WARSAW, Poland (AP) — NATO member Poland displayed its state-of-the-art weapons and defense systems at a massive military parade Tuesday, as war rages in neighboring Ukraine and ahead of parliamentary elections in two months.
President Andrzej Duda, the chief commander of the armed forces, said in his opening speech that the protection of Poland’s eastern border is a key element of state policy. He also noted that Poland is supporting Ukraine in its struggle against Russia’s aggression of almost 18 months.
“The defense of our eastern border, the border of the European Union and of NATO is today a key element of Poland’s state interest,” Duda said.
Crowds waving national white-and-red flags gathered in scorching temperatures that reached 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) to see U.S.-made Abrams tanks, HIMARS mobile artillery systems and Patriot missile systems. Also on display were F-16 fighter planes, South Korean FA-50 fighters and K9 howitzers. A U.S. Air Force F-35 roared overhead, in a sign that Poland was also purchasing these advanced fighter planes.
Polish-made equipment including Krab tracked gun-howitzers and Rosomak armored transporters were also featured.
Some 2,000 troops, 200 vehicles and almost 100 aircraft took part. Poland’s armed forces have more than 175,000 troops, up from some 100,000 eight years ago, Duda said.
Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Poland’s conservative government has focused on strengthening the armed forces and has spent more than $16 billion on tanks, missile interceptor systems and fighter jets, many purchased from the U.S. and South Korea.
Duda said Poland’s defense budget this year will be a record 137 billion zlotys ($34 billion) or some 4% of the gross domestic product, the highest proportion in all of NATO.
“The goal of this huge modernization is to equip Poland’s armed forces and create such a defense system that no one ever dares attack us, that Polish soldiers will never need to fight,” Duda said.
Responding to criticism that Poland, a nation of some 37 million, was taking out huge loans to make the purchases, Duda said: “We cannot afford to be idle this is why we are strengthening our armed forces here and now.”
Poland borders on the east with the Russian city of Kaliningrad; with Lithuania, a fellow NATO member; with Russia’s key ally Belarus and with Ukraine.
The parade was held in Poland’s capital, which was vastly destroyed during World War II, on the anniversary of the 1920 Battle of Warsaw, in which Polish troops defeated Bolshevik forces advancing on Europe.
The military upgrades have bolstered Poland’s defense capabilities and some items replaced Soviet- and Russian-made equipment that Poland gave to Ukraine.
Poland is building one of Europe’s strongest armies to beef up deterrence against potential aggressors and has increased the number of troops to some 10,000 along its border with Belarus, where it has also built a wall to stop migrants arriving from that direction.
Showing off its military might is also a way for Poland’s government to attract voter support ahead of Oct. 15 elections, in which the populist ruling Law and Justice party will seek to win an unprecedented third term.