By Wiktor Szary
WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland's Defence Minister said he hoped Britain would compensate for its absence from the European Union after a Brexit by strengthening its role in NATO, especially in the security of states close to Russia.
Antoni Macierewicz, speaking four days before a summit to approve new deterrence measures for eastern Europe, said the alliance assumed all the more importance during debate over the EU's future in discouraging an aggressor from "popping a bottle of champagne open, thinking that this discussion is a weakness".
A staunch NATO ally and one of Poland's closest European political and security partners, Britain voted on June 23 to leave the 28-country bloc, triggering a period of turmoil and soul-searching about the future of European integration.
"After the potential Brexit, I for sure expect an increase in Britain's role in NATO," Macierewicz said, in comments authorized for release on Tuesday. This would be very beneficial for Poland.
"It's no coincidence," he said, that Britain was first to put itself forward as one of the four "framework nations", which also include the United States, Germany and Canada, and which together will coordinate NATO multinational forces in the east.
"We have all reasons to think that Britain's military involvement will not only be upheld, but also increased."
Russia denies any territorial ambitions in the three Baltic states - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - or former members of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact alliance such as Poland. It also views NATO activity close to its frontiers as provocative.
At the summit in Warsaw beginning on Friday, NATO leaders will approve plans for a complex web of small eastern outposts, forces on rotation, regular war games and warehoused equipment ready for a rapid response force.
Poland will likely host a U.S.-led battalion of around 1,000 soldiers, with troops rotating in and out of the country. The Baltic states will each host a similar, ally-led battalion.
Macierewicz would not confirm that Poland's NATO battalion would be stationed near the so-called Suwalki gap, a 40-mile sliver of land on the Polish-Lithuanian border identified as a key flashpoint of any potential conflict with Russia - a location Poland favors.
But he said a command center for the four eastern battalions would be located in Elblag, just over 140 miles west of the gap. Poland would likely host a NATO intelligence and reconnaissance command.
"May this cause a change in Russia's behavior. Should that change occur, NATO would certainly not need to develop further forces here. But if it's necessary, we will push for it."
NATO FOR UNCERTAIN TIMES
The alliance's security guarantees were crucial at a time of post-Brexit uncertainty about what shape the European project should take in the future, Macierewicz said.
Poland's ruling conservatives, who surged to power in October last year, have repeatedly clashed with the European Union's executive commission, which launched a rule of law procedure against Poland over an attempted court reform.
Together with Britain's ruling Conservatives, the Law and Justice (PiS) party opposes granting more power to Brussels, arguing the EU should be a union of sovereign nation-states.
"Right now is a time of a certain sway in public opinion, a certain ambiguity (regarding the EU)," Macierewicz said.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)