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The Enemy Next Door

The Enemy Next Door

Thanks to Russia, Poland is newly determined to come to the military aid of allies under threat in Central and Eastern Europe.

Paweł Markiewicz

With Russian aggression in Ukraine showing no sign of letting up, a reexamination of the broad outlines of Polish foreign policy is warranted. Warsaw recently unveiled a complex new strategy (the previous one having guided the state’s foreign affairs from 2017 to 2022) that reflects its values and interests. It frames Poland’s rethinking in terms of the age-old Latin adage used by Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz for the title of his Nobel Prize-winning novel, Quo Vadis (Where Are You Going).

The revamped approach is ambitious, as befits a country moving more squarely into Europe’s center of gravity. It is crafted to meet the demands of a new global security architecture in the wake of the Ukraine war in which Poland seeks to play a prominent role. It highlights three pillars of Warsaw’s relations with partners and allies for addressing emerging threats to the West: maintaining peace, stability, and security; battling renewed imperialism; and defending the rules-based international order. These are the cornerstones of a long-term national strategy firmly geared toward confronting the growing rivalry between democracy and autocracy.

Conceptualizing Poland’s international priorities during Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine is no easy task. The last such reassessment of a similar magnitude came in the 20th century when Europe was on the brink of a second major war. On May 5, 1939, Foreign Minister Józef Beck took the rostrum in Parliament to denounce Hitler’s appetite for imperial expansion. “We have no reason to limit sovereignty on our own territory,” he poignantly declared in the face of escalating German demands to the contrary.

After annexing Austria and dismembering Czechoslovakia in 1938, the Führer set his sights on Poland. Warsaw’s strategic pivot to Great Britain prompted Hitler to renounce the 1934 Polish-German Non-Aggression Pact (meant to last a decade), irrevocably deciding on armed force to achieve his objectives. The illusion of pursuing tepid attempts to maintain peace at the diplomatic level allowed Hitler to forge a strategic alliance with Stalin that sealed Central and Eastern Europe’s fate for good.

The costs of war to Poland have been enormous. The Second World War wiped out six million people, one-sixth of the prewar population, while the country’s economic development languished for half a century—Poland only returned to its 1939 GDP level in 1991.

The value of peace has been equally impressive. Europe’s post-Cold War era of stability—which stemmed largely from the expansion of NATO’s security umbrella and the European Union’s single-market economy—benefited Central Europe tremendously. Over a twenty-five year period beginning in 1997, Poland experienced real GDP growth of 172 percent (the closest an American state came to that figure was Utah at 138 percent), going from a debt-laden post-communist country to one of Europe’s most dynamic free-market economies. This success story is central to Warsaw’s growing regional and global influence and an important element in its diplomatic toolbox. Maintaining peace remains an essential priority to keep Poland’s economic growth engine running.

Poland’s competitive advantage in confronting autocratic trends is its network of regional, continental, and global friends and allies. Warsaw intends to help shape the international order based on the vision of a stable and secure Euro-Atlantic space, especially in defense and economic dimensions. It will work both bilaterally (most importantly with the United States) and multilaterally (with the UN, NATO, the EU) in cooperative formats that include like-minded partners in Europe (France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom) and around the world (Australia, Canada, India, Japan, South Korea).

Close relations with Ukraine lie at Poland’s strategic core. Shared interests, foremost among them curtailing Russian aggression, are bringing Warsaw and Kyiv closer together than ever before. Warsaw is a key supplier of and transit connector for arms, fuel, and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, the last totaling €8.3 billion according to a recent report by the World for Ukraine Foundation. Poland will continue diplomatic efforts aimed at providing Ukraine with viable security guarantees while promoting its membership in NATO and the EU, thereby definitively moving Kyiv out from Russia’s sphere of influence, as Vladimir Putin professes it to be, and embedding it firmly in the West.

The two are looking further ahead. During President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to Warsaw in April, the countries signed a memorandum on postwar reconstruction. This is an area in which Poland is determined to play a leading European role; it is already the main gateway to world markets for Ukrainian exports. Warsaw’s long-term goal is a strategic partnership with Ukraine based on permanent cooperation. Polling shows that Ukrainians feel historically closest to Poland and are willing to coordinate regional, foreign, and defense policies with it. A treaty of friendship akin to the 1963 Elysée Treaty between France and West Germany—an idea in the pipeline—would firmly bind the two Slavic sisters to one another, critically rebalancing the European landscape in the process.

Strengthening Central Europe’s status on the continent and around the world is something Poland sees as critical for ensuring development and economic growth while deepening European integration. This is where Poland seeks to draw political strength—by consolidating a synergy of regional interests as a means of responding to the politics of larger partners.

