Poland Forges Friendships in a Time of Uncertainty

10 MINS READFeb 13, 2017 | 09:15 GMT
Poland Forges Friendships in a Time of Uncertainty
The U.S. deployed new heavy weaponry and thousands of soldiers to Central and Eastern Europe in January, but there are fears about the policy direction the new U.S. administration will take in the region.

As shifts in the global order expose Poland's inherent vulnerabilities, the country has no choice but to look outward for support. Poland will do what it can to boost its own defense capabilities, but in its search for security and stability, Warsaw will also focus on building its web of political military alliances. In the Eurasian borderlands, Poland will work to bolster defense cooperation with countries near the Baltic and Black seas that are likewise wary of the potential for Russian aggression. Poland will also seek to reinforce ties with the broader European Union; though Warsaw will push against EU interference, it will ultimately support efforts to prevent the bloc's collapse. And as EU states diverge on policies toward the new U.S. presidential administration, Warsaw will try to protect its own bilateral ties with the White House.

The uncertainties surrounding policy shifts under U.S. President Donald Trump's administration are forcing European countries to adapt their own foreign policy strategies. Germany, for example, is focused on trying to avoid a trade war with the United States and on developing closer ties with the administration. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom wants to negotiate a free trade agreement with Washington that would give London more flexibility as it navigates the Brexit process. Poland's main concern regarding the new global order is the same as it's always been: national security.

Warsaw's concerns are rooted in its age-old geographic vulnerabilities. Poland is at the heart of the Great European Plain, the largest mountain-free territory in Europe, which stretches from the French Pyrenees in the west to the Russian Ural Mountains in the east. Poland has no clear geographic borders and historically has been surrounded by powerful neighbors such as Germany, Russia and, earlier, Austria. It has repeatedly been invaded and partitioned by its neighbors.

Poland's fragile geopolitical situation explains why a key element of Warsaw's foreign policy strategy is to look for as many alliances as possible to protect its territorial integrity. After the end of the Cold War, Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. It also sought to create regional alliances such as the Visegrad Group (with Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) and the Weimar Triangle (with Germany and France). But Warsaw is particularly keen to maintain strong ties with the United States, which it sees as its ultimate protector against Russian aggression.

The American Question

In recent years, Poland's foreign policy strategy has faced two major challenges: The first is the evolution of the European Union's economic crisis into a political crisis, resulting in stark internal divisions within the Continental bloc. The current Polish government has been critical of some aspects of the process of Continental integration, requesting the repatriation of some powers from Brussels back to national governments. But Warsaw is interested in reforming, not dissolving, the European Union. The second challenge has been the crisis in Ukraine, which put the spotlight on an aggressive Russia and a divided Europe. Some EU members, including the Baltic states and Germany, still defend strong sanctions against Moscow. But others, including Polish political allies such as Hungary, would like to lift them as soon as possible. (Thus far, all EU members have repeatedly voted to extend sanctions.)

The fragmentation of the European Union will be easier for Poland to digest if it preserves strong relations with the United States. But Warsaw is worried that the Trump administration might take a very different approach to foreign policy. The U.S. president has called NATO "obsolete" and has showed interest in improving relations with Russia, compelling Polish leaders to redouble their outreach to the White House. According to Polish President Andrzej Duda, in a phone call shortly after the U.S. election, Trump reassured him that bilateral cooperation would remain strong. In early February, Krzysztof Szczerski, one of Duda's senior advisers, met with Michael Flynn, Trump's national security adviser, and invited the new president to visit Poland. On Feb. 5, Trump confirmed that he will attend a NATO summit in Brussels in late May.

Warsaw is looking for more than rhetorical reassurances. In mid-January, the U.S. deployed heavy weaponry and thousands of soldiers to Central and Eastern Europe, but this move was originally ordered by former U.S. President Barack Obama. Poland said it expects the Trump administration to honor the deal reached at the NATO summit last July, when Washington agreed to deploy some 4,000 troops on a rotational basis to Poland and to increase military exercises in the region.

Some of Trump's recent moves have put EU members in the awkward position of having to criticize the White House while simultaneously remaining in its good graces. For Poland, this balance should be easier to maintain, as the ruling Law and Justice party is ideologically close to Trump on several issues. In fact, Poland was one of the few EU governments to actually praise Trump's recent moves to limit immigration into the United States. The Polish government also hopes that the Trump administration will be less involved in Polish domestic political affairs than the Obama administration, which sought to strengthen the rule of law and to amp up the fight against corruption in the region.

Looking at the Baltic Sea

Even if Polish officials have reason to be optimistic about relations with Washington remaining strong during the Trump administration, they are also making preparations for an increasingly uncertain global order. At home, Warsaw's strategy centers around an ambitious plan to modernize its defense capacities. This involves increasing military spending and strengthening its domestic defense industrial base. In December, Poland's Ministry of Defense announced plans to spend more than 61 billion zlotys ($14.5 billion) to acquire weapons and military equipment between 2017 and 2022.

