Poland embraces role as NATO country with a front-row seat to Russia's war next door

Poland embraces role as NATO country with a front-row seat to Russia’s war next door

RZESZOW, Poland — Rows of U.S. surface-to-air missiles line the damp earth along the road leading to the regional airport here — a stark reminder of just how sensitive and strategic this once quiet corner of NATO’s eastern flank has become to the multinational scramble to help Ukraine turn back Russian invaders.

The sleepy Polish backwater about 60 miles from the Ukrainian border has been transformed into a buzzing international logistics hub for all kinds of aid flowing into Ukraine. The once-modest Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport overnight found itself at the center of the action of a major international crisis.

“No one expected that this place would play such a vital role in the whole situation of the war,” Michal Tabisz, the airport’s vice president, said on a drizzly recent afternoon, shortly after the Russian war against its neighbor passed the 18-month mark.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the airport handled around a dozen flights a day of mostly small aircraft.

Today, the place rumbles beneath the wheels of NATO and civilian cargo planes from a range of countries around the world, its long runways well suited for the massive aircraft of militaries from across the 31-nation bloc. Mr. Tabisz said more than 3,500 of the so-called “wide body” planes have landed and taken off from here since February of last year — a nearly inconceivable increase of activity.

The shift at the civilian-run airport, half of which is now dedicated to a swirl of military and humanitarian aid flights, is actually a snapshot within a much wider album documenting the transformation thrust upon Poland by the war next door.

As the biggest NATO ally bordering the war, the country of roughly 32 million has embraced a role of lead facilitator to the complex logistics surrounding the flow of weaponry and other aid to Ukraine.

It has also absorbed more than a million Ukrainian refugees and processed an estimated four million more flowing toward Western Europe and beyond.

On the military front, Poland has responded to the war by pushing to beef up its own military.

The ruling conservative Law and Justice Party that has governed the former Communist bloc country since 2015 has vowed to spend nearly 4% of GDP on defense in 2023 — a figure that would outstrip the U.S. ratio and soar past all other NATO nations, including Germany, Canada and France, each of which has yet to meet the alliance’s 2% of GDP benchmark.

“We are undergoing enormous changes to our armed forces. We call it warp-speed transformation,” Gen. Wieslaw Kukula, the commander-in-chief of the Polish Armed Forces, told a group of international journalists visiting on a recent trip sponsored by the Polish Foreign Ministry.

The transformation aims to double the number of troops in the Polish military to 300,000, something Gen. Kukula suggests is vital given the threat that Russia could expand its war eastward into Poland.

But it’s not without challenges: “The pace of people who want to join is outpacing the infrastructure we have for training them,” the general said.

He noted how existing Polish forces are currently carrying the added burdens of responding to growing threats and instability from Russian ally Belarus, which shares its own 250-mile border with Poland, while also running a major training operation for Ukrainian forces ramping up a counteroffensive to drive back Russian occupiers.

“We’ve prepared roughly five [Ukrainian] brigades to fight,” Gen. Kukula said of the training mission, which is playing out largely in secret inside Poland and also involves the presence of troops from several other NATO nations, including the United States.

After long balking at the idea of a major U.S. troop deployment so close to Russia, the Pentagon since has upgraded the status of some 10,000 American troops in Poland in March by establishing a permanent U.S. Army garrison in the country, the first of its kind on NATO’s eastern flank.

But it’s the willingness of ordinary Poles to rally in support of Ukraine that is most palpable in Rzeszow, a place perhaps best known before the war for its sun-splashed cobblestone squares and confounding mix of monuments marking Poland’s complex history over the centuries with Russia in all its incarnations.

A giant concrete memorial commemorating the Soviet Red Army for driving German Nazis out of Poland in World War II looms over a central traffic circle in Rzeszow. The irony of a monument celebrating Moscow’s bygone achievement is not lost on the city that now hosts the biggest logistics hub for aiding Ukraine’s fight against Russia.

“There was a push years ago to tear it down,” remarked a man passing the graffiti-marked base of the monument on a recent day. “But we decided that would be too expensive, so we just left it.”

Aid hub

Polish finance officials estimated Warsaw has spent more than $12 billion — roughly 2% of the country’s GDP — to support Ukraine since the start of the war. The European Commission has channeled funds from Western European nations into the Polish operation and to other logistics hubs in Romania and Slovakia.

While Poland has sent its own military equipment and humanitarian materials, the flow of goods from dozens of other nations arriving on cargo planes in Rzeszow gets loaded onto tractor-trailer trucks and trains before heading across the border into Ukraine.

But there are still no supply aircraft flying into Ukraine after more than 18 months of war.

“Poland become a huge humanitarian logistic hub for Ukraine,” said Michal Kuczmierowski, who heads the Polish government’s Strategic Reserves Agency, which carries the Herculean burden of managing the flow of goods and support equipment for the massive international aid operation.

“The scale is absolutely huge,” Mr. Kuczmierowski told The Washington Times. “Our main goal is to push the help as quickly as possible.”

