Risk and opportunity for Poland in Ukraine crisis

Finding itself in the spotlight, Warsaw is being pragmatic about its neighbour to its east

Polish prime minister Donald Tusk and German chancellor Angela Merkel  met last Friday to discuss the situation in eastern Ukraine. Photograph:  Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Polish prime minister Donald Tusk and German chancellor Angela Merkel met last Friday to discuss the situation in eastern Ukraine. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Mon, Apr 28, 2014, 01:00

A decade after it joined the EU on a sunny day in Dublin, Poland is once more feeling an eastern chill.

The crisis in Ukraine has electrified Poles; Russia’s annexation of Crimea has revived deep-rooted fears about Moscow’s plans for the rest of the former eastern bloc. Airing such concerns in the past earned Poland a reputation as Europe’s Russophobe Cassandra, accused of being in the grip of historical, occasionally hysterical, trauma. No longer.

Having their Russian fears confirmed has brought an atmosphere of grim vindication in Warsaw’s corridors of power. But even Polish officials say they were caught off guard by the speed and aggression of Russia’s move on Ukraine.

Now they concede they are just as perplexed as everyone else about what to do next. Poland was the first country to recognise Ukrainian independence in 1991 and, after its own EU accession in 2004, Warsaw championed closer ties between the bloc and Kiev as the best insurance against renewed Russian overtures in the region.

Warsaw officials see two worst-case scenarios for their eastern neighbour: either Ukraine is pulled apart, or prolonged conflict between oligarchs and militias make the country ungovernable. The best outcome – that Ukraine remains an independent and sovereign country – will require western unity in what Warsaw is convinced will be a drawn-out crisis.

Energy union
For now, Warsaw wants a third wave of sanctions against Russia, followed by a push to join Nato and EU policy dots on energy, security and defence. Into this category you can file Polish prime minister Donald Tusk’s proposal last week for a European energy union, empowering the EU to negotiate blanket contracts – and prices – for all members with energy companies.

After positive noises from Brussels and Paris, Tusk was in Berlin last Friday to win over German chancellor Angela Merkel to his proposal, turning a blind eye to recent German unilateral deals with Russia on this front.

On Nato, Poland wants reform to ease concerns of newer members like itself and the Baltic countries that they are second-class, exposed members.

Elements in this reform include reviews of contingency plans for Nato’s eastern border and annual Nato military exercises in alliance states. Poland wants to automate article five of the Nato treaty, ensuring promises of assistance to alliance members under attack do not fall victim to political negotiation. Finally, Poland wants renewed pressure for Nato members to meet their defence spending obligations.

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