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May 22, 2023

The Polish Missile Crisis

Polish General Tomasz Piotrowski
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The discovery of a large Russian missile inside Poland has triggered a wave of political recrimination and finger-pointing, even though the blame clearly lies with the defense minister and his allies in the ruling party. Worse, the incident confirms that Poland’s skies are nowhere near as safe as its leaders claim.

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On December 16, 2022, a Russian KH-55 missile flew halfway across Poland before landing 12 kilometers outside Bydgoszcz, a city of over 300,000 people that is host to five NATO units and the Joint Forces Training Center. NATO’s largest producer of TNT, Nitro-Chem, is in nearby Belma. The Russian missile, designed to carry a nuclear payload of up to 200 kilotons – 13 times greater than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima – was six meters long and weighed 1.7 tons. Fortunately, it appears to have been unarmed.

Had you heard about this? I hadn’t, and neither, supposedly, had Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak. The missile was found by a woman riding her horse and reported by the media on April 27. Local residents are now canvassing the area in search of souvenirs.

Caught off guard, Błaszczak immediately blamed the Polish Army’s two most important generals, Operational Commander Lieutenant General Tomasz Piotrowski and Chief of Staff General Rajmund Andrzejczak, for failing to report the incident. Yet when asked by reporters about the case, Andrzejczak replied that he “informed his superiors ... at the time it took place,” adding that, “I have nothing to reproach myself with in this matter.”

For his part, President Andrzej Duda, the head of Poland’s armed forces, has refused to dismiss the generals, even appearing with them at public events. Speaking on the president’s behalf, the National Security Office reports that: “The information currently in the possession of the President of the Republic of Poland does not justify making personnel decisions regarding the top command staff of the Polish Army.”

This public squabbling among Poland’s top military and civilian leadership must be welcome news in the Kremlin. Sadly, such internal bickering and backstabbing has characterized the Law and Justice (PiS) government for the past six years.

Worse, Onet.pl, one of Poland’s most important media outlets, has confirmed with three sources that Błaszczak is lying about what he knew and when. On December 16, the Air Operations Center informed Piotrowski of the incident, and he then ordered a pair of Polish F-16 and American F-35 fighter jets to patrol the area. He also informed Andrzejczak, who passed the information to his immediate superior, the defense minister. Błaszczak then decided to keep the matter under wraps to avoid drawing public scrutiny. He sent only a police patrol, rather than army soldiers, to search the site.

Błaszczak’s cover-up meant that ordinary citizens were never alerted. What if the horseback rider or someone else had stumbled on an armed – or even nuclear-armed – warhead? What if it had detonated? We would have a case of Russian aggression against a NATO country. Yet as far as we know, the Polish government has not even raised the issue with Russia or summoned the Russian ambassador.

It is no secret that Błaszczak has long wanted to get rid of the two generals, even though they are both highly regarded by NATO. Onet.pl reports that in 2021, Błaszczak asked the president to remove Andrzejczak from his post, owing to Andrzejczak’s role in a military exercise that ended with the Polish army losing to Russia. Onet.pl’s sources claim that this outcome was planned as a way to discredit Andrzejczak. But the alleged plot failed. When Andrzejczak offered to step down, Duda refused his resignation.

Now, the missile incident has raised even more questions and concerns. As one of Poland’s top aviation-disaster experts put it: “If the military informed the minister about the missile as early as December 16, why did they accept the decision not to look for it? Were they afraid of the reaction of the head of the Ministry of Defense? If so, it means that the ruling party led to a total collapse in the army, because officers do not have the courage to do what they should do.”

One also must wonder about the effectiveness of Poland’s air defenses. Last October, Błaszczak tweeted that: “We have built a multi-layered air-defense system. We have Pioruns, Pilica sets, Little Narews, and Patriots. Thanks to the efforts of the PiS government, our skies are safe.” Was he lying then, too?

A month before the Russian KH-55 landed, a stray Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile flew into Poland and killed two people in Przewodów. At the time, Germany wanted to give Poland a battery of Patriot surface-to-air missiles, but Morawiecki’s anti-German government declined the offer. It also refused to join a coalition, proposed by Germany, that would develop a joint air-defense system spanning 15 European countries, even though Poland’s own skies are the most at risk. Now, after the latest revelations, Poland’s vulnerability is no longer in question.

In any normal country, a defense minister who is distrusted by the military and the president, and who lies about an incident with profound national-security implications, would have been dismissed already. But populist-ruled Poland is not a normal country, and Błaszczak belongs to PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński’s trusted inner circle. He will not lose his post, and Poland will be left with unprotected skies and a defense ministry that is at war with its own military. 

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This text was first published by Project Syndicate on May 19, 2023