assessments

Apr 12, 2010 | 20:25 GMT

8 mins read

Poland: The Repercussions of the Crash

ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
Poland has set April 18 as the date for the funeral for Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, Maria, who were among those killed in an April 10 plane crash in Russia. The losses suffered in the plane crash will affect Poland — particularly the military and Kaczynski's political party. It also gives Russia a chance to intensify its ongoing "charm offensive" targeting Poland — a strategy that can only succeed if the United States does not reassure Poland that Washington is committed to Warsaw's defense.
Polish state television announced April 12 that the deceased Polish President Lech Kaczynski will be buried alongside his wife Maria on April 18. The funeral will be an occasion for a number of foreign leaders to pay their respects to the former Polish leader, likely bringing together the most heads of state and government in one place since the 2005 funeral of Pope John Paul II. Kaczynski and his wife were among those killed in a plane crash the morning of April 10. The tragedy will have both domestic and geopolitical repercussions for Poland. Specifically, Russia is looking to use the crisis to further its ongoing "charm offensive" — a strategy that will only work if the United States fails to reassure Poland that Washington is committed to Warsaw's defense. The plane crash that killed Kaczynski occurred as he was on his way to Smolensk, Russia, to attend Polish-organized ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the massacre of Polish officers by Soviet troops in the nearby Katyn forest. Alongside the president and his wife were two deputy speakers of the lower chamber of the Polish parliament, or Sejm — one of whom, Jerzy Szmajdzinski, was a presidential candidate. The dead also included 12 Sejm members, two senators, a deputy senate speaker, three deputy ministers (of foreign affairs, defense and culture) and the head of the National Security Bureau. The death of Polish National Bank President Slawomir Skrzypek — admired among the financial community for steering the zloty through the financial crisis — in the plane crash will also be felt as a loss. The entire leadership of the Polish army has also been affected by the crash; the chief of general staff and the commanders of the armed forces, land forces, air force, naval forces, special forces and the Warsaw garrison were all killed. Also traveling with the president were a number of his closest advisers, the Polish government ombudsman, chairman of the Polish Olympic Committee, president of the Supreme Bar Council, a number of prominent members of the clergy, World War II veterans and a number of representatives of the Katyn victims' families. The domestic repercussions of the tragedy are not to be dismissed. While Poland is a stable, Western democracy with 40 million people and no shortage of administrative, economic, military and political talent, the loss of so many key individuals will be felt, especially in the short term. The first obvious area of governance that will be hurt is the military, which faced a similar tragedy in 2008 when 20 people — most of whom were senior air force personnel — died in a plane crash. All senior military officers have deputies who will take their place, but what will be lost are the interpersonal connections between Polish commanders and their NATO counterparts. This includes relationships with U.S. personnel with whom Poland had been negotiating Patriot missile deals and ballistic missile development installations. The Polish mission in Afghanistan should not suffer, however, since the troops there are integrated into the overall international effort. Furthermore, the crash has dealt a dramatic blow to Kaczynski's Law and Justice (PiS) party. While Kaczynski's twin brother (and former prime minister) Jaroslaw is still the leader of the party and a candidate in the upcoming presidential election, he will have to rebuild a senior leadership from scratch. PiS is known for a reluctance toward market reforms, a high degree of euroskepticism and a hard-line nationalist streak in foreign affairs, with considerable antagonism toward Russia a bedrock of its foreign policy. With PiS reeling after the plane crash, Prime Minister Donald Tusk's center-right Civic Platform (PO) stands to gain. Geopolitically, the tragedy has given Russia an opportunity to expand its "charm offensive" on Poland, which began before the plane crash. Russia's resurgence in its sphere of influence has taken many forms — a military invasion of Georgia, reclamation of Ukraine from the West in democratic and free presidential elections, "color revolution"-style regime change in Kyrgyzstan. Poland, an EU and NATO member, is not within Russia's sphere of influence, but it is a key country that Moscow knows it needs an understanding with if it expects to hold down Belarus and Ukraine. Russia does not want Poland to be the leader of an anti-Russian coalition within the EU and NATO. With this in mind, under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia has begun to entreat Polish leadership — particularly Tusk. It began with Putin's visit to Gdansk to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the German attack on Poland and a newspaper article written by Putin, published before his visit in Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, that called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that paved way for the German-Soviet invasion "immoral." This was followed by month-long negotiations for a new natural gas deal between Warsaw and Moscow that were — while contentious and controversial domestically in Poland — relatively smooth on the higher level. The "charm offensive" went into high gear when Putin asked Tusk to commemorate the victims of the Katyn massacre with him at a Russian-organized ceremony. Kaczynski refused to attend the Russian-organized ceremony, which took place the day before the plane crash. The tragedy has given Moscow the chance to pursue its charm offensive to the fullest extent. First, throughout the weekend Polish and Russian media broadcast pictures of Putin consoling Tusk with a hug at the plane's crash site. Second, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev gave a televised speech in which — to the shock of most Poles — he announced a day of mourning for April 12. Then, the Kremlin-directed nationalist movement the Nashi delivered candles and flowers to the Polish Embassy in Moscow — which is ironic, considering the Nashi have in the past vociferously criticized Polish foreign policy, particularly toward Georgia. This was an important part of showing the Poles that the Russians share their anguish on a very basic level, not just among the higher political echelons. This strategy costs Russian leadership very little. The purpose of the offensive is to prevent a consensus from emerging among the Polish leadership on how to deal with Russia. By portraying Moscow's position on touchy subjects like the Katyn massacre and natural gas negotiations as pragmatic, the Kremlin characterizes the anti-Russian line in Polish politics — represented primarily by the Kaczynski's PiS — as irrational and phobic. Ironically, it was the tragedy that eliminated the PiS leadership that has given the Kremlin the greatest opportunity to portray Russia as Poland's friend. The success of the charm offensive depends largely on the level of Polish suspicion and fear of a Russian resurgence. Sympathy and magnanimity — no matter how genuine — stemming from the tragedy will not change Poland's geographic position between Russia and Germany. But no matter the level of suspicion, Poland cannot act on it if it does not have assurances that the United States is committed to Central Europe. The dinner U.S. President Barack Obama hosted with Central European leaders on April 8 in Prague is a key part of Washington's strategy to extend such guarantees. The problem is that the dinner was a relatively low-cost — albeit symbolic — way for Washington to offer its assurances, with nothing of substance emerging. As part of the continuing effort to reassure the Polish leadership of the United States' commitment, Obama will visit Warsaw for the funeral — as will another important player in the geopolitical game: German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Germany's role is important because Berlin has an interest in the success of Russia's charm offensive. The last thing Berlin wants — as it continues to deepen its energy and business ties to Russia — is an aggressive Warsaw riling up the rest of Central Europe against Moscow. Germany can therefore also play a key role in convincing Tusk — whose political opponents in Poland already consider him a "German man" — that a pragmatic approach toward Russia is best for Poland. This interplay — with Berlin and Moscow on one side, Washington on another and Warsaw in the middle — is something that bears watching in the immediate term. In the long run, Washington has the upper hand because Poland's geopolitical constraints are such that it strives to seek a security guarantor — a role that only the United States can really play in the region. However, Washington could very well see Warsaw drift away if the United States grows complacent and trusts that geopolitics alone — without actual effort — will maintain the Polish-U.S. alliance. Poland does not want to make the same mistake that Georgia made in 2008: betting that non-specific U.S. guarantees would protect it from geopolitical forces.

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