Covert Route to NATO: John Pomfret on the Origins of the Polish-American Alliance

by Melania Parzonka

Illustration by Melania Parzonka

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine offered justification for three decades of aggressive pro-Western foreign policy in Poland. It also confirmed the worst fears for a country that had escaped the suffocating embrace of the USSR in the early 1990s.

Over 10,000 American soldiers currently stationed in Poland signify the nation’s newfound historical luck. The close military alliance that blossomed between the two countries can be traced back to the 1990s, when a newly independent Poland was courting US financial support and security guarantees. For the rookie Polish government, the US was seen as a stabilising force in Europe—a guarantor of emancipation from the former Soviet bloc. 

Back in the early ‘90s, NATO membership seemed out of reach for a country just emerging from Russia’s sphere of influence. The US was treading  a thin line, trying to strengthen a relationship with Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, whilst simultaneously supporting the nascent democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. But by 1999, US-Russian relations grew cold again as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined the NATO alliance.

The man covering these developments on the ground was John Pomfret, a longtime correspondent with The Washington Post based in Eastern Europe from 1992 to 1996, who was reporting from Warsaw and covering the breakup of Yugoslavia. One of John’s stories, written and published in 1995, revealed “Operation Friendly Saddam,” in which a Polish intelligence officer named Gromoslaw Czempinski helped six American governmental and military officials escape Iraq during the First Gulf War. 

The covert operation created a “blood bond” between the two services and spearheaded military collaboration that brought Poland into NATO, and later into Afghanistan and Iraq. Inspired by this story, John Pomfret followed the development of Polish-American military cooperation in his newest book, From Warsaw with Love. Recently, I spoke with John to discuss how Polish-American relations, now in the spotlight due to the war in Ukraine, evolved over the years. 

MP: Why was it so important for Eastern European countries like Poland to push for NATO membership?

JP: First, it’s important to go back in time and recognize that there was a very active security debate in Poland, the Czech Republic, but also in Eastern Europe at large. The Hungarians were really forward-leaning and really pushed for NATO membership. But even in Poland, there was an idea that perhaps Poland could go a third way. For a while, Vaclav Havel [former dissident, last president of Czechoslovakia, and first president of the Czech Republic] embraced the idea that perhaps the whole of Eastern Europe could be demilitarized, the Soviets would withdraw, NATO would withdraw, and Europe would live forever in peace. The young Polish prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki backed the idea of keeping the Soviet military in Poland for some foreseeable future because he was so concerned that while Germany was re-uniting, it could fail to recognize Poland’s western border with Germany.

There was a lot of debate over what was the right way forward for Poland. Some people in the Solidarity movement concluded that if Poland wasn’t going to be under the Soviet sphere of influence, it would have to fall to the West. Many of the Polish ex-communists were far more adamant that the only option was an alliance with the United States—partially, I think, not because they were friends of the Americans, but because they were schooled in power politics, which basically doesn’t believe in vacuums. And their obsession with power forced them to conclude that if you’re not going with Moscow, you have to go to Washington. And they pushed aggressively within the Foreign Intelligence Bureau for cooperation with the United States, partially because they believed that that was the only way to ensure Poland’s security. 

Visit to NATO by Lech Walesa, President of Poland, 1991

When Krzysztof Kozlowski [first chief of independent Poland’s intelligence agency, UOP] opened the first meeting between the American CIA delegation and the Polish spies in 1990, he was pretty much the only major Solidarity representative in that meeting. But the people who actually ran the meeting were the ex-communists with the CIA. If you see the documents, Kozlowski was much more like, “We are happy to have a relationship with you, but we’re going to have a relationship with lots of people”. But then he leaves the room, and the Americans and the Poles are like, “Okay, that guy’s gone. Let’s work together.” And there was no sense of anything that the Poles wouldn’t do for the US—and from the Americans’ perspective, they wanted to do a lot for Poland. So much so that they actually created, funded, armed, and trained Poland’s first special forces battalion, GROM.

MP: How do you think the special relationship between Poland and the US was linked to NATO membership? Did the Polish government even think it was possible at the time? 

JP: There were people in the Polish hierarchy, both in Solidarity and definitely on the Foreign Intelligence Bureau side, who believed that the only option was to have an alliance with the United States. There were US visits by the foreign minister Skubiszewski in 1990—there was that initial flirtation. So this is clearly something that people were considering in terms of what Poland’s options were.  

But as Boguslaw Winid [the Congressional liaison based in the Polish embassy at the time] said, Poland needed to show it not only should get into NATO, but that it deserved to get into NATO. And Poland clearly couldn’t do it through their military—they could only do it through the democratization process. And they also needed to show that they were actually useful. The espionage cooperation showed the United States and the Brits and the Israelis (even though they’re not in NATO) that Poland could be extremely useful, and that helped. And it helped with senators who were on the fence in the United States as to whether they would actually vote for Poland’s NATO membership. There were classified briefings given to the US Senate by the CIA on Poland’s work for the United States. 

So the Polish perspective was “we have to keep on being the most loyal ally we can be so that we can show these guys that we have to be in NATO because we’re just so damn good.” And I think that’s how the intelligence cooperation fits into this—this battle over Poland’s future. 

Two Polish army soldiers prepare to take part in an afternoon patrol during Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2004. US National Archives

MP: When Russia first appeared to take a pro-Western turn in the early ‘90s, the US categorically said that there was not going to be any NATO expansion into Eastern Europe—they promised that to Yeltsin. So what was the thinking on the American side to change the position on NATO expansion?

