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Mar 21, 2012 | 03:30 GMT

5 mins read

The Geopolitics of Poland’s Evolving Relationships

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

The foreign ministers of Germany, Russia and Poland will meet in Berlin on Wednesday. It is the second annual meeting, part of a framework in which the three countries decided to meet every year to assess their tripartite relationship. Given that many important European actions must wait until the completion of the French elections in May, nothing substantive will come from the meeting itself. But the fact that these three nations have made it a point to meet regularly is interesting and worth considering.

That consideration begins with Poland, historically caught between Germany and Russia, and at times swallowed by one of them. For Poland, these two countries have been an existential threat throughout its history. Poland has three strategic options: One is to find a powerful and capable outside force prepared to guarantee Poland's existence. The second is to try to reach some accommodation with at least one of these countries in order to deflect the other, while making sure that its defender does not become Poland's occupier. The third is to try to create a military force that can deter Russia and Germany.

Historically, none of these strategies have worked particularly well for Poland. But membership in the European Union, as well as in NATO, allowed the country to undertake a new strategy. For Poland, as for other countries, having post-war Germany contained in these multinational entities has eliminated the German threat. At the same time, the end of the Cold War meant that Russia was no longer asserting its power over Poland and, in fact, had lost the ability to do so. In response, Poland developed a strategy that strengthens its relationship with the rest of Europe, allies itself with Germany and immunizes itself against Russia — both because of Europe's strategic value and due to the fact that Russia no longer has the power to threaten Poland.

But Poland's current problem is that Europe is changing. The structural integrity of the European Union is under intense pressure from the financial crisis. Its future is unclear and the European Union's utility as an anchor for Poland is therefore less certain. More important is the fact that Germany's place in the European Union has also become uncertain. The Greek crisis revealed a dual problem for Germany: The first is Germany's dependence on a free trade zone for at least part of its exports. The second is that the free trade zone might not be financially able to absorb those exports. In addition, countries like Greece might become a burden to Germany.

Germany is not making any dramatic shifts in its relationships, but it is searching for alternatives. The most important is Russia, which supplies energy to Germany. Russia also needs German technology and can use German entrepreneurial energy. Germany, with a declining population and a growing aversion to immigration, is looking for locations with low labor costs for factories. Russia's population is also declining, but it still has surplus labor that is unemployed or, more often, underemployed. Theirs is not a potential relationship but an existing and intensifying one. Germany's ties with Russia may not replace the German bond with the European Union, but a cornerstone relationship could develop between Moscow and Berlin.

Today, Russia is a strong regional power with a particular issue with the United States — the Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) deployment in Europe — which Russia considers a threat to its national interest. The Russians are threatening to respond to this deployment with one of their own in Kaliningrad, the soon-to-be-active S-400 strategic air defense system. Russia has also threatened to deploy the Iskander mobile short-range ballistic missile system.

The BMD system — which is slated to host U.S. BMD interceptors in 2018 — is as much symbolic as it is defensive for Poland. It does not guarantee the country's security, but it is an indicator of U.S. interest in Poland's security. Poland is uncertain of U.S. commitments, and the United States is equally unsure of what it intends. But the BMD system provides Poland a glimmer of an alternative to being sandwiched between the growing collaborative interests of Russia and Germany. The BMD issue will be on the table at a NATO summit scheduled in Chicago in May, and it has some significance in the foreign affairs equation.

Wednesday's meeting therefore is more than simply another diplomatic get together. Conditions might be changing in Europe in a manner that would change relations between Russia and Germany. Any shift in that equation increases Polish insecurity or at least makes it necessary for Poland to find an independent place at the German and Russian table — something that is never easy for Poland. That introduces the question of a traditional relationship with an outside power, namely the United States, even though this strategy hasn't worked well for Poland in the past.

Poland's official position is that it has no problems with Germany or Russia — or with the evolving relationship that is taking place between them. It is not clear whether this is the reality or the hope of Poland. Still, when the foreign ministers of these three countries meet, it is useful to remember that while relations are sometimes friendly, they are never casual.

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