At the regional level, Warsaw is interested in stronger political and military cooperation with its neighbors. A natural area for Poland to seek allies is the Baltic Sea, where countries have similar concerns about Russia's recent moves. Poland already has strong ties with Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, all of which have recently increased their own military spending. In fact, Poland and Estonia are among the only five NATO members that currently meet the organization's defense spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product. (The others are the United States, the United Kingdom and Greece.) Each of these countries generally wants a stronger and, if possible, permanent NATO presence in the region.

Poland and the Baltic countries are also interested in coordinating defense strategies. In mid-2016, for example, they began discussions with defense contractors to create a regional anti-aircraft missile shield. Such cooperation has a political element as well; Warsaw and its Baltic peers often join forces to preserve EU sanctions against Russia and to increase European economic and political cooperation with Ukraine. They are also boosting efforts to strengthen ties with Ukraine outside of the EU context.

Poland's Baltic strategy involves cooperation with Sweden, too. Stockholm has been one of the main supporters of developing closer ties between the European Union and countries in the former Soviet sphere, particularly Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, to bring them closer to the West. And over the past three years, Swedish officials have repeatedly warned about the worsening security situation in the Baltic area. Though Sweden is not a NATO member, since the start of the war in Ukraine the country has deepened its cooperation with the military alliance. In May 2016, for example, Sweden signed an agreement with NATO that allows the alliance to operate more easily on Swedish territory during training or in the event of a conflict.

In late 2015, Sweden and Poland signed their own military cooperation agreement, highlighting their shared interest in deterring potential Russian aggression. Closer Swedish-Polish links open the door for tighter cooperation between Nordic and Baltic countries, as Finland (another neutral, non-NATO country) often coordinates its foreign policy with Sweden. But despite its concerns regarding Russia, Sweden has remained neutral since the early 19th century, and there are no guarantees that Stockholm is ready to change its position and take a more confrontational military position toward Russia. Opinion polls in Sweden show that people are becoming increasingly supportive of NATO membership, but the issue remains controversial.

The Limits of the Visegrad Group

Poland's foreign policy strategy also involves keeping close ties with its fellow partners in the Visegrad Group: Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The bloc has a military component, as its members recently developed a Visegrad EU Battlegroup. But though the group is an effective tool giving Poland political influence within the European Union, is may not be as useful when it comes to dealing with Russia.

Because of differences in their respective geographic positions, not all the members of the Visegrad Group have the same sense of urgency when it comes to Russia. The crisis in Ukraine highlighted the oft-diverging foreign policy goals within the group. Hungary, for example, has openly demanded the lifting of EU sanctions against Russia, while the Czech Republic and Slovakia have been more guarded in their criticism of Moscow's actions. Internal political dynamics also play a role, as Poland sees itself as the natural leader of the Visegrad Group, a view that is not necessarily shared by the other three governments.

This has led Poland to show interest in going beyond its Visegrad allies and developing closer ties with Romania. Before the Ukrainian crisis, Polish-Romanian relations were not particularly active. But Russia's annexation of Crimea put Romania on alert, given that the peninsula is barely 140 miles from the Romanian border. Transdniestria, a breakaway territory of Moldova with close cultural links to Romania but militarily backing from Russia, is even closer. Like Poland, Romania also considers a more active Russia as a threat. Thus, Romania joined forces with Poland to demand a greater NATO presence in Central and Eastern Europe. These days, Romanian representatives are often invited to meetings of the Visegrad Group, and Polish and Romanian authorities been meeting more frequently. Poland supports Romania's request for a larger NATO presence in the Black Sea.

Outreach to Germany

Finally, the new global order could open the door for better ties between Poland and Germany, whose bilateral relations have been relatively cool in recent years. The Polish government has refused to join a German-backed plan to distribute asylum seekers across the European Union, and Berlin has criticized Polish judicial reforms. Warsaw's calls for EU reforms to weaken the central institutions in Brussels and to repatriate powers back to national governments is at odds with Germany's view of a federal Europe.

But Germany is preoccupied with keeping the European Union together amid rising geopolitical uncertainty and sees Poland's cooperation in that regard important. Warsaw, in turn, is concerned that after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, it will lose a key ally in its push to preserve tough EU policies on Russia and to maintain strong EU ties with NATO and the United States. More important, for all of Warsaw's criticism of the European Union, the bloc is still a substantial source of funding and protection for Poland. In the current context of EU fragmentation, Germany and other member states have identified defense as one of the few areas on which additional cooperation is still possible. Considering Poland's foreign policy concerns, Warsaw is likely to support initiatives in this area. 

Thus, Poland's strategy to cope with an increasingly uncertain global system will once again focus on developing as many international alliances as possible. At home, Poland will continue to focus on modernizing its military. Abroad, it will seek deeper ties with countries from the Baltic to the Black seas. Poland will remain a critic of some aspects of the European Union, but it will protect its membership within the bloc. And as EU member states struggle to form a united response to the new U.S. government, Warsaw will focus on bolstering its own ties with Washington.

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