assessments

Poland's Vulnerability Amid Missile Diplomacy

3 MINS READMar 22, 2012 | 14:39 GMT
JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L), German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (C) and Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski in Berlin on March 21
Summary

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski visited Berlin on March 21 to meet informally with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The visit, while part of a cooperation and discussions framework, underscores Poland's sensitive position at the center of rising tensions between Russia and NATO over missile defense. Warsaw finds its national security very concretely threatened by the missiles system that Russia reactivated in Kaliningrad and is set to step up its search for supplemental and alternative regional security arrangements. 

The March 21 meeting marked the second annual reunion of the discussion and cooperation group formed by the foreign ministries of Russia, Germany and Poland in May 2011. Russia pushed for this cooperation format as a counterweight to the "Weimar Triangle" arrangement, which is composed of France, Poland and Germany. 

Russia is at a critical juncture in its resurgence. Moscow hopes to take advantage of the economic crisis roiling the Continent to bolster its own efforts to re-establish its control in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia's former area of influence. NATO's level of engagement in Central and Eastern Europe is as low as it has been since the end of the Cold War. But Moscow still faces a critical hurdle regarding the continued implementation of the U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Central European countries, which it sees as a strategic threat. 

The Kremlin has continued to push back against the BMD deployment. Moscow most recently escalated tensions by reactivating the S-400 missile defense system in its Kaliningrad exclave and has threatened to deploy Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad before the end of the year.

Moscow's attempts to gain negotiating leverage with Washington over the BMD present Poland with an untenable strategic threat: the potential to have Russian short-range ballistic missiles placed along its northern border. Vladimir Putin's re-election to Russia's presidency and his assertive foreign policy rhetoric during the electoral campaign will do little to allay Polish concerns. But Warsaw has a limited hand to play. 

The U.S. position on BMD has generated a military buildup and more aggressive rhetoric from Russia, leaving Poland with few realistic options to counter the threat to its national security. This general security imbalance is not new to Warsaw — it has long known that Russia was on the rise again, that NATO was growing increasingly disengaged in Central Europe, and that the European Union has continued to struggle with its own political and economic crisis, which makes it unlikely to ever become a satisfactory guarantor of security.

In response to these security concerns, Poland has sought to form regional strategic and military cooperation groups within larger EU and NATO structures. The creation of the Visegrad Group in July 2011, under the EU Common Security and Defense Policy, was one such effort. Poland has also recently been looking to establish greater security cooperation in the Baltic region, particularly with Lithuania, with which Warsaw recently agreed to coordinate positions on NATO's missile defense plans in Europe.

However, such plans are in their nascent stages and have so far proved to have little effectiveness. Poland's limited success in this arena is partly due to its focus on issues other than the strategic counterbalance of Russia. Warsaw has concentrated most of its diplomatic efforts on the West — the source of Poland's continued economic prosperity even amid the crisis — and on seeking a greater role within the changing EU architecture. In late 2011, Sikorski himself said he saw the collapse of the European Union as Poland's primary existential threat and even called for increased German leadership within the union.

Stratfor expects the recent military buildup in Kaliningrad to remind Poland of its dearth of security options regarding Russia. While any concrete reaction by Warsaw is unlikely, countering the Russian threat will certainly move to the forefront of Polish foreign policy. Poland will intensify its efforts to craft regional strategic and military counterweights, seeking further commitments within and outside NATO and EU structures, though this will not likely achieve Poland's security goals concerning Russia in the short term.

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