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


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.

‘Invest in security’
“After people realised we were right on Russia, we think it’s time they listened to the second part of our package: to invest in security,” said Eugeniusz Smolar, a foreign policy analyst and adviser to the Polish government. “We didn’t seek out trouble, trouble found us.”

Last week’s arrival of US troops in Poland and the Baltics is, Poles hope, a first step to US troops stationed permanently in the region and an indication that Washington understands Polish security concerns. There is less confidence about another crucial partner: Germany.

Democratising with trade
Years of diligent diplomacy means the Polish prime minister has the German leader’s ear and trust in the Ukraine crisis.

But Tusk and his officials are less sure of Merkel’s coalition ally, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which invested much time and effort on Russian relations based on “ Wandel durch Handel ”, the hope of transforming and democratising Russia through trade.

“Our main accusations against Germany is that it has neither power to play a leading role in Europe nor does it have a Russia strategy,” said Anna Kwiatkowska-Drozdz, founder of Warsaw’s Centre for Eastern Studies. “It’s rather unsettling for us to see one [SPD] wing determined to seek consensus with Russia at any price.”

Senior German figures, not just in the SPD, retort that Poland carries some responsibility for the crisis after pushing closer EU-Ukraine relations without considering the consequences of Russian resistance.

Now that Moscow has reverted to historical type – as Warsaw Cassandras warned it would – where, they ask, is Poland’s strategy? Observers see in Polish demands for Nato reform and an EU energy union a country less interested in Ukraine than in cementing its own position to ensure it will not be left alone to face down Russia.

Domestic concerns figure, too, in the shift in Tusk’s Russian rhetoric from a pre-crisis conciliatory tone to today’s hard-line approach – boosting his political prospects ahead of next year’s general election. After years in second place, the crisis has seen his Civic Platform overtake the opposition Law and Justice, a party with a consistently Russia-critical line.

Polish government officials insist they are not enjoying the spotlight glaring on them in the Ukraine crisis. But behind their profession of modesty they have adopted a pragmatic approach, viewing the Ukraine crisis as both a danger and an opportunity.

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