The sights and sounds of war have been common in the southeastern Polish city of Rzeszów since the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The city’s airport, which is defended by a pair of U.S. Patriot anti-aircraft missile systems, rumbles day and night with cargo aircraft delivering the latest loads of Western military support to Kyiv, and the highways east of the city are clogged with trucks carrying everything from bridge-building equipment to recently trained Ukrainian recruits.
Rzeszów’s militarized feel could soon become a permanent state of affairs under a plan to build a new NATO facility on the outskirts of the city, which sits less than 100 kilometres from the Ukrainian border.
Konrad Fijolek, the city’s mayor, made local headlines last month when he told Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper that NATO was planning a new base in Rzeszów and that “American, British and Canadian troops will be permanently stationed here.”
“We are sure that this base will be here, although neither our government nor NATO has officially confirmed it yet,” Mr. Fijolek said. It wasn’t clear from the mayor’s remarks when the new facility would be opened.
Canadian and Polish officials with direct knowledge of the matter have confirmed to The Globe and Mail that there is a plan to build a new NATO facility in Rzeszów – although it will be more of a repairs and logistics centre than the large-scale military base Mr. Fijolek hinted at.
“We are going to establish a maintenance facility in partnership with the U.S. and the U.K. No intent to have a large Canadian presence,” said the Canadian official, who added that the facility’s main role will be repairing Ukrainian tanks and other armoured vehicles. NATO has supplied Ukraine with hundreds of main battle tanks and other fighting vehicles, many of which have been damaged over the course of a seven-week-old Ukrainian counteroffensive that has struggled to break through well-established Russian defensive lines.
The official, whom The Globe is not naming because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said Mr. Fijolek was making the facility “sound bigger than what it is in terms of people” and that no Canadian troops would be stationed in Rzeszów long-term with their families.
The NATO media office in Brussels responded to questions from The Globe with a statement that read in part “we are significantly strengthening deterrence and defence for all Allies, enhancing our resilience against Russian coercion, and supporting our partners to counter malign interference and aggression.” The Department of National Defence in Ottawa did not reply to e-mailed questions from The Globe by the time of publication.
Few cities have been more rapidly transformed by Russia’s 17-month-old war against Ukraine than Rzeszów (pronounced “Zhesh-oof”). The city has seen its prewar population of 200,000 surge with the influx of about 30,000 Ukrainian refugees plus a reported 1,700 U.S. soldiers, who maintain a forward base near the city’s Jasionka Airport.
Rzeszów has become such a hub for Western assistance to Ukraine that senior Polish officials jokingly refer to it as “Rzeszawar” – a reference to the Pakistani city of Peshawar, which played a similar role in the 1980s as the United States and its allies funnelled weapons to the mujahideen fighters resisting the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
The city’s role has brought visits from U.S. President Joe Biden, who met with members of the 82nd Airborne Division stationed in the area, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who named Rzeszów one of four Polish “rescuer cities” that were first and fastest in providing aid to Ukrainian refugees fleeing the invasion.
Rzeszów’s importance has also caught the attention of the Kremlin and its allies. In March, Poland said it had dismantled a network of pro-Russian spies who were monitoring the airport with the suspected intent of sabotaging the delivery of military aid to Ukraine.
The city’s name also came up during a Sunday summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, during a discussion of the Wagner Group – the notorious mercenary company that staged a brief uprising against Mr. Putin last month before agreeing to go into exile in Belarus.
“Maybe I shouldn’t say it, but I will: The Wagner Group has started to stress us. ‘We want to go to the West. Let us go,’” Russian and Belarusian media quoted Mr. Lukashenko telling Mr. Putin during the meeting in St. Petersburg. “I said: ‘Why do you want to go to the West?’ ‘Well, to go on a tour to Warsaw, to Rzeszów.’”
Asked about Mr. Lukashenko’s remarks, U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Tuesday that “Poland is a NATO member, of course, and we will defend, if necessary, every inch of NATO territory.”