Poland to boost national service against Russian threat

By bne IntelliNews March 11, 2015

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Poland is following Lithuania in building up its reserve army to face the threat of Russian aggression following Moscow's intervention in Ukraine.

Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz signed an executive order on March 10 that widens the range of those that can be called up for national service in Poland. 

The Polish defence ministry said recently it wants to develop a territorial force of 20,000 to supplement the Polish army, which now stands 100,000 strong. The details of Kopacz's proposal are not yet clear.

However, PAP reports that under the order, all men deemed capable of military service, including those who have no prior experience of military service, may be drafted for military exercises. Previously, only reservists with a stint in the armed forces could be called up.

The move at this stage has no legislative substance and will need to pass through stages of negotiation within the government, as well as the ministry of defence, armed forces, and parliament, according to Gazeta Wyborcza. However, the message it sends is clear: Poland is taking the “Russian threat” seriously.

Polish defence chiefs welcomed Lithuanian plans to reintroduce conscription announced in late February. If the parliament in Vilnius approves the bill, Lithuania intends to draft the first shift of recruits this autumn to counter what it sees as Russia's aggressive posture in the Baltic region. About 3,000-3,500 men between ages of 19 and 26 should be drafted every year.

However, given the realities on the ground - Lithuania's armed forces include only about 8,000 professional troops - the move would hardly keep Moscow awake at night should it actually be planning any invasion. While Vilnius and Poland have both pledged to raise defence spending closer to the 2% of GDP recommended by Nato, the international alliance is unlikely to be overly impressed with the return of conscription either, as it prefers fully professional armies.

The move is more of a nod to domestic - and perhaps Russian - political audiences, suggests Czech-based think tank the Centre for European Security.

"While portrayed by the Lithuanian authorities as a matter of national security, re-introducing conscription can also be interpreted as a symbolic gesture directed at Lithuanian as well as Russian audiences," it wrote in a recent report. "A message for the Lithuanian public that their government 'is doing something' to counter the Russian threat."

While Poland has a standing army of around 100,000, a move towards expanding the draft is unlikely to give Russia nightmares either. Rather, as in Lithuania, the idea of conscription clearly plays to the domestic audience and its growing sense that Russian intervention in Ukraine could spread to other neighbouring countries. A survey in September 2014 by Gazeta Wyborcza showed increasing numbers of Poles favouring a return to national service.

When Poland ditched conscription in 2008 and moved to creating a professional army, opinion polls showed 54% of the population backed the idea. The same poll also showed that 24% of Poles now feel the end of conscription has contributed to a decline in national security, compared to just 14% six years ago. 

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