Who Fears the Russian Bear?

6 MINS READDec 8, 2010 | 11:49 GMT
The global focus on Tuesday returned to the North European Plain, specifically east of the Oder and north of the Pripyat Marshes, where Russia, Poland, Belarus and the three Baltic states continue to share what is the geopolitical version of an awkward Soviet-era communal apartment. Russian envoy to NATO Dmitri Rogozin, referring to the leaked U.S. diplomatic cables revealing NATO plans to defend the three Baltic states from Russia, asked that the plans be formally withdrawn at the next NATO-Russia meeting. Rogozin pointed out that the recently penned NATO 2010 Strategic Concept speaks of a "true strategic partnership" — a direct quote from the mission statement — between the alliance and Russia and that the supposed "anti-Russian" military plan to defend the Baltics is incompatible with the document. Referring to the plan, Rogozin rhetorically asked, "Against who else could such a defense be intended? Against Sweden, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, against polar bears, or against the Russian bear?" Rogozin was being sardonic for dramatic effect — Moscow is not actually surprised that NATO has an active war plan against it. Russia completed joint exercises — called "Zapad" (meaning west in Russian) — with Belarus at the end of 2009 that placed 13,000 troops on the borders of the Baltic states and had as its supposed aim the simulation of the liberation of Kaliningrad from NATO forces. Russian defense establishment sources referred to the exercise as a "drill," as in something that the Russian military routinely prepares for. Russia purposefully allowed the simulation scenario of Zapad to leak, emphasizing to the Baltic states and Poland that it is very much the bear to be feared in the region. Polish officials do not have the luxury of dismissing American horse-trading with the Russians over Polish security as a "one-off" affair. STRATFOR therefore highly doubts that Rogozin was astonished by the revelation of the defense plans, particularly as the Russian SVR — the foreign intelligence service — does not need WikiLeaks to collect intelligence from the NATO headquarters in Brussels. Moscow is using the recently adopted Strategic Concept as a way to emphasize to the Balts and the rest of Central Europe that the NATO alliance is inconsistent with its security needs — particularly that any security guarantees offered by the alliance are undermined by the very Strategic Concept of that alliance just penned in Lisbon. And ultimately, Western European — and specifically German — lobbying for inclusion of Russia as a "strategic partner" should be the writing on the wall for the region: Its fate was to either adopt a neutral posture and accept Russian security hegemony or keep being pressured by Moscow. The countries of the region, Poland and the Balts specifically, are therefore — politically as well as geographically — stuck between a Russia that threatens them and a Germany that refuses to offer security guarantees. Berlin instead prefers to develop its own relations with Moscow and dismiss Baltic and Polish insecurities as paranoia, arguing that Russia is best countered with investments, integration into the European economy and offers of security dialogue. Warsaw and the Baltics are therefore left to look expectantly toward the United States for bilateral security guarantees. The problem, however, is that the United States is distracted, by both its domestic politics and the management of its Middle East entanglements. Furthermore, Poland feels spurned, especially by Washington's decision first to pull out on the initial ballistic missile defense (BMD) plans in September 2009 and then, on a rotational basis, to deploy an unarmed Patriot missile battery to the country with a minimal contingent of 20-30 personnel, when Warsaw hoped for an armed deployment with a more robust — and more importantly, permanent — U.S. military presence. In this context, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk— symbolically returning from a Monday meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin —referred to the WikiLeaks controversy as a "problem" for Poland because the various dispatches referring to Polish-American relations reveal "illusions over the character of relations between different states." If we understand Tusk correctly, he essentially hints that the current public Polish-American relationship is an "illusion" and that, in reality, the U.S. security guarantees are insufficient. It is difficult to disagree with Tusk if we place ourselves in the shoes of Polish policymakers. The United States ultimately decided to back away from the initial BMD version and supposedly also the armed Patriots because it needed Russian help on a number of issues in the Middle East, particularly pressuring Tehran with U.N. sanctions and making sure that Russia does not sell the S-300 air defense system to Iran. To Warsaw, the American decision illustrates that it placed its own interests — in a tangential region of no concern to Central Europe — above the security relationship with Poland. And what is worse, Washington trades Polish security for concessions with Russia in the Middle East. To Americans, Poland looks like a country with no options. Sure, it feels spurned, but where will the Poles turn? As it did prior to WWII, Germany is making deals with Russia, and French and British security guarantees are unreliable. The United States, remembering its history of fighting wars to defend small allies for the sake of its credibility, would say that the Poles should know better than to doubt American guarantees. An alliance with Poland is therefore not one that needs to be micromanaged. In fact, the guarantees provided by Washington should be seen as sufficient, if not generous. Poland will get over the American spurn and go about pursuing its only option of being a solid American ally. That pretty much sums up Washington's view on the matter. That may sound harsh, but there is much truth in that statement. Poland is not going to cease being an American ally — not considering its current geopolitical circumstances. But Polish officials also do not have the luxury of dismissing American horse-trading with the Russians over Polish security. For Poles, it isn't a "one-off" affair easily reassured with: "But, we'll be there when it matters." No nation can make that sort of a bet, not with its security and not when it has a history of seeing Western powers fail to live up to their security guarantees that far east on the North European Plain. Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski will travel to the United States on Wednesday, a day after he spent two days with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and half of the Russian Cabinet, inaugurating the supposed new era in Polish-Russian relations. But when Komorowski travels to Washington, he will expect the Americans to have an answer to Warsaw's burning question of the moment — what exactly is Washington's global security strategy and where does Poland fit? Because, as Rogozin so aptly stated, Poland is not looking for assurances against Sweden, Finland, Greenland, Iceland or against polar bears…but very much so against the Russian bear.

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