Shaping a Way Ahead for Polish Defense: The Perspective of Robert Czulda


By Robbin Laird

During my recent visit to Warsaw to attend the Defence 24 conference on Polish defense, I had a chance to talk with Dr. Robert Czulda (whose bio can be read at the end of the article).

I had a chance to talk with him after the two-day conference and to share some thoughts on the challenges facing Poland in working its way ahead with regard to defense.  We started by discussing a major threat facing Poland, one which was discussed often at length at the conference, namely, the actions of Belarus supported by Russia with regard to using migrants as a battering ram into Poland. The approach was characterized by Polish officials as part of Russia’s overall hybrid war strategy.

Question: What impact is Polish actions to deal with Belarus having in Europe?

Czulda: When a few years ago Hungry dealt with migrant flows through Serbia and Croatia by building a border barrier between Hungry and Serbia and Croatia, Budapest was heavily criticized by the EU, including Germany. Now the situation is different – the West is no longer so naïve and its decision-makers are aware that a mass migration is an existential threat.

Therefore, as we have built a border barrier to deal with the Belarus actions, we are not getting the same level of criticism as did Hungry earlier. The Germans realize where the migrants coming through Belarus would actually go – Germany. And they do not want them.

Just two days ago the Poland-Belarus border was visited by Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri, who was – and this is a quote from an official announcement – “impressed  by the means deployed to secure the border”. He also thanked Poland for cooperating with Frontex. It only shows that both Poland and Hungary – so heavily criticized in 2015 and 2016 – were right in their actions.

Question: How do you see Poland within the European Union?

There is significant conflict which has been generated by responses within the EU to the pandemic which raises the specter of more national than transnational approaches to problem solving.

How do you see the way ahead?

Czulda: Within Europe today there is conflict between two visions of the future. The first is to build a super state based in Brussels which undoubtedly would be dominated by Germany. The second is to preserve national sovereignty and shape a way ahead within Europe by respecting national sovereignty in a number of areas. The latter concept was promoted by Charles de Gaulle and now by states such as Poland.

In other words, in general, the Poles want to preserve their sovereignty and independence. The Polish government does not want to leave the EU but believes that the EU should focus on economic cooperation rather than on imposing an ideological agenda.

Poland and its perspectives on defense of the nation is a threat to the super-state vision. As such, it is attacked by supporters of this approach in Brussels. That is the main reason for an ongoing struggle – to crush resistance of those who oppose a concept of the United States of Europe.

Question: What is the future of European defense?

Czulda: There is no future for a single European army.

The states have very different perspectives on foreign and defense priorities.

Cooperation among states on specific issues clearly is happening and will shape the way ahead, not a forced concept of integration. A discussion about a common European army has been ongoing since the end of World War II. We shall not forget that the EU has already formed the EU battlegroups, but their operational value is very minimal.

However, it does not mean that Europe should not increase its efforts to enhance its military capabilities – especially nowadays, when Russia is now more powerful, and the United States has been shifting away from Europe to Asia.

Question: It was clear from the presentations at the conference, that the Polish government is focused on a two-prong approach to defense: enhanced operational conventional capabilities and multi-faceted security operations.

How do you see this?

Czulda: We are focused on a concept of integrated security. The hybrid threats which Russia poses every day demands a broad concept of security, in the cyber and other realms for sure.

It is challenging to find the right balance of forces, but there is a clear recognition of the need for a broad concept of integrated security.

However, there is still a lot to be done – for instance, we need not only to continue a modernization of our military, which unfortunately still has some Soviet-era equipment, but also to create a robust mobilization system in case of a crisis (in other words – a system of reserves). Another task we need to focus on is to establish a civil defense, which now does not exist in Poland.

Question: How do you see the evolving defense concept?

Czulda: The Polish government has a much clearer idea of where it wants to end up with regard to defense than how to get there.  Or put another way: The Government knows what it wants to do but does not know how to achieve it.

In part, the focus has been to buy new weapons to gain closer cooperation and buy-in from the United States. But when Donald Trump lost the elections, Warsaw’s plan was shattered. Now the Polish authorities have been trying to build a partnership with Turkey which is a very controversial plan.

Regarding a military aspect, a priority for the government was to enhance land forces – a few years ago a new branch, the Territorial Army, was formed. Within Poland there is a growing debate about this approach with critics pointing to new ways to achieve territorial defense with more mobile integrated forces leveraging new digital technologies for connectivity as well.

Dr. Robert Czulda

He is an Assistant Professor at the University of Lodz, Poland. He is a former Visiting Professor at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) under a Fulbright Senior Award.

Dr. Czulda is an Alum of the Young Leaders Dialogue of the U.S. Department of State (2010– 2011), and has lectured at universities in Iran, Brazil, Indonesia, Ireland, Lithuania, Turkey and Slovakia, as well as the National Cheng-chi University in Taipei.

He is a freelance defense journalist as well and has published widely on Polish defense and related issues.

Dr. Czulda’s area of expertise is international security and defense.

Featured photo: Polish Air Force Division General, Jacek Pszczoła and the moderator of the panel, Robert Czulda at the Defence 24 Conference panel on air power modernization on September 27, 2021. Image Credit: J.Sabak