Yesterday Polish President Bronisław Komorowski met with the National Security Bureau (Biuro Bezpieczeństwa Narodowego) on the subject of Russian activities in Ukraine. Afterward he released a measured statement cautioning against growing belligerence from the east while stressing the importance of closer ties to NATO.
The Krakow Post’s Anthony Casey and Steven Hoffman debate the threat Vladimir Putin’s international policies might pose to Poland.
Point: “What, in reality, would stop him or turn him back? Very little…”
Just six months ago, the world’s media was flooded with headlines reporting Russian president Vladimir Putin’s ‘threat’ to invade Poland, Romania, and the Baltic States.
“If I wanted, in two days I could have Russian troops not only in Kiev, but also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest,” he is reported to have told his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko.
The statement—if it was made at all—was made off the record. But whether or not Mr Putin actually said it, he may as well have done. The words do not represent an intention to invade, or a declaration of war, but a simple statement of fact.
Yes, Mr Putin’s troops could be in these former Eastern Bloc capitals in a very short time. The question is not why he would do such a thing, but why he wouldn’t. What, in reality, would stop him or turn him back?
The answer? Very little.
The Kremlin has made no secret of its desire to ‘rebuild Russia’. The Novorossiya project has led in recent years directly to overt military action in Ukraine and Georgia in ‘defence’ of ethnic Russians. There has also been tacit trade and diplomatic pressure, specifically regarding the manipulation of local governments and limitations on the freedom of people to migrate from former Soviet Union countries on the southern border to work in Russia and, crucially, to send money home.
Mr Putin’s policy towards Central and Eastern European NATO members has so far been more provocative than direct. An example in Poland may be the debacle over the wreck of the plane that crashed at Smoleńsk in 2010, killing former Polish president Lech Kaczyński and a sizeable number of political and military top brass. The plane is still in Russia, and half of Poland is screaming ‘tampering with evidence of assassination’, while the other half thinks the first lot are more or less crazy, but nevertheless annoyed enough to make a formal request for the return of the plane. Why is Mr Putin holding onto it? Because it is in Russia’s (read, Mr Putin’s) interests to have neighbours who are divided internally, and incapable of doing anything but shake their fists impotently at the bad red bear.
“Please, mister, can