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Aug 14, 2009 | 21:42 GMT

5 mins read

Warsaw's Reality on the North European Plain

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.
GERMAN CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL will travel to Sochi, Russia, on Friday to meet with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, one day after her personal intervention seems to have pushed a deal on German auto maker Opel to a Russian-backed bid. General Motors Corp. reportedly agreed in principle on Thursday with Canadian auto parts manufacturer Magna International to sell its stake in the troubled Opel unit. The Magna bid is backed by state-owned Sberbank, Russia's largest bank, and would include close cooperation between Opel and GAZ, the second-largest Russian car manufacturer. While GM was worried that the deal would transfer U.S. technology incorporated into Opel to the Russians, Merkel personally lobbied for the deal, spurning GM's delay and pressuring the U.S. company to accept the Canadian-Russian bid over a rival Belgian offer. The agreement is only one of a number of recent business deals that illustrate the burgeoning economic relations between Russia and Germany. Given its geography, Poland historically has had only two foreign policy strategies For Germany, the business deals with Russia are a way to increase demand for German exports, particularly for automobiles and heavy machinery that account for the majority of German manufacturing. Since exports account for 47 percent of Germany's gross domestic product, the Russian market is an important part of Berlin's strategy to get out of the current recession. For Russia, the deals are meant both as a means of modernizing the Russian economy and as a way to increase Moscow's political influence with Berlin. As the trade links crystallize, Berlin and Moscow will not be tied together solely by natural gas exports. This is undoubtedly going to make Poland uncomfortable. If a newly assertive Germany, which for 60 years has not been allowed to have an opinion in matters of foreign policy, chooses not to be hostile to a resurgent Russia, then the situation for Poland becomes difficult. Warsaw is located on the North European Plain — Europe's superhighway of conquest — directly between Berlin and Moscow. As such, the Poles are categorically fearful of a Russian-German alliance. Given its geography, Poland historically has had only two foreign policy strategies. The first, employed when Warsaw is in a powerful position, is to use the lowlands of the North European Plain to its own advantage and expand as much as possible, particularly into Ukraine, the Baltic States and Belarus. This is the aggressive Poland of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which in the 16th century was one of the most powerful and largest countries in Europe. As an example of its power, it was only through the intervention of Polish King Jan III Sobieski that Vienna, and thus Europe by extension, was saved from the Ottomans in 1683. The second strategy, favored when Warsaw feels threatened, is to find an ally outside of the region determined to guarantee Polish independence. This was the case with Napoleonic France in the early 19th century and with the United Kingdom between the two world wars. This is also the situation today, with Poland hoping that the United States will commit to it with the ballistic missile defense (BMD) installation. BMD, from Poland's perspective, would mean having U.S. troops on its soil, which would extend the alliance between the two countries past what Warsaw sees as nebulous guarantees of NATO. However, the United States currently is not looking to challenge Russia overtly. Washington is concentrating on Iran, and the last thing the United States wants is for Russia to counter American moves in Poland by supporting Iran through transfer of military technology, nuclear or conventional. This makes Warsaw nervous: If Poland cannot employ one of its two favored strategies, it tends to cease to exist as a country. The various partitions of Poland, all in the late 18th century, are still fresh in Warsaw's collective memory. At that time, a rising Prussia and a surging Russian Empire (along with Austria) broke Poland bit by bit until it no longer existed on the European map. The same situation, also well remembered, was the consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement, which led to the combined Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. That historical event will bring the current leaders of Poland, Russia and Germany together on Sept. 1 in Gdansk, Poland. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has invited Merkel and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to ceremonies mark the 70-year anniversary of the World War II invasion. The meeting is indicative of the balancing act that Warsaw is forced to play, lacking a clear signal from the United States on its commitment to Poland. It is also a signal to Washington that, although the invasion occurred 70 years ago, Poland is still stuck in the middle — between of Moscow and Berlin — on the North European Plain.

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