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LSE IDEAS Jagiellonian Forum provides insights on the CEE region, and particularly the V4 countries, the Baltics, and transatlantic relations. Our focus is on the ongoing events related to politics, foreign policy, international relations, security, society, economics, and technology.

The Editorial Board:

  • Łukasz Kamieński (Jagiellonian University)
  • Wojciech Michnik (Jagiellonian University)
  • Leon Hartwell (LSE IDEAS)

Proofreading: Garry Robson

The Managing Editor is Maciej Smółka. For all content inquiries or publication pitches, please contact him at

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Maciej Stępka & Agata Mazurkiewicz: "The Curious Case of the COVID-19 Crisis and the Militarisation of Resilience"

Maciej Stępka & Agata Mazurkiewicz: "The Curious Case of the COVID-19 Crisis and the Militarisation of Resilience"

In their latest piece, Maciej Stępka and Agata Mazurkiewicz discuss the curiosities and dangers of the use of military forces as a tool for increasing resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic based on the examples of Poland and other V4 countries.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the concept of ‘resilience’ at the forefront of security thinking, focusing on rendering states, societies, and organizations more robust, resistant, flexible, and adaptable. Resilience recognises the human inability to predict and understand the full scope, complexity, and character of future potential crises. That is why, instead of trying to manage uncertain futures, the concept of resilience is reflected in the capacity to deal with dangers that are difficult to anticipate, learn to withstand shocks and disturbances, and most importantly bounce back after prolonged crises. In other words, it concentrates on the ability to absorb the disturbance, distribute its impact among various elements of a system, and maintain the basic functions of this system.

From a practical standpoint, strengthening a society’s and state’s resilience is a long and all-encompassing process which builds on a comprehensive approach to security and mostly civilian resources (Civil Defence, NGOs, grass-root initiatives, and volunteering). As such, on the one hand, resilience falls under the realm of mundane practices of civic responsibility and attentiveness and crisis preparedness (such as reporting of immediate threats and involvement in community projects). On the other hand, it also implies policies focused on maintenance, equilibrium, and sustainability of vital elements of a state such as healthcare, the energy sector or other elements of critical infrastructure.

In many countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed serious shortcomings in this department, with governments mobilising the armed forces to assist strained civilian capabilities. This also pertains to Poland as well as other V4 countries, however there are differences in the scale and proportion of militarisation of the COVID-19 response.

Poland was a latecomer to the party of states recognising resilience as a security concept. It has officially introduced resilience into its National Security Strategy in May 2020, in the midst of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The provisions of the Strategy regarding resilience imply exclusive reliance on civilian capabilities, mainly civil defence. That is why it might come as a surprise to a keen observer that the main tool for increasing resilience in Poland during the pandemic was the military, in particular the Territorial Defence Forces (TDF).

In the Polish military system, the TDF is the fifth and the youngest branch of the armed forces comprising professional and part-time soldiers, set with the purpose of supporting the remaining branches in the early stages of a conflict. Even though before the pandemic the TDF had not been defined as resilience-oriented, during the COVID-19 crisis it took a full ownership of the concept and incorporated the term resilience into its own discourse. This is reflected in the code names of operations - “Resilient Spring” (March -June 2020) and “Permanent Resilience” (June 2020 - ongoing), as well as specific actions undertaken by the military in Poland.

These operations represent the largest military engagement on Polish territory since the fall of communism in 1989. Despite not introducing a state of emergency, during the first three months of the “Resilient Spring” the TDF mobilised 16,500 troops, comprising nearly 70 percent of its personnel at that time. The key aim of the operation was framed around support, maintenance, unburdening and mitigation-oriented activities, as well as the increase of resilience of local communities. TDF soldiers and seconded cadets were supposed to assist specialised and healthcare services, support social care, and educate to reduce the effects of the spread of COVID-19. The following types of activities can be distinguished: assisting and supporting public services (supporting hospitals and medical services and the Material Reserves Agency; cooperation with law enforcement and support to the Civil Aviation Authority) and supporting vulnerable groups, local communities, and authorities (building individual and societal resilience; cooperation with local administration and NGOs).

