WARSAW, Poland – The Polish capital once lent its name to the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet-led defense alliance that stood as a counterweight to NATO during the Cold War. This week, in a sign of how dramatically strategic alliances have shifted in Eastern Europe, Warsaw will host a two-day NATO summit, the first time that Poland has hosted a top-level meeting of the Western military alliance that it joined in 1999.
The anticipation of having U.S. President Barack Obama and the heads of the other allied nations gather in a city shaped by centuries of unwanted Russian interference marks a vindication for Poland, which was forced into the the Soviet sphere of influence against its will after World War II and saw the fall of communism in 1989 as a moment of national rebirth.
Over 17 years of NATO membership, Polish leaders have sometimes lamented feeling like a second-class member given that there have so far never been NATO bases or significant troop numbers on its territory — frustration that grew after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and began backing separatist in Ukraine's east. Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — former Soviet republics now in NATO — worried they could be next.
So this summit marks a turning point for Poland, not only due to the clout that comes with hosting the summit, but more importantly because the 28-member alliance will finalize plans to deploy four reinforced multinational battalions, to Poland and the Baltic states. The development builds on the previous summit, in Wales in 2014, where NATO decided to create a spearhead force that could move quickly into the region in case of an attack.
"We are becoming a full member of NATO," Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz told The Associated Press, referring to the planned stationing of troops. "Not only a political one, but one that we have always very much wanted to be, one that the Poles have waited 70 years to be. We will be fully protected by a joint force."
Macierewicz, whose ministry has a leading role in organizing the summit, himself embodies his nation's tortured history with Russia. His great-great grandfather was a military officer who fought in a war against Russia in 1792. Three years later, Poland was partitioned by Russia, Austria and Prussia and wiped off the map for the next 123 years. Poland regained its independence after World War I, but this was short-lived, as the country was conquered and divided again in 1939, this time by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. After the war, Poland ended up a Soviet satellite state.
In 1949, when Macierewicz was 1, his father died in mysterious circumstances, most likely murdered by secret services under Moscow's direction.
During the communist era, Macierewicz was a staunch anti-communist dissident, becoming a political prisoner for a time.
Today he is considered one of Poland's most outspoken critics of Moscow. He has even accused Russia of intentionally bringing down the plane that crashed in Smolensk, Russia, in 2010, killing President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others, many top Polish officials. Official investigations by Poland and Russia blame bad weather and human error — and even many Poles see Macierewicz's theory as anti-Russian fear gone too far.
Russian President Vladimir Putin "has been threatening us for a long time," Macierewicz insists. "It is a fact that the Russian Federation has an aggressive character. It's not only propaganda, but a fact, and that's why we have decided to take steps."
For their part, the Russians say that they feel provoked by a buildup of NATO activity and forces so close to Russian territory.
But Poles and other Westerners insist four battalions are not enough to threaten Russia in any way.
"It's only enough to be a trip wire in case something would come from Russia," said Michal Baranowski, the director of the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund think tank. "It would automatically bring the nations who provide the forces ... directly into to the fight."
Radek Sikorski, a former Polish foreign minister, described the new forces as a belated but welcome step toward correcting some of the vast military imbalance.
"This is 15 years late, but at last it's happening," he said at a debate in Warsaw last week.
Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed.