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A new central and eastern European power: Poland after the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war"
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At the beginning of March, the US ambassador to Poland, Mark Brzezinski, was summoned for questioning by the Polish Foreign Ministry. The issue at the origin of the invitation was a documentary about Karol Wojtyla which appeared on an American-owned Polish television channel, depicting the character of Pope John Paul II in less than flattering terms. It might come as a surprise that the current US ambassador in Warsaw, and son of one of the most important US national security advisors, would be summoned for a reason that to any non-Pole might seem insignificant. Even the tone of the communiqué announcing the meeting was harsh; the ministry goes so far as to speak of 'activities in line with the objectives of a hybrid war aimed at causing divisions and tensions in Polish society'.[1] 

The importance that Poland has assumed since its entry into the Atlantic Alliance and the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine allows Warsaw diplomatic “liberties” hardly imaginable twenty or even two years ago. Poland's cruciality, not only as a logistical hub for allied supplies to Ukraine, but also as NATO's eastern bastion is now unquestionable. Its relevance for the United States of America has also grown in the current European landscape, given the troubles in which Germany landed after the pandemic and the outbreak of war.

Poland's multi-traumatic past (the three partitions of the 18th century, the loss of statehood for 120 years, the Nazi invasion, and the Soviet yoke) make it difficult to understand this Central and Eastern European country which is naturally anti-Russian and sceptically integrated into the European architecture but firmly pro-Atlantic. It will certainly not be this documentary that will cause a rift with Washington, in which Poland believes it has found a friend, if not a protector against the heirs of the European empires that divided its territory and repeatedly moved its borders at will (1772; 1795; 1939; 1945). 

However, Poland needs the US more than the other way around.  Although the strategic importance of Warsaw is mounting, it not only remains perilously close to the epicentre of European violence in which the US does not want to get overly involved - the country itself borders Russia (Kaliningrad), but also has an ambitious international agenda that spans across the whole of Central and Eastern Europe. Poland is seeking to propose itself as an alternative leader to a struggling Germany (and to which Warsaw last October submitted a request of 1. 300 billion euros for reparations for the Nazi occupation).

On the continental chessboard, with the declining cohesion of the four Visegrád countries, which rose to media prominence in the last decade and are all economically linked to Germany, one's eye must also be turned to Polish-French relations, as a possible herald of relevant developments in the European context. For a long time, the French interest in Poland was anti-German at its core, or also anti-Russian. France used the relationship as a tool to be leveraged against its rivals, for which, however, it was not worth entering into direct conflict with the Germans or the Russians. As the Abbé de Véri wrote about Louis XV's foreign minister, étienne-François de Choiseul (1758-1770): 'he was very wise not to take up arms pour l'amour des Polonais'. Napoleon held a similar attitude when, after having formed Polish legions in Milan (1797) by recruiting emigrant volunteers through a promise of a resurrection of Poland by weakening Austria in the Italian campaigns, he did not hesitate to divert them to Haiti after the Treaty of Campoformio.

Nowadays, it is considerably more difficult for France to exploit Poland in an anti-Germanic function: the United States already makes use of the Polish position as eastern spearhead of the Atlantic Alliance and a potential counterweight to Germany. In this sense, Washington certainly welcomed the news of the Polish rearmament, which launched a grandiose program to modernise its armed forces in parallel with the German Zeitenwende. In the NATO sphere, France and Poland have been in recent years respectively the fiercest opponent - Macron described the Alliance as cerebrally dead in 2019 - and the most strenuous supporter of the Atlantic Alliance, the focus of disputes in the difficult relationship between the République and the Rzeczpospolita.

The moves of Paris and Warsaw have also diverged from a diplomatic point of view, as well as on method: France has shown a preference for bilateral treaties with its most important neighbours (Aachen with Germany, Quirinal with Italy and Barcelona with Spain), proposing itself as Europe's median actor and the pivotal point of a system of major continental states. In the east, Poland has distinguished itself through its regional mini-lateral initiatives, such as the aforementioned Visegrád Group, the Lublin Triangle and, above all, the Three Seas Initiative, instruments through which it aims to expand its influence and simultaneously acquire strategic value in American eyes. Poland has grasped the USA's desire to find a truly reliable ally in Europe; however, betting almost exclusively on the transatlantic protector (as it is currently doing), exposes Poland to the risk of harbouring excessive hopes towards its ally, for whom the priority is no longer Russia but the global challenge of China.

Regarding the Duchy of Warsaw (1807-1815), a French creation against the Prussians and Russians, historian Stefan Kieniewicz wrote that it 'engendered in the Poles the fallacious belief that help for their cause would always and in any case come from the West, almost miraculously', summarising well the unequal relationship between a distant but powerful ally (Napoleonic France in this case, but the comparison with the United States of America today holds true), and a Poland surrounded by hostile neighbours. If in fact the political and collective memory of Poland is strongly marked by the Russian and German partitions and invasions. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that the definition of today’s Poland by shifting its centre of gravity westwards in Yalta and Potsdam was the result of an agreement between the Americans and the Russians, so that the latter could keep under tighter control the territories already acquired with the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939, and which today make up a not negligible part of Ukraine and Belarus

In the current context, having been for years the Cassandra in the case of the looming Russian danger in Eastern Europe, Poland runs the risk of overestimating its centrality in Europe. The 'Christ of nations' mysticism of the Romantic Adam Mickiewicz, a founding myth of Polish exceptionalism and a co-constructing discourse of Polish identity in the absence of statehood, now risks influencing Poland's developing perception of itself and its wider surroundings.

For Warsaw, the war in Ukraine really does seem to be the decisive moment in which, by weakening Russia to the utmost, it can accelerate its development in the quadrant between the 'Three Seas' (Adriatic, Baltic, Black). This strategy was already formulated by Józef Pilsudski, the doctrinal and lexical reference of the Polish ruling class - the title of naczelnik (translatable as guide, leader or even Duce), which Pilsudski used in the 1920s is today adopted by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the party currently in power in Warsaw, the Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, (PiS, Law and Justice). The Three Seas act as the horizon of a continental policy affecting Central and Eastern Europe, an alternative to the Russian or German primacy over the same space. The plan geographically follows the traces of the Polish-Lithuanian Confederation, the 'golden age' of Polish power, and those of the Austrian Mitteleuropa, the only power that once parted Poland and that today is no longer able to harm it. Access to the seas as a strategic horizon is not only another founding myth of modern Poland, which still commemorates its 'Marriage with the Sea', a ritual that the Poles borrowed from Venice in 1920, but is also a strategic objective of the current ruling class. However, the Poland of PiS runs analogous risks to that of Marshal Pilsudski: developing ambitions that exceed its own limits while counting on allies that are only moderately interested in it (the UK and France then, the USA today).

Although Warsaw has developed a certain dislike for the UE context in which it is embedded, the balance of power on the continent is defined, and Poland has not yet reached a position where it can ignore the continent's number one and two, Germany and France. Prior to its 'moral redemption', which began with the disproportionate response to the mild migratory threat organised by Belarus (2021) and then with Russia's aggression against Ukraine, Poland was still integrated in the German economic sphere and an important ally of the USA in the containment of Moscow, and had tense relations with other European states (France above all: an ECFR poll of 2020 showed that the Polish ruling class said it was highly dissatisfied with the French one, with rates not approached anywhere else in Europe)[2]. Relations that, beyond common support for the war, show no sign of warming up, neither with Paris nor Berlin, both of which Warsaw has always regarded as incurably pro-Russian.

Although the Polish power project is long-term and consistent with America's still preeminent position in world affairs, developments in the current war remain difficult to predict. Moreover, since Obama’s pivot to Asia, American interests have been concentrated in other parts of the world, and it is difficult to see how Poland's current cold relations with Western European countries could benefit it if the US withdrew from the game. While it is understandable that German rearmament might evoke traumatic memories beyond the Neiße, Poland’s interest in continuing to keep France at a distance is less clear. Finally, that Washington also desires the dissolution of the Russian Federation is by no means a foregone conclusion. Therefore, making this reading of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict the keystone of the Polish foreign policy exposes Warsaw to possible backlash in the event of different scenarios.

Francesco Stuffer is a geopolitical analyst at the Spykman International Center for Geopolitical Analysis. He is a graduate of the Paris School of International Affairs – Master in International Governance and Diplomacy, his centers of interest are the Post-Soviet Space and the Balkans.

 


[1] https://www.gov.pl/web/diplomacy/statement-on-inviting-us-ambassador-to-polands-mfa

[2] https://ecfr.eu/article/commentary_united_in_distrust_how_france_and_poland_can_repair_their_broken/

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