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With their tightly laced boots, carefully placed berets and Polish-made Beryl 5.56mm assault rifles, the cadets line up for inspection after a session at the shooting range – backs straight, faces fresh, ready to learn. “We are training the officers of the future,” says Marcin Jasnowski, a former cadet and current employee of the Military University of Land Forces in Wroclaw, south-western Poland. “Some of them will be generals in 20 years’ time.”

Until then, they will have their work cut out: their training is taking place at a time when the military’s top brass is in disarray and as Russia flexes its muscles once again. The conflict in neighbouring Ukraine has put defence back in the spotlight in Poland. As a frontline state for Nato, which it joined in 1999, it’s not just Poland’s security at stake here but Europe’s as well. As such, Warsaw has been bolstering its defence capabilities.

“Practically all of Poland’s military effort is focused on the threat from the east,” says Marek Swierczynski, an analyst for security affairs at Polityka Insight, a think-tank in Warsaw. Alongside welcoming Nato troops, Poland has been working to increase the size of its own forces. In 2017, President Andrzej Duda signed a law that will raise annual defence spending to 2.5 per cent of gdp by 2030, from around 2 per cent now. The move also seeks to double the number of soldiers to 200,000.

Even before the legislation, the past few years have been turbulent for the Polish military. The right-wing Law and Justice party came to power in 2015; since then it has shaken up the armed forces. In 2016, 90 per cent of top positions in the General Staff – responsible for strategic planning – were replaced. Meanwhile, defence minister Antoni Macierewicz, a party hardliner, set about building a volunteer army known as the Territorial Defence Force. But in January Macierewicz was sacked amid efforts to improve the Polish government’s image abroad. He was replaced by Mariusz Blaszczak, another party figure, who has no military experience but is a stabilising force. “The repercussions of this appointment are unclear,” says Swierczynski. “For now, Blaszczak has been tidying up at the ministry after his predecessor. Yet Polish defence policy is so shaped by external factors that no major [strategy] shift is to be expected.”

Far from the politics of Warsaw, the Military University of Land Forces has weathered the storm. It is home to nearly 1,000 cadets – 117 of whom are women – and is one of five academies training personnel for the Polish military. With its roots in the officers’ academy founded in 1967, the academy became a university last year, enabling it to award PhDs in addition to military training. Autonomous and with its own senate, its staff are reluctant to talk politics. “We cannot escape broader changes outside,” says Slawomir Hajt, head of the rector’s office. “We can simply assess them in terms of risks and opportunities.”

With its motto Veritas, honor, patria (Truth, honour, fatherland), the university is shaping the next generation of military leaders, a crucial element in deterring an attack by Russia. “We need to make it unprofitable to wage a war against us,” says Hajt, whose office is home to rows of books on European history as well as a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. He believes the best way to do that is through rigorous training. “Even with excellent military infrastructure, the military will not be able to realise its defence potential without top-quality commanders.”

The university is steeped in history. It bears the name of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish military leader who fought in the American Revolution, and corridors are adorned with busts of national figures, such as Jozef Pilsudski, who halted the Russian Red Army’s westward advance in 1920. In addition to history classes, the university hosts talks by veterans, some of whom served in the Second World War.

Despite the rightward shift away from the EU that the country has taken under the Law and Justice party, the university is banking on openness. “We want to be the best military academy in Europe,” says Hajt. And that means learning from academies in other countries. The university recently signed a co-operation agreement with West Point in the US, spanning cadet training, lectures and joint academic projects, while the university also welcomes cadets from outside Poland on exchanges.

All cadets at the university enrol in a five-year programme in commanding or logistics, which translates to a Master’s degree. After rising at 06.00, they gather outdoors to be briefed. At 13.00, it’s cross-country training. Classes can continue after dinner, when cadets train for night combat. The day ends at 22.00. Before bed, the cadets polish their boots, leaving them outside their doors for inspection.

Above all, the university seeks to teach leadership. “Without personality, skills are nothing and vice versa,” says Leslaw Welyczko, vice-rector for didactics. “Our graduates should be empathetic, assertive and self-reflective.” The ideal graduate, he says, is a citizen, a military specialist, a commander and a leader ready to operate in international military structures.

These qualities are put to the test on missions abroad. “What I learned here was verified in Afghanistan,” says Jasnowski, who served there in 2007 and 2009. “Missions show whether a soldier can cope with stress and lack of time and information. They need a strong moral spine.” All the soldiers under his command on both tours returned to Poland alive.

Come graduation, everyone is guaranteed a job commanding a platoon somewhere in Poland but they have no say over the location. One cadet dreams of becoming a military attaché in Spain; another would like to settle near her family. Yet most have only vague career plans because their training isn’t about where they’ll fight or who, it’s simply a matter of how. “We do not personify the enemy,” says Jasnowski. “We prepare our cadets for any attack.”

As Poland’s proximity to Russia continues to define its security priorities and political tensions in Warsaw simmer on, that preparation will help keep the country’s growing military ready and able, no matter what comes its way.


Defence notes

Defence minister: Mariusz Blaszczak (since January 2018)
Key alliance: Member of Nato since 1999
Percentage of GDP spent on defence: 2 per cent, set to rise to 2.5 per cent by 2030
Type of army: Professional. Military service was suspended in 2010
Size of army: Around 100,000 soldiers, set to rise to 200,000
Key purchase ahead: Wisla surface-to-air missile-defence programme

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