Russian military expert, Mikhail Barabanov, on the possible Polish intervention in Ukraine

I don’t know a more knowledgeable military expert than Mikhail Barabanov, a senior member of the Moscow-based CAST think-tank. At least not in Russia. He has truly staggering encyclopedic knowledge on the world weapon systems. That is why to read him, is always a special occasion for me. And that is why I bring up his interview with the Russian “Moskovskiy Komsomolets” newspaper, even though it’s quite short and not especially revealing.

The interview deals with the possibility of Polish military intervention in Ukraine, and its consequences on the “special military operation” (SMO).

The main point, as I see it, is that potentially Polish Army can change the balance of power in Ukraine, given the total number of Russian and allied troops currently deployed is less than the Ukrainian forces. In this situation, entrance of well-motivated, and to some degree well-armed Polish troops, along with its air-force and air-defense, will change the course of the war. But for that to happen, Poland needs to commit itself fully. If it chooses a limited approach, such as a few battalions or divisions acting as “volunteers”, it would only lengthen the conflict and increase the number of casualties on the allied (i.e. Russians, and the forces allied to them) side.

I will leave out the other information provided by Mikhail, since it mostly gives some basics on the Polish military capabilities. I, on the over hand, want to explore the consequences and alternatives, based on the main prediction he provides.

First of all, for Poland to commit fully to the war means to risk a total destruction of its combat capable military, and quite possibly the great number of its military and “dual-use” infrastructure in Poland itself. There is no going back — Polish would have to fight Russia with all their might, or risk military, economic and political destruction. If war goes poorly for Poland, the current, anti-Russian-to-the-extreme government will be surely overturned, and the period of political instability would follow. The Poles will suffer not only from declined economy and immigrant issues, but as a war stricken nation — as Ukraine itself. This is the level of commitment they must to submit themselves to, in order to try and change the balance of power in Ukraine.

Of course, any such change of the balance of power would be only temporary, as Russia will inevitably pour more troops into Ukraine, and escalate its long-range strikes in the enemy’s rear. Russia will also have to make a decision of how much it wants to risk the farther escalation against NATO. Even if NATO seems to be divided, some of its members could still dispatch its expeditionary forces to the Poland’s aid, and, most critically, USAF may take part in the war.

As long as Poles don’t engage any targets on Russian or Belarusian territory, they may hope for a limited-theater war, inside the Ukrainian borders. But if Polish military aircraft is operating in Ukraine after taking-off from Polish airfields, of if it is launching attacks on Russian targets from its territory, Russia would be expected to strike facilities inside Poland. Russia haven’t gave any explicit warnings on this issues. Putin had talked about “lightning strikes” or “consequences, unparalleled in history”, but Russians keep their military options open, so there is no strictly defined limits of what will trigger a Russian response beyond NATO borders, and what scale of a response it may be.

But Poles need to plan for the worst, if they want to fully commit to destroying Russia (as they state publicly), at least in Ukraine. For that, they must have NATO guarantees to protect Poland itself, from any possible Russian strikes or military invasion. If they hope NATO would have no choice but to enter direct conflict with Russia when Poland itself will be endangered, they are making dangerous assumptions. Judging by the Polish public statements, they are indeed ready to wage a war against Russia, and win, even by themselves. I’m not sure it’s really the level of their military planning, but it is better to take the word of your enemy, when being threatened.

On the other hand, since NATO, and particularly the US, doesn’t seem eager to commit its armed forces to fight a war with Russia, if it decides to do it nether-the-less, it would have to make it clear to Russians. Or even better, to discuss this matter with Russians directly, giving clear definitions on what Russian actions will trigger the US response, and also getting the understanding of Russian red lines. Unless it is done, the risks of uncontrolled escalation, up to the point of full WWIII and nuclear holocaust of European civilization, will be uncomfortably high. So Russia would have to know NATO’s stance on the issue of Poland entering the war. Otherwise they may assume Poland is acting alone.

