Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions.
While Russian desires to regain lost ground over the last decade have challenged U.S. interests in Central and Eastern Europe, Poland has increasingly become a formidable ally of the U.S. in the region and taken a leading role in the region as counterbalance to Russian interests. Importantly, this has included not only economic means but concrete military efforts that give Poland weight in relation to the major western EU states that favor amicable relations with Russia.
Even before the present Ukrainian crisis, it had become apparent to several U.S. strategists that a resurgent Russia could and would challenge American primacy in East Central Europe and the former Soviet space. Western Europe had little motive to prevent this, as mutually beneficial relationships with Russia were already in place. Former Soviet satellite states however, were highly motivated to contain Russia and limit her influence on the European mainland.
In particular, Poland proved willing and able to support U.S. interests in the region. Once again caught between a cooperating Russia and Germany, Poland needed a powerful ally in order to prevent a potential repeat in history. Now, a natural relationship between the United States and Poland is forming. Both within and outside of the NATO framework, military cooperation between Washington and Warsaw is increasing. Beginning with the controversial missile defense shield and expanding to F16 sales and Special Forces training, Poland has become America’s chief partner in Eastern Europe.
The Shadow of Ukraine
In 2014, the Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovich was toppled and replaced by pro-EU political factions. In response, Crimea first declared sovereignty from Kiev and later was annexed into the Russian Federation. An anti-Kiev insurgency in East Ukraine followed soon after and fears of further Russian military intervention spread along with it. In particular, nations with large Russian minorities and/or recent memories of military occupation felt threatened.
As the civil war dragged on, NATO conducted military drills in the Baltic States in an attempt to reassure new member states. American troops even participated in Latvia’s National Independence Day March. Independently from NATO, the United States increased its Air Force deployments to Poland, and Warsaw continues to request a greater U.S. presence.
It is in this context that Poland is stepping up to a leadership role. In September 2014 the establishment of a joint Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian brigade was announced. An international unit consisting of both NATO countries and a non-member state, the brigade was formed with the explicit goal of demonstrating Poland’s commitment to Ukraine.
This combination of Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine is of great historical significance, for it was precisely in these territories that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth once dominated Eastern Europe. The idea of re-building this historical sphere is not new. First Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, leader of the 2nd Polish Republic, popularized the idea in the 1930s. His concept was to form an “Intermarium” alliance, consisting of Poland and the newly independent countries established after World War I. This would form a third political bloc on the European continent, one independent from both Soviet and German influence.
In modern times, aspects of such a regional alliance have already been seen in the form of the EU’s Visegrad Group. This grouping of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic represents a region of unique economic stability and post-communist success within the EU. It is also a group in which Poland has by far the largest economy and armed forces.
Independent of the before-mentioned brigade, Poland also has taken a leading role in the Visegrad Battlegroup, a coalition of military forces from member nations. By 2016, the battlegroup plans to be functional as an independent force not directly under NATO command, rather acting under an “EU” framework. It is likely that this is evidence of divergent interests within NATO member states. Core members such as Germany, France, and Italy have no fear of aggression from Russia and are instead focused on developing positive relations with Moscow. Nations that only 25 years ago were under Soviet domination have different security concerns. Such a divergence was likely to occur in the event of tension in Eastern Europe, as the geopolitical realities driving the original NATO alliance no longer exist.
In this context. Poland’s rise to regional leadership is a major strategic advantage for Washington. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has praised Poland’s role as an ally, even going to far as to say that “the United States will increasingly look to Poland as a leader in the region and in NATO.” On Warsaw’s side, efforts to develop the Polish military in to a self-sufficient and fully-modernized force are underway. American think tanks have outlined how to deepen and strengthen bilateral U.S.-Poland ties, and plans for greater economic cooperation have likewise been developed. It is highly likely that such efforts will continue for the foreseeable future.
Russia is now placed in a difficult position. To its immediate west is a deeply unstable Ukraine in which only a shaky cease-fire agreement is holding backed armed conflict. Further west is the old hostile coalition (NATO) and a new one (U.S.-Polish cooperation). To its south lie the Caucasus, from which thousands of volunteers have gone to fight for the “Islamic State”, fighters who could well return to Russia’s borderlands after their war is complete. Add to this ISIS’s campaign against Syria, Iraq, and the Kurds, and Russia’s neighborhood looks increasingly dangerous. Therefore, it is in Russia’s interest to avoid the formation of any new hostile forces.
Herein lies the difficulty with Eastern security politics, both Russia and “the Polish coalition” are acting defensively. Russia is in the position previously described and in no mood to allow for instability and hostile actors along its borders. Any steps they can take to prevent this will likely be taken. Conversely, Poland and her partners are in no mood to be under Moscow’s influence again and, in an effort to deter Russia, are actually working to increase the tension via their military build-up.
Russia will do everything in its power to prevent their encirclement by NATO and other hostile states. This is evident by their support of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Armenia, their military presence in Transnistria, their recent intervention in Crimea, and their support for the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics. Simultaneously, Poland and the Visegrad group will work to ensure they do not find themselves under Russian domination again, and work with anyone they can to ensure this.
Hungary the Mediator?
Of the members of the Visegrad group, Hungary is alone in maintaining good relations with Russia. Under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary (a member of both the EU and NATO) has stepped outside the party line and has been working to foster closer partnerships to the East. Orban has openly criticized EU policies, including sanctions against Russia, sanctions which would be to the mutual detriment of Russia and Europe.
Hungary’s independent foreign policy could allow it to act as a mediator between Russia and the U.S.-Poland coalition as the situation develops. Poland and Hungary have a long history of close relations and are conservative strongholds in a widely left-leaning EU. It is likely that any potential Poland-Russia rapprochement will come from this angle, with Budapest fostering the dialogue. The disputes between these countries are geopolitical and historical, not over values. Both Russia and Poland are conservative, Christian countries with populations opposed to LBGT marriage, abortion, Islamic immigration, and the erosion of their national sovereignty. Both populations espouse traditional values, support the traditional family, and the role of their respective Churches. With Hungary as the middle man, the potential exists for these two nations to come to an understanding that would ensure stability in Europe for decades to come and greatly reduce their respective security concerns.