Aug 7, 2012 | 10:02 GMT

5 mins read

Poland, U.S.: Re-Examining the Security Relationship


Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski stated in an interview published Aug. 4 in Wprost magazine that the Polish government's decision to deploy elements of a U.S. missile defense system on Polish territory was a "political mistake." Komorowski added that Warsaw did not take into account the risk related to a change in U.S. administrations and the effect it could have on the U.S. missile defense system in Europe. In the same interview, Komorowski said he will introduce a plan for a Polish-built land and air defense system.

Komorowski's comments were likely a political maneuver meant to test and try to strengthen Washington's support for Polish security. Still, the statements reflect Warsaw's unease over the level of Washington's commitment to the two countries' security relationship. The statements also raise questions about Poland's ability to independently provide for its security regardless of Warsaw's orientation and alliance structure. 

Komorowski's statements referred to changes in the U.S. policy on ballistic missile defense that occurred during the last two U.S. presidential administrations. The missile defense plan initiated under George W. Bush in August 2008 (shortly after the Russo-Georgian War) called for a battery of 10 ballistic missiles on Polish territory and a radar installation in the Czech Republic. Once Barack Obama took office in 2009, the plan changed to one calling for a more flexible, largely naval-based system in areas such as the Baltic and Black seas. 

What form the ballistic missile defense system takes matters little to Poland. As Stratfor has long asserted, the U.S. missile defense system is not as important for its technical makeup or capabilities as it is for the U.S. commitment to Polish security that the system represents. The official pretext for installing the system — to deter intercontinental missiles from rogue states such as Iran or North Korea — is not the true motive for ballistic missile defense; rather, the system acts as a bulwark against the more proximate threat of Russia and its conventional forces. The missile defense system itself can do nothing against a conventional threat, but the associated commitment of a significant U.S. troop presence in Poland serves as protection against Russia.

Locator Map - Poland

Russia knows this and has vocally opposed the U.S. ballistic missile defense plan since its inception. As Obama initiated his "reset" policy with Russia, dropping the missile defense plan was Moscow's primary request in order for Washington to prove its commitment to a new start in relations. Because the United States was not in a position to seriously confront Russia at the time and needed Moscow's support in areas such as Afghanistan and Iran, Obama responded to Russia's request. Though Obama did not altogether drop plans for ballistic missile defense (instead choosing to revise them while also offering Poland other incentives such as Patriot missiles and F-16s), the move undermined the perception of Washington's commitment to Central European countries — a key element of the plan. This was particularly the case for Poland, which is acutely concerned about the national security threat Russia poses.

Timing and Political Context

Poland's concerns are nothing new; Polish officials have voiced these issues repeatedly since the missile defense plan changed in 2009. It is the timing of Komorowski's statements that stands out. The interview followed a visit by U.S. presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. During his stay in Warsaw, Romney criticized Obama's policies toward Poland and said he would make a far greater commitment to Warsaw's security if he were elected president. 

Komorowski's comments can therefore be seen as a reminder to the United States that Poland is not getting the sort of security commitment from Washington it requires. Certainly Obama's policy regarding missile defense has been a serious disappointment to Poland, and Warsaw had significantly warmer ties with Washington under the Bush administration. Moreover, with large defense cuts under consideration in the United States, there is no guarantee that a full version of even the current missile defense program will be included in the next budget. The program is therefore susceptible not only to changes in administration but also to budget priorities and technological advances. 

Poland would prefer a more hawkish U.S. policy toward Russia, and this would more likely take form under a Republican administration. But whether Obama or Romney wins the presidential election, it is most important to Warsaw that Washington does not compromise on its security arrangement with Poland in an effort to placate Russia.

Larger Strategic Imperatives

The bigger issue for Poland is not Obama specifically but rather the political risk associated with any change in the U.S. presidency. Given that the missile defense system represents a long-term security commitment from the United States and is not set to fully begin until 2018, there could be two changes in the U.S. presidency before the plan takes effect. This makes the U.S. ballistic missile defense plan a highly unstable foundation for Polish national security interests.

Still, in terms of meeting its national security needs, Poland's first choice strategically is an alliance with a non-neighboring power with the capacity to project and maintain deterrent power against Russia and Germany. This makes the United States the only real option. Warsaw's strategic imperative is therefore to maintain and develop a significant U.S. presence in its territory as a deterrent. This imperative has not, and will not, change. Ballistic missile defense is the first step to any re-engagement of the United States in Central Europe, and Poland cannot afford to alienate the United States on that matter.

But while Komorowski's comments should not be viewed as an abandonment of Poland's security relationship with the United States, his statement that Warsaw should build up its own missile and air defense systems is particularly notable. Poland clearly feels it has been neglected by the United States; Warsaw to a certain extent realizes it must rely on itself for security against Russia. But Poland's military is currently in no position to stand up against Russia and deal with related security threats on its own. Therefore, the larger question is not whether Poland is reconsidering its reliance on foreign security support, but whether Poland can provide this security independently in the years to come.

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