So let’s assume the best case scenario for Poland. It had received blessing from US and NATO to intervene in Ukraine. It would not receive the blessing to engage targets in Russian territory (because it means Russia would have no other option but to attack Poland). And Poland has committed fully to this operation:

Assumingly, Poland can deploy into Ukraine two of its four divisions. Probably the 16th and the 18th mechanized [divisions], as well as to actively deploy its air-force and the special forces. In total, together with logistical and support units, the number of troops can reach up to 50,000 men.

— Mikhail Barabanov

Realistically, those 50,000 men and the Polish air force would make, let’s say, a half of what was available to the Ukraine in Donbass, at the start of the SMO. I would assume, about this number of troops and hardware was already destroyed or captured or disabled. And these were the troops who believed (at least some of them) that they are defending their own country. And they were preparing for Russian counter offensive, building fortifications and defense lines, for 8 years, while stockpiling the best weapons they could get.

So the only real advantage of Poles would be that they are fresh. Ukrainian defenses are crumbling, and their morale is hitting the bottom. They are low on ammo and supplies. Poles could reinvigorate (to some degree) and give some relief to the Ukrainian troops holding the defense. Their air force, assuming it would be allowed to act from within Poland, will have no range to make any difference in the Eastern Ukraine, given it’s about 1,000 kilometers one way from Poland to Donbass.

Russian forces are in good condition, their hardware is being repaired or replaced, they have enough supplies and ammo, and their morale seems high. Russian casualties are relatively low in number, and they are being replenished by available reserves and volunteer reservists, it seems. This cannot be said about the militias, many of which are mobilized personnel, not professional soldiers, and of different ages. It seems, militias’ morale is not much higher (in general) than that of Ukrainian troops, who were forced to fight in this war.

Following these assumptions, I would say that in general, if Poles would commit, and take part in the Battle for Donbass, all we would have as the result is additional 2-3 months of Russians grinding them to the bone, much as they did previously to Ukrainian Army. But It’s hard to imagine, Poles would be willing to bear the same loses as Ukrainians are. Rather, much sooner, they will retreat, and Ukrainian soldiers would follow them.

The real change is possible not in Donbass, but in Western, or maybe Central Ukraine. Polish military aviation may have a range available to be used in support of the troops, at least until Russian air-defense and air-force will do enough damage. Their logistics would have a better chance to reach the troops. And for the Russians, the opposite effects will start to take place: longer range for front-line aviation based in Russia, longer supply routes. Given time, these obstacles will be overcome, since the liberated/occupied territories are slowly becoming an integral part of Russia, especially outside of Donbass (Kherson, Zaporozh’e), and thus they are practically the new Russian rear. Russian military helicopters are already operating from Western and Southern Ukraine, and given some time and care, the airfields could house fixed-wing aircrafts as well. Russians also have the Belarus, which neighbors the northern border of Ukraine and Eastern Poland. Theoretically, S-400 put in Belarusian city of Brest can control the airspace of all of the Western Ukraine (as well as all of the Eastern Poland), or at least significant parts of it.

Undoubtedly, this scenario will strain the allied troops, currently engaged in the SMO. I assume Russian Army can continue this level of fighting indefinitely, given strong economy, high public support, and relatively low loss-rate in manpower. But the militias, Guards and mercenaries probably can not, at least not to the degree they are being used now. So in order to replenish and relieve them, additional reserves, voluntary-mobilization, enlisting men from liberated/occupied territories, or all of the above, is needed. And of course, significant reserves and border-defense units are still needed outside of the SMO, in the case of NATO attack on Russia or Belarus.

In conclusion, I would say that I agree with mr. Barabanov to some degree, but not entirely. To change the course of this war, Poland needs to be able to push back Russians from all territories, gained since the start of the war. Optimally, they need to push so hard, that the Donbass and Crimea themselves would be in the danger of Ukrainian/Polish occupation/liberation. But Poland on its own doesn’t seem to me to be able to do it. Only to slow-down Russian advances in Central and Western Ukraine, assuming Russians will want to push farther west. But eventually, this would harm Poland more than it would harm Russia. Militarily, politically, economically…

The overall balance of power will adjust, but eventually will remain in Russian favor overall. Only all-NATO intervention can change this.

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