Tightening ties in various regional formats such as the Three Seas Initiative, Lublin Triangle, Bucharest 9, Visegrad Group, and Riga Format is rooted in Poland’s republican tradition of pursuing close relations with free and equal partners. It’s also a natural counterweight to Russian imperialism and a means of ultimately frustrating Putin’s “Russkiy mir” ideology. And Warsaw is not afraid of criticizing partners like Hungary for diverging positions toward Russian aggression against Ukraine. Warsaw won’t go back to business as usual with Budapest so long as the latter continues pursuing a pro-Russia policy.

Poland’s foreign policy agenda directly correlates with defense of its own territory as well as that of Europe. Thirty years of peace have allowed Poland to evolve beyond simply being a beneficiary of Western security. After joining NATO in 1999, it assumed the immense responsibility of defending the alliance’s eastern flank from Germany. A decade later during a trip to Warsaw, then-Vice President Joe Biden urged Poland to play a more prominent role in common transatlantic defense. Thanks to decades of investments in military modernization projects, Poland is developing robust capabilities.

On the one hand, Poland needs to be able to defend itself as long as allies struggle to boost their own defense spending and capabilities. Poland has grown impatient with allies like Germany and its slow-moving Zeitenwende toward Russia and European defense. As neighbors and close economic partners, Poland awaits clear signs that Germany is putting the interests of Central European allies above its concern for the Kremlin.

On the other hand, Poland is newly determined to be able to come to the military aid of allies under threat in Central and Eastern Europe. This is a groundbreaking shift in Polish strategic thinking. Warsaw takes the indivisible principle of security seriously. The hesitation shown by some partners to arm Ukraine and half-hearted efforts to isolate Russia have signaled to Poland that Europe still needs the United States to underwrite its security just as much as America needs Europe to assure peace. Poland sees itself as one of America’s most credible allies; it intends to work closely with Berlin, London, and Paris in maintaining a commitment to the transatlantic alliance.

The opening of a U.S. Army base in Poland last March and the U.S. Air Force’s decision to shift refueling missions from Germany to Poland are indicators of Warsaw’s rising strategic importance within NATO and for the U.S. The demands issued by Putin in December 2021 to the United States and NATO—among others, moving NATO troops westward and forswearing Ukrainian entry into the alliance—indicated Russia’s long-term goal of not only subjugating Ukraine, but of forming a buffer zone on NATO territory in Central and Eastern Europe. His recent announcement that Russia will station nuclear weapons on NATO’s doorstep in Belarus confirms that he believes the West to be governed by self-restraint and weakness, and that he has no intention of de-escalating tensions.

Stopping Putin’s revanchism requires discarding the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act (NRFA)—a document designed for cooperation under international law. Resorting to aggression in pursuit of a sphere of influence means that Russia remains a long-term existential military and security threat to all of its neighbors to the west. Warsaw sees discarding NRFA as a pivotal step toward overcoming Western self-deterrence through the permanent stationing of conventional forces on NATO’s eastern flank.

Even though it prioritizes its own neighborhood, Warsaw recognizes the strategic convergence taking place between the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific spaces. It is fostering strategic ties with Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the ASEAN nations. Polish officials believe that a Russian victory in Ukraine would correlate with China’s growing ambitions toward Taiwan. Warsaw aims to lead the EU in taking a hard look at trade and other cooperative endeavors with China in order to avoid dependency on it.

The Ukraine war and related regional and global disturbances have forced Poland to chart an elaborate new course for itself. Its robust, forward-looking foreign policy strategy is built around close ties with like-minded partners and allies throughout the world. So long as future governments consistently adhere to its outlined objectives, Poland will establish itself as a credible partner whose voice will be heard and regarded, ready and willing to stand against the imperial tendencies that threaten Western stability and prosperity.

Paweł Markiewicz is a historian of 20th-century Central and Eastern Europe and the executive director of the Washington office of the Polish Institute of International Affairs. He is the author of Unlikely Allies: Nazi German and Ukrainian Nationalist Collaboration in the General Government during World War II. Twitter: @DrPMarkiewicz

Image: Polish Deputy Prime Minister Mariusz Błaszczak (center) visits soldiers from five NATO countries during the Griffin Shock 23-1 exercise, designed to strengthen NATO's interoperability and confirm readiness to defend NATO's eastern flank during an Allied operation. (Credit: Republic of Poland's Ministry of National Defence)

Eastern EuropeDemocracyEuropeRussiaUkraineUnited States