Poland holds biggest military parade since Cold War in defiant message to its neighbours

European nation displays expanding military hardware as elections loom

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As a low hum filled the air, children began to squeal with joy. Perched on their father’s shoulders as the hot Polish sun beat down, they pointed down the road and shouted “czołgi!” Tanks!

Soon the hum turned to a roar as the first wave of K2 tanks powered down Wybrzeże Kościuszkowskie road on the west bank of the Vistula river in Warsaw. They were preceded by a fly-past of helicopters, drones and fighter jets.

It was its biggest military parade since the Cold War, as the Nato-member country flexed its military muscle in what the government hoped would be both a message to Moscow and to voters ahead of elections in October. About 2,000 soldiers from Poland and other Nato countries marched through the capital accompanied by 200 items of military equipment and 92 aircraft.

With the election campaign in full swing, the immense display of military hardware provided the ruling nationalist Law and Justice party with a chance to burnish their security credentials.

August 15 is locally branded the Feast of the Polish Armed Forces and today it marked 103 years since Poland’s victory over Soviet Russia at the Battle of Warsaw. The crowds lined the street four rows deep. Hundreds of mini red and white flags waved by those who came out to watch Poland’s largest military parade since 1989.

It has been 18 months since Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine and the significance of this year’s celebration was not lost on the families gathered in the sun.

“We are here to celebrate the military with family, friends and our children. I want to show my daughter the army,” Karin Karwat, 29, tells The National. “It’s important because of the war in Ukraine. The war makes me scared.”

One year ago, Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Błaszczak pledged that his country would have “the most powerful land forces in Europe". As the ground shook with the weight of Poland’s military might, that promise appeared to ring true.

"August 15 is not only an opportunity to pay homage to the heroes of the victorious Battle of Warsaw and to thank contemporary soldiers for defending our homeland," Mr Blaszczak told troops and onlookers who had gathered near the Vistula.

"It is also a perfect day to show our strength, to show that we have built powerful armed forces that will effectively defend our borders without hesitation."

With Poland’s right-wing government already wary of Russia before its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and the encroaching threat it feels from its neighbour Belarus, it has raised defence spending from 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) to 3 per cent this year. It plans to increase that to 5 per cent “over time” according to Jarosław Kaczyński, the deputy Prime Minister.

Poland’s defence budget will soon exceed that of Greece, Nato’s second largest spender after the US at 3.8 per cent, the UK’s 2 per cent and Germany’s 1.3 per cent.

Poland’s army has silently and slowly become one of Europe’s best and now it has plans to become Europe’s military super power.

When a stray missile landed on Polish soil in November 2022, the world wondered how Poland would react. Having already donated $1.7 billion in military aid, which included the delivery of more than 200 T-72 tanks and four Leopard tanks, Poland’s support of Ukraine was evident. European powers braced themselves for a knee-jerk reaction from the Law and Justice party.

However, Poland kept its cool and as the dust settled, evidence came to light that the missile was in fact a Ukrainian anti-aircraft rocket gone astray. Poland put its forces on high alert and postured, letting the world, and especially Russia, know that it was able to think clearly while being prepared for anything.

These sentiments were echoed by Rafal Brzeski, 40, a Polish Navy officer currently on holiday, as he gripped on to his son Oliver on his shoulders, waving at the jets flying past.

“I’m not scared of Russia. If I have to fight I will. It’s not a problem for me as Poland is ready to fight.”

Poland is on a huge military recruitment drive. It already has more than 170,000 active personnel and another 35,000 members of its Territorial Defence, formed in 2016 two years after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Despite this, the country has turned its celebration of the Armed Forces Day into a four-day festival.

From the August 12-15, celebrations have been taking place across the country. The Ministry of National Defence has organised more than 70 “picnics” across Poland’s 16 provinces to show off its military equipment and give the public “the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the construction of combat vehicles and learn about the specifics of service in selected military specialities”.

There are even nightly screenings of military-themed films and the chance to try “military pea soup with home-made bread". Everywhere, recruiters are on hand to sign people up.

This buoyant attitude comes on the heels of Poland’s massive military procurement deal with South Korea last year, much to the chagrin of the US, already a large supplier of military equipment to the Eastern European country.

Warsaw and Seoul agreed a $13.7 billion arms deal which included the purchase of 180 used K2 Black Panther tanks, 200 K9 Thunder howitzers, 218 K239 Chunmoo rocket launchers and 48 FA-50 fighter jets. Korea will also supply 1,000 new K2 tanks by the late 2020s.

South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol and Poland’s President Andrzej Duda met again on July 15 in Warsaw. The two men agreed on an expansion of bilateral ties in strategic areas including nuclear power and defence.

Nuclear defence has become a critical topic for Poland. On May 25, the defence ministers of Belarus and Russia, Viktar Khrenin and Sergei Shoigu, officially agreed to store Russian tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil. This has made a lot of Polish citizens nervous.

“It’s my biggest worry that we have nukes next door!” said Alexandra Podgorski, 30, gripping her bag’s shoulder strap a little tighter at the military parade. “I’m glad we are spending money on the Patriot air defence.”

However, it’s not only the tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus that are a cause for concern.

Following the Wagner mercenaries failed march on Moscow on June 24, its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and his men were banished from Russia and found safe haven in Belarus. Aleksandr Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, allegedly brokered a deal between Putin and Prigozhin, which meant the mercenary group turning tail and marching towards Minsk.

A month ago, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he had received information that the Wagner mercenaries were in the vicinity of the Belarusian city of Grodno, just 18km from the Polish border.

Poland has sent more than 1,000 troops to its eastern border with Belarus amid rising tensions and is planning to increase that to 10,000. Warsaw believes Belarus and Russia may use the Wagner Group to destabilise the area.

"The situation is getting increasingly dangerous. Most likely they [Wagner] will be disguised as the Belarusian border guards and help illegal migrants get to the Polish territory [and] destabilise Poland," Mr Morawiecki said on July 29 at a press conference in western Poland.

Alexandra’s husband Karol Podgorski, 30, a financial analyst, batted these fears away as he stood among the sea of Polish people watching the parade.

“Of course, Wagner next door is worrying but they wouldn’t use them against a Nato country. They are just there to make us feel threatened.”

His attitude is a pragmatic one and echoes what appears to be that of the Polish government as it shows off its military might to the world.

“We need to be able to fend Russia off before Nato arrives. We hope the other Nato forces will come but who knows? We need to be able to defend ourselves with our forces and hope for the best.”

Updated: August 16, 2023, 4:38 AM