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Poland’s Wake-Up Call

Poland’s Wake-Up Call

Former Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich says the Ukraine war has renewed Poland’s traditional transatlantic posture.

Samuel McIlhagga, Bogdan Klich

Russia’s expansion into Ukraine has called into question the security of Poland’s eastern borders, a zone of emerging tension and potential conflict with both Vladimir Putin and Belarus’ Alexandr Lukashenko. Below, Samuel McIlhagga interviews Bogdan Klich, Poland's defense minister from 2007 to 2011 and a key figure in helping shape Poland’s relationship with America and NATO.

Samuel McIlhagga: Could you tell us how your dissident background growing up in communist Poland informs your view of the rise of authoritarianism in Hungary, Poland, and Russia?

Bogdan Klich: The student movement SKS (Student Solidarity Committee) began in 1977. This was separate from Solidarność (Solidarity), which emerged afterward. I joined the student committee in Krakow in 1978. I was then arrested for the first time—a confirmation of being a dissident—and our activity was reduced around this time. We were, along with everyone else, surprised by the incredible emergence of Solidarność after the strikes across shipyards in Poland in 1980.

There are similarities with Russia but it is not possible to compare the current situation here in Poland with our experiences from the 1970s and 1980s. We enjoy democratic freedoms that are being limited. There are attempts to make people afraid of using those constitutional liberties. But there is social support for democracy and the rule of law in Poland. That’s why the ruling PiS (Law and Justice party) cannot go too far in restricting civil liberties.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

SM: How much do you think Polish foreign and defense policy has changed since Law and Justice regained power from the party you served, Civic Platform, in 2015?

BK: There have been large differences since 2015. Between 2015 and 2021, we had a transactional policy toward Washington that was not based on shared values with the United States. However, because of the Ukraine war, the Atlantic dimension of Polish foreign policy was fortunately renewed. On the eve of the war against Ukraine, there was a comprehensive change in policy and a revival of a traditional understanding of the relationship between Warsaw, Kyiv, and Washington as a strategic partnership.

SM: When you were defense minister, you helped with a 2010 American policy to put MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missiles in Morag, a town near the Russian city of Kaliningrad. In retrospect, do you think this was the right idea?

BK: Beyond the demanding process of integrating our armed forces with NATO following Polish accession in 1999, it was in our strategic interest to encourage our partners to the west to include the three Baltic states in NATO. Latvia and Estonia were at the center of our national interest. We knew that the strategic depth in that part of Europe is one of the challenges for NATO.

SM: In effect, does that depth mean more diplomacy with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and the Baltics or does it mean more arms in the area?

BK: There is a very narrow geographical band between the coast and the borders of the Baltic states with Russia. This makes it much more difficult to defend the Baltics than, for example, Poland or Romania. We knew that we would have to help resolve this challenge of strategic depth if our neighbors’ wishes to join NATO were to be realized; the missiles were a part of this calculation. Civic Platform advocated for the presence of American troops in Poland. For instance, my colleague, Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski, was strongly involved in setting up a U.S. military base in Redzikowo, that became a part of the anti-ballistic missile shield.

SM: Civic Platform is an opposition faction at the moment. If it were to get back into power, what would be its medium- to long-term vision for Poland as a strategic partner of NATO and as a player in the Central and East European region?

BK: We should continue the best possible relationship with the United States. This should be based not only on shared interests but shared values. Without shared values, there is no real basis for international commitments like Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty or the mutual treaty between Poland and the United States. Civic Platform would likely wish to continue these relationships as long as possible.

SM: Do you feel these “shared values” in Poland and America might not be as stable or strong as they used to be?

BK: I would say that these values have returned to their shape of the past. However, it is necessary to base our relationships on those values that were introduced into the preamble of the North Atlantic Treaty: democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights, civil liberties, and the rights of minorities. We have to recreate mutual trust between Warsaw, Brussels, and many other capitals of the EU. Without such trust, there will be no chance of the EU intervening in the event of a security threat.

I would also say that the explosion of solidarity in Poland toward Ukrainian refugees is a phenomenon that should be continued.

SM: Should Poland not also be extending that solidarity to the refugees on the Belarusian-Polish border, the Kurds, Iraqis, and Syrians, who are not from neighboring countries? They’ve been problematic for Poland when they’ve been used by Belarus’ Alexandr Lukashenko in a form of hybrid warfare.

BK: Since August 2020, Polish society is open to Belarusians as well. We have, of course, political leadership of the Belarusian opposition here.

SM: I'm talking specifically, here, about the Kurds, Iraqis, and Syrians who are on the Polish-Belarusian border. And also on the EU border. We have a situation where an EU agency—Frontex, the border force—is dealing with them.

BK: I would say that the government in Warsaw was late in its reaction concerning this operation organized by Lukashenko. We were informed as the opposition about those attempts in June of last year. The first reaction of the government was in August. There was more than two months’ delay in offering protections, which was very costly. In the case of Poland, the government should have been better prepared for such a wave of illegal migrants. The government should recognize the rights of migrants according to the Vienna Convention and international law, though I’m not against the wall on the border.

Bogdan Klich served as minister of defense for Poland from 2007 to 2011.

Samuel McIlhagga is a journalist based in the United Kingdom. He writes on political theory, UK politics, and foreign affairs.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.