JP: That history is still highly contested—it was highly contested then, and it’s highly contested now. M.E. Serote has a new book about it called Not One Inch, in which she argues that America made a mistake in promising Yeltsin and then breaking the promise, etc. I think there are lots of factors that were involved in this: Bosnia exploded, and there was a lot of concern about whether that type of problem was going to spread north. The Hungarians were screaming about the treatment of the Hungarian ethnic minorities in Romania and Slovakia. And they were not at the point of mustering troops, but there was concern that Hungary’s protection of its ethnic Hungarians was going to metastasize into conflict. Democracy had a loose hold on the government, and NATO membership was a lever to make sure that those changes were irrevocable. There was a lot of concern in the United States about making sure Eastern Europe was actually kept stable. 

Another issue was Germany. As Germany was uniting (and this is before Yeltsin), there was a big debate in the United States, but also within Germany, about whether Germany was going to be a NATO member. And Poland wanted Germany to be in NATO, because they understood that only if Germany was rooted in the alliance would that take away the temptation that Germans had historically to roam around middle Europe. 

Once Germany got into NATO, the other issue was that it basically became a frontline state. And the issue of NATO membership for the Eastern European countries extended the borders of NATO far more to the east, and it basically transformed Germany from being on the fringe of Europe to being in the center of Europe—which, from the Polish perspective and Eastern Europeans’ perspective, was a hugely stabilizing force for Germany. Their problem was not simply Russia—their problem has historically been either Russia or Germany. Their concerns were on both sides, which explains why Mazowiecki, in his first meeting with Bush in 1990, said, “You know, we’re actually comfortable with the Soviets being here for a while because we want to make sure we’ve got that border.” 

US Secretary of Defense William Cohen, accompanied by National Security Advisor Samuel Burger (left) and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (right), announce a historic decision in Madrid, made earlier in the day at the NATO summit, to invite Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to begin accession negotiations to join the NATO alliance, July 8, 1997. US National Archives

MP: Regarding what you said about the guarantees on the German border: I was born in the ‘90s, and I don’t remember that discourse at all. By the time I was more politically aware, Germany was under Angela Merkel and very friendly towards Poland. Discovering that Poland’s western border was a real concern back then was quite shocking for me. But if you go through the documents, you see that there was a legitimate fear that there was going to be another border shift.

JP: During Mazowiecki’s first trip to America, when Poland’s economy was in a complete tailspin, the first thing he talked about with Bush was the border with Germany. It was clearly in front of mind for these people at that time—Wroclaw-Breslau, Danzig-Gdansk, Stettin-Szczecin. It was rooted in the thinking that there were West German voters who’d been moved from their ancestral lands, and there were German politicians who were attempting to play with that. And the border confirmation didn’t come into force until relatively late in the day [the German-Polish Border Treaty of 1990 entered into force in January 1992].

So Poland believed that their NATO membership not only would stabilize their country’s security, but would also keep Germany rooted in the alliance, as a centerpiece and not on the fringe.

MP: Where do you think the Polish-American relationship is at the moment? Are we past the honeymoon period? 

JP: Given the crisis in Ukraine, I think the relationship is probably extremely strong. I don’t have any kind of real-time intelligence based on that, but Poland is the main conduit of weaponry getting into Ukraine, and a significant portion of that weaponry is American. So you can imagine these two services are very close. 

Even during the black site crisis [when it was revealed that Poland illegally lent Polish land for a CIA extraordinary rendition site], Polish operatives continued to risk their lives on behalf of the alliance. So I imagine it’s very close. Although now that Poland is identified as a staunch ally of the United States, it makes the maneuvrability of Polish operatives more difficult.

On the operative level, specifically, when it comes to special forces, the two sides are interoperable. The Polish operatives in the special forces can work with Delta and SEAL as if they’re part of those units. It’s unbelievable. Poland has a reputation as probably the most professional special forces outside of the United States and Britain in Europe.

MP: There was some doubt as to whether NATO would be able to protect Poland and other Eastern European nations in the face of an actual threat. Do you think that NATO’s response to the Russian invasion was the final push to reassure them about the alliance? 

JP: That’s a great question. On the surface right now, it has definitely united NATO. But what happens if the Russians begin to send cruise missiles toward a Polish military base that’s being used to transfer arms into Ukraine? That’s just a huge question. And I don’t know how NATO is going to respond. 

Putin doesn’t seem to have any compunction about broadening the war—he’s certainly threatening it. And then what happens if he begins to deploy biological or chemical weapons, trying to use the “discovery” of these bioweapons labs and in Ukraine as an excuse, or prompting a nuclear leak from Chernobyl? It wouldn’t allow him actually to deploy a nuclear weapon, but it would allow him to deploy nuclear fallout as a weapon of war. 

A Polish T-72 battle tank participating in NATO’s Exercise Steele Crescendo, 2020

My point is that the Russian invasion has strengthened the alliance, but there are further tests down the road for all of us. Now’s the time for countries to pick which side they are on. The countries that don’t, like China, will further the potential for tragedy.

And there are voices in the United States that still blame the United States for not taking into account Russia’s security interests and expanding NATO. I think those ignore what was happening in Europe at the time—it really justified and almost mandated NATO expansion. But the most important question to ask is, where would we be in this crisis if Poland wasn’t in NATO? And if troops were amassed on the Belarusian border with Poland, and not with Ukraine? We’d be in a far more complicated and worse situation. 

John Pomfret is an award-winning journalist and author who has worked with The Washington Post for several decades. As a foreign correspondent, he reported from countries including China, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Congo, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Poland, and Austria. His newest book ​​From Warsaw with Love: Polish Spies, the CIA, and the Forging of an Unlikely Alliance covers the origins of military cooperation between the US and Poland.

Melania Parzonka is the co-founder and web editor of INTERZINE.