Korea, involvement in Afghanistan and Syria, backing Iran, and so on.

Very interesting. In 2014, I was shocked that Putin, having easily taken Crimea and invaded Eastern Ukraine, stopped. The Russians now have a bridgehead to nowhere. This makes no military sense. This is a frozen conflict. What, in Warsaw’s perspective, do the Russians do now? What does Putin want?

He wants Ukraine.

By force?

By any means. Whatever it takes. Putin has many cards to play. He wants to restore the empire. He wants possibilities in Poland and other countries. But Ukraine must be part of the empire, an integral part.

This is a long-term project then?

Absolutely. Putin understands that there is no empire without Ukraine. But he made a major mistake: thanks to Putin, American troops are now close to the Ukrainian border, and he probably lost Kiev! This has never happened since the 17th century.

Putin has created a bad situation for himself then.

Absolutely. He is the reason why many people in NATO opened their eyes.

To conclude, Poland is the bulwark of the Atlantic Alliance in the East, thanks to your geographic position—and because you know the Russians so well.

Yes, and now Poland will have a military that can truly defend our country against any aggression. No previous government has wanted this, their doctrine was to rely on others. We are committed to spend 2.5 percent of our GDP and double the size of our military up to 200,000 soldiers. Only then we will be able to defend ourselves and effectively help our allies.

Is this what you believe to be a “lesson learned” from 1939—that you never know if your allies will honor their agreements?

I want to be frank. This is the lesson of Smolensk. You must remember what a great shock this was, for everyone in Poland, no matter their views on that tragedy.

And still is.

And still is. The Polish president, our entire military leadership, died while going to Katyń**. Such a painful link to our past. This changed our minds. The Polish people started to act like their fathers and grandfathers; they remembered what they need to be.

Do you think the public will ever know the full truth of Smolensk?

Yes, in roughly half a year, when we release our report on the tragedy, which will reveal how it happened. This is an international investigation. It is overdue.

*General Phil Breedlove, USAF, was the Supreme Allied Commander Europe from May 2013 to May 2016

**Katyń Forest, near Smolensk, was the main site of Soviet secret police executions of Polish prisoners-of-war in the spring of 1940; some 22,000 Poles were murdered in all.

John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee. 

Poland’s Defense Minister Answers the Question: What Does Putin Want?