Warsaw warms to Moscow

Warsaw warms to Moscow

Opinion piece (The Guardian)
Tomas Valasek
18 September 2009

Tabloids make a poor guide to understanding a country's policy. While the newspaper headlines in Poland and the Czech Republic scream of the US "betraying" eastern Europe by cancelling missile defence bases there, the official reaction in Warsaw and Prague has been muted. The reason is simple: the Poles and other east Europeans have themselves been busy "resetting" relations with Russia in recent months. The Poles, in particular, will view the cancellation of missile defence bases in Poland as an affirmation of their recent policy of rebalancing alliances in favour of closer links with the EU.

Under the previous Czech and Polish governments, the new Nato allies spent little time cultivating better links with Russia or courting defence ties with the EU; they built their security squarely around close links to Washington. The east Europeans gave their full support to the US over Iraq and, in exchange, sought Washington's guarantees to defend them against Russia. Missile defences became a touchstone of US commitment to eastern Europe: the bases in Poland and the Czech Republic were to serve as a "tripwire" that would trigger automatic US intervention in case of a Russian aggression.

This picture has begun changing long before this week's decision to cancel missile defence bases in eastern Europe. The new Polish government, which came to power in 2007, thought Poland's reliance on a single ally, especially one about to go through dramatic presidential elections, too risky. The incoming Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski knows better than most that US foreign policy can occasionally be fickle; he spent years in Washington as a foreign policy pundit. So the new government set out to repair relations with Russia and the rest of Europe. Sikorski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk travelled to Moscow on several occasions; they recently hosted Vladimir Putin in Gdansk at ceremonies commemorating the outbreak of the second world war.

A senior Polish government official described the country's policy as one of "getting rid of our image as the Russophobes of Europe". I doubt that the Poles sincerely hope to succeed where even Obama has failed so far – in convincing Russia that Nato was not a threat, and that the west and Russia need not live in a zero-sum relationship. But Tusk and Sikorski have thought it important to try anyway; in doing so, they have hoped to convince the rest of Europe that Poland can be a constructive ally and thus encourage countries like Germany to pursue a joint EU approach to Russia, instead of bypassing the EU (and, by extension, the Poles). Warsaw has also sought to secure European support for initiatives like the EU's "eastern partnership", meant to tie former Soviet republics on Poland's eastern border closer to the EU.

Their efforts have already paid off in modest ways: the EU did launch the eastern partnership in late 2008, and the Germans and the Poles are jointly leading EU efforts to prevent a Russo-Ukrainian conflict over Crimea. A co-operation between Germany and Warsaw on a dossier as sensitive as Ukraine would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

The Polish government will view Obama's decision with some regret – the US remains their most important ally – but it is far from a calamity. Rather, they will think it a vindication of their decision not to put all their eggs in the US basket. As Adam Jasser of influential Warsaw-based thinktank, demosEuropa, put it:

"The end result will be that the Poles and other central Europeans will be incentivised to see the European Union rather than the United States as the main vehicle for dealing with Russia. … [the cancellation of missile defences] sends to a well-deserved resting place Donald Rumsfeld's concept of the 'old' and 'new' Europe ... [This] may be a win-win for Europe and the United States, which sometimes appeared torn between a desire to see a strong united Europe and a temptation to divide the Europeans and play them against each other. It is clear that the former was and will be the better option for the west.