The pace has tapered in recent months as the war has ground to a near stalemate along the 600-mile front in the Ukrainian east. But busy days still see as many as 400 trucks crossing the border from Poland with everything from weapons and other military hardware to pillows, sheets, clothing, food, power generators and water treatment systems.

For local officials in Podkarpackie Province, which encompasses Rzeszow and other small cities along the border, the aid mission has simultaneously been defined by the needs of Ukrainian refugees — mainly women, children and elderly — forced to flee their homeland and settle in Poland.

“I think we all did not realize how much effort we needed and sort of output of energy that is required to face the challenge,” said Podkarpackie Gov. Ewa Leniart, who noted that 5 million Ukrainian refugees flooded across the border during the first nine months of the war.

Rzeszow’s population of about 180,000 swelled to more than 350,000 during that period, although more recent months have seen many thousands return to Ukraine or move onward to other cities in Poland.

The Podkarpackie government has had a role in the whole process, scrambling during the early months to establish medical, clothing and food distribution centers set up by such non-government organizations Caritas Polska.

The Catholic charity boasts that Poles have prepared more than 80,000 packages with everything from pasta and tea to canned goods, soap, toothpaste and other hygiene goods for shipment into Ukraine since the start of the war. Another 3.9 million food packages have been provided to refugees now in Poland.

Podkarpackie also established a system of distributing cash allowances for refugee families who’ve lost everything. As of August, the provincial government had paid out $26 million in allowances, according to Ms. Leniart, who said some 59,375 refugees had registered to receive the financial support.

“The scale of work that we provided was huge,” she said. “It shows a huge effort of the Polish state or the Polish government to help the refugees from Ukraine, but also to provide help to those who stayed in Ukraine.”

But Ms. Leniart acknowledged the squeeze now facing the government, which must maintain basic services for Polish citizens, all while increasing regional security amid constant fear that Russian operatives are active inside Poland and eager to create upheaval in cities across Podkarpackie. Case in point — a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease that killed 19 people in recent days sparked concerns — so far not corroborated — that Russian operatives had somehow spiked the local water system.

“There is no simple answer here. It’s a complex issue,” she said. “We’ve built a social resilience here, but we are very much worried and we need to stay watchful.”

“We want to believe the war will finish very soon and that Ukraine will win,” Ms. Leniart added. “But Russia for sure will not surrender easily. The conflict will be long term and I cannot tell you how long it will take.”

Delicate operation

Ms. Leniart described the ongoing aid effort as a vital facet of the fight by Western democracies against authoritarian military aggression by Russia, an aggression she says is not limited to Ukraine.

“Russia has bad intentions not only toward Poland, or the Baltic countries, but also the aim is to destabilize Europe…[and] we cannot allow for that as a free world,” she said.

The West must stand together to ensure “the weak and sick mind of the authoritarian attitude is not successful,” she said.

The most sensitive piece of the aid effort involves the movement of military and other equipment deep into Ukraine.

The threat of Russian surveillance and sabotage is constant along ground supply routes winding from various points along Poland’s 329-mile border with Ukraine to areas of some of the most intense fighting in Ukraine’s south and east, including Bakhmut, where Ukrainian and Russian forces have been locked for months in combat.

One Polish official, speaking on condition of anonymity with The Times given the sensitivity of the situation, described Rzeszow as a key linchpin to both the military and humanitarian aid flows, and that Russian subversion is a constant concern.

“We are delivering goods directly to the Ukrainian teams on the front lines,” the official said, asserting that “we are taking care about security of the transport on the Polish side because we feel it is in the scope of the interest of Russian Special Forces.”

At the same time, the official emphasized that Poland is in close cooperation with Ukrainian officials regarding where the most sensitive aid gets shipped. “We are defining ourselves as huge Ukrainian supporters and friends, but we of course identify the situation as a Russian and Ukrainian war and we don’t want to engage Poland,” they said.

Back at the airport in Rzeszow, Mr. Tabiz described heightened security surrounding operations tied to the war.

He mentioned major cybersecurity investments at the airport, but declined to comment on specific measures taken by NATO countries using the runways.

Mr. Tabisz chuckled when asked who controls the surface-to-air Patriot missile systems peppering the landscape around the airport. “The owners,” he said flatly, adding later that “we fully trust the services that are engaged here.”

He stressed that the logistics of sustaining the flow of massive cargo flights— let alone coordinating communications with the many foreign nations backing the effort — has been challenging.

Prior to the war, Rzeszow-Jasionka managed landing, take off and refueling for about 20 medium-body 737s in an average week. The total fuel needed for all of them was less than that required for a single of the wide-bodies that now stream through the airport daily.

Mr. Tabisz rattled off a list: “Dreamliner, C-17, A-400, A-330, B-767, B-747, B-777.”

The flights, which are both military and civilian, are come “from across the world — I mean Europe, the U.S., Australia, Japan in terms of those engaged in the military things,” he said, adding that the past year has also brought a slate of humanitarian flights from nations such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

“Was I trained for this? No, I wasn’t,” said Mr. Tabisz, adding that the war gave Poland little choice but to respond the way it has.

“Everything we do helps the people on the front line stop the Russians,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”