Under Fire

“Ideas that enter the mind under fire remain there securely and forever.” The words of Leon Trotsky, founder and commander of the Red army with the title People’s Commissar of Military and Naval Affairs. These days titles are more mundane and most countries make do with the more pedestrian sounding minister of defence. And it is Poland’s minister of defence, Antoni Macierewicz, who now finds himself under fire, although this experience is more likely to confirm, securely and forever, the ideas he already has rather than give rise to new ones.

On Monday the minister was seeking to deflect calls for his resignation following the publication of an open letter signed by six of his predecessors. Published on the website of Gazeta Wyborcza. the former ministers accused the Law and Justice (PiS) government of undermining Poland’s position in Europe and NATO. In particular they wrote that Macierewicz had “discredited the potential of the Polish Army” when he had said in 2015 that “the Polish armed forces had no capacity to ensure national security.” Their letter concluded with: “Even the fiercest political struggle should not be waged at the expense of the interests of Poland. We believe that Antoni Macierewicz should not remain in office as defence minister,” and was signed by former defence ministers Bronisław Komorowski (a former president), Tomasz Siemoniak, Janusz Onyszkiewicz, Radosław Sikorski, and former deputy defence minister Janusz Zemke.

Bartłomiej Misiewicz a defence ministry spokesman told Polish Radio that the letter’s signatories were responsible for years of neglect, while Marek Magierowski, a spokesman for the president, told Radio Zet: “I would not worry too much about this letter and these arguments, because these are people directly linked to today’s opposition, mostly active politicians.”

Macierewicz himself argued that the signatories were collectively responsible for what he described as “the drastically bad condition of the army” that the PiS government inherited. In his view, the audit of the previous government presented to the Sejm last week (I discuss this on Radio Poland here) was correct in its assessment of the armed forces. “The diagnosis that the Polish armed forces were not capable of defending the country… was very mildly worded,” he said. He went on to accuse the former government of ordering the army’s counter-intelligence department to carry out surveillance on some 60 persons, including journalists, politicians, and people associated with PiS. Former defence minister and foreign minister Radosław Sikorski, was blamed for the non-building of a US missile shield in Poland. An agreement to build the shield was signed in 2008 in Warsaw, but the then incoming president Barack Obama cancelled the plan.

Be that as it may, President Duda was present on Friday for the official laying of the foundation stone of a US missile shield base being constructed at Redzikowo in northern Poland. President Duda said that the construction of a missile defence system strengthens the security of Poland, although there has been some local protest concerned about the impact on the Baltic tourist industry.

Needless to say, President Putin has warned that Russia will now have to consider threats to its national security as a result of the deployment of the NATO missile shield in Romania and Poland. At a meeting with military officials on Friday, Putin said that Russia was making every effort to preserve the strategic balance of power, so that a large-scale conflict is avoided. “These are not defence systems, it is part of the strategic nuclear potential of the United States moved to our periphery; in this case, the periphery is Eastern Europe,” Putin said.

Which is a little rich, you might think, given that it was Russia that annexed the Crimea in the first place and appears to have been up to no good in eastern Ukraine. But pride is a funny thing, and given Russian disappointment at her athletes being banned from the next Olympic Games because of doping, and her losing to Ukraine in the Eurovision Song Contest, one can understand why brother Putin is feeling less than gruntled.

The simple fact remains, however, that Russia is too big and important to ignore, and we need to cooperate with Russia to resolve conflicts elsewhere – notably in Syria. We should show strength and resolution – Russia respects only strength – and not allow Russia to act with impunity, but we might as well recognise the realities and act accordingly. As Churchill counselled, to jaw-jaw is better than war-war.

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