While the logistical support of the military to strained branches of government (here healthcare and law enforcement) fits into a standardised mode of support, activities designed to increase societal resilience do not. During the first stages of the pandemic the TDF soldiers were pictured as caregivers and supporters of vulnerable groups. Here, the veterans and seniors were considered as the most important recipients of assistance, receiving a wide spectrum of support including delivery of groceries, medicine, and information about the pandemic and preventive measures, as well as receiving psychological comfort. The rapid decrease of psychological resilience was also addressed by establishing a free 24/7 helpline with trained psychologists, including TDF soldiers. The TDF was also providing logistical help to the front-line medical professionals by running their day-to-day errands whenever they were on call or in preventive isolation (including, delivering groceries and transporting them to and from work). The TDF soldiers were also participating in education and information activities directed at the general population, the elderly and children. Some of the more curious examples of this was an educational colouring book and a short story entitled “My Heart will Protect Dad and Mum” (pol. “Moje serce ochroni Tatę i Mamę”), and a series of YouTube videos directed at the youngest children. The TDF also participated in temperature screenings, going as far as repurposing a thermal targeting device “Rubin”, in order to speed up the screenings.

While some of these activities are certainly curious from the point of view of standard use of armed forces, they filled a particular gap in Polish societal resilience. Poland lacks sustainable bottom-up structures committed to increasing resilience, which could mobilise in the event of a crisis (such as widespread local support groups, and a culture of volunteering). It also lacks operational Civil Defence, which should be one of the first respondents during this type of crisis. As a result, during the first waves of the pandemic Poland was over-reliant on military resource which may prove problematic in the future. The TDF has stepped up and addressed dangerous deficiencies in the system, but it also dominated the realm of resilience-oriented activities during crisis response, especially in its societal dimension. This may lead to a dangerous situation, where resilience in Poland will be placed in the hands of the military, instead of civilian capabilities and bottom-up initiatives, which should lie at the heart of sustainable and resilient societies. This situation is not unique, as other countries in the region also decided to mobilise their military to support the pandemic crisis response.

Yet, what is noteworthy, contrary to the Polish case, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary decided to introduce a state of emergency while mobilising military forces. They all undertook the more standard activities of support to civilian sectors, including assistance to hospitals, transportation and logistics, or cooperation with the police. There are, however, some curious differences in their respective situations and approaches. One of the important aspects of the engagement of the Slovakian Armed Forces was the assistance and provision of security in the marginalised Roma communities. This has proved to be necessary as the settlements often did not have access to healthcare and means of providing protection from COVID-19, leaving them disadvantaged in the fight against the virus. The approach of the Czech Republic was also interesting as its government has decided to establish multiple military operations, each dedicated to a different type of activity. For example, the Operation “Eye” concentrated on border control, the Operation “Shelter” focused on the assistance to the homeless people, and Operation “Litovel” was deployed to the Olomouc region. Possibly the most radical use of the military forces during the pandemic could be observed in Hungary, where the government triggered a robust militarisation process. The Hungarian military commanders have been put in charge of medical decisions, practically controlling civilian hospitals and their employees, while excluding the medical expert bodies. Military control teams have been sent to strategic private companies. The Hungarian military has also gained autonomous competencies in regard to monitoring and controlling compliance with lockdown and curfew, potentially infringing on civil rights and freedoms.

In most European countries, including Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, the scope of the COVID-19 crisis has propelled governments to mobilise the military to assist and support civilian capabilities. While this sort of engagement may be good for the expansion of the military and governmental control, it is not as desirable when thinking about long-term  state and societal resilience. As the Hungarian example has shown, the mobilisation of the military is in fact a double-edged sword and should be approached with caution during non-military crises.

Maciej Stępka holds a PhD in Security Studies (University of Warsaw). He is an Assistant Professor in the Institute of European Studies at Jagiellonian University in Kraków where he teaches courses on theories of security, European and international security policy, EU institutions and politics. He was a guest researcher at such academic institutions as University of Amsterdam, Utrecht University, or École française d'Athènes. His research interests include critical security studies and migration studies, more particularly discourses and practices of security deployed during complex and persisting crises. He has authored articles and books chapters on securitization of migration in the EU, resilience, crisis and risk management in the EU. He is currently working on a monograph entitled “Identifying Security Logics in the EU Policy Discourse: The “Migration Crisis” and the EU” for Springer Nature.

Agata Mazurkiewicz holds a PhD in Political Science (Jagiellonian University) and is an Assistant Professor in the Institute of Political Science and International Relations at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Her research interests include civil-military cooperation, peacekeeping missions and NATO affairs. She was a principal investigator and researcher in several national and international research projects devoted to NATO peacekeeping, reconciliation in Poland, as well as the use of armed forces during the COVID-19 pandemic. She is currently working on a book entitled “Civil-Military Cooperation in International Interventions” for Routledge.