Poland has become a key arms supply route in the Ukraine war but is also becoming more vulnerable to attack from Russia, military analysts told The National.
With hundreds of armoured vehicles, sophisticated missiles and vital spare parts moving east, the potential for a subversive or direct strike has increased substantially.
There are also fears that Moscow’s intelligence operatives have infiltrated Poland to observe arms movements.
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Saturday that 150 armoured vehicles will be sent to the war, boosting a growing stockpile of weapons that could help Ukraine to oust Russian invaders.
But with the weapons increasing in sophistication, including drones and anti-ship missiles, Russia might consider targeting the supply chains, especially if it suffers defeats on the battlefield.
“In a way Poland is the Ukrainian rear,” said Orysia Lutsevych, a UK think-tank analyst currently in Poland. “This comes with all the risks at times of war: spill-over of the conflict, cyber-attacks in Poland, infowar and possible sabotage activities.”
Military expert Sam Cranny-Evans agreed that Moscow’s secret agents could be used.
“Russia might try to do something clandestine like it has for a while in Ukraine, but that carries enormous risk for them,” said the Royal United Services Institute analyst.
“It would be in Russia’s interests to keep this war to what it calls a local conflict. Expanding it horizontally to include Poland and others in a regional conflict would be very bad for Russia.”
The importance of Poland should not be underestimated the analysts said, both as a weapons supply route and a bastion against further incursion.
“Poland is key,” said Ms Lutsevych, of the London-based Chatham House think tank who is currently with family in Poland who have escaped Ukraine. “Both state and citizens understand the urgency of the situation and that Ukraine is a shield for Nato’s eastern flank. Also, the ground supply routes for military support allow Ukraine to resist and provide an exit route for Ukrainian women and children to a safe heaven. Many of them continue to work out of Poland to help the effort in Ukraine.”
The weapons sent to help Ukraine – in pictures
Weapons from around the world have been arriving in the Nato country – Poland borders Ukraine and Belarus – with vehicles and ammunition coming from America, Australia, Czech Republic and Slovakia.
It was claimed on Monday that an S-300 air defence system in eastern Ukraine that was donated by European allies was destroyed by a Russian Kalibur missile strike.
“Poland has been really important so far as a staging post to Ukraine,” Mr Cranny-Evans said. “Warsaw has made it clear that they want Russia defeated, so Moscow will be a bit wary of doing anything too risky near the border that might give Poland a pretext for greater involvement.”
The country also has a significant armoured manufacturing industry that could be used to service damaged Ukrainian vehicles or supply new stocks of T-72 tanks.
Russian secret services were heavily implicated in an arson attack on a Czech arms factory and fears of sabotage remain.
“Poland has one of the largest stocks of T-72s in Europe, and have developed fairly capable upgrades for them in partnership with Ukraine in the past,” Mr Cranny-Evans said.
While Moscow has vowed to strike at supply columns that support the Ukraine war effort it has yet to go beyond Ukraine’s border, although there is intelligence to suggest fuel depots could be targeted.
“Russia has certainly threatened to attack weapon convoys and now that the weaponry is increasing in its sophistication and hardware, that remains a possibility,” said Brig Ben Barry of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. “But that would certainly mean that Russia runs the risk of escalation in return from Poland.”
The threat of a Russian attack has led Britain to send its advanced Sky Sabre air defence system to Poland, joining the US Patriot anti-ballistic batteries that are defending key airports.
Brig Barry suggested that Russian agents, possibly from the GRU foreign intelligence service, would be conducting reconnaissance operations on foreign arms arrivals.
“They will certainly be spying on the kit that's going out to Poland and into Ukraine so they’ve got an idea of what they're up against,” he said. “If the new offensive goes badly for them in eastern Ukraine then that could lead Russia to consider a strike beyond Ukraine, whether covert or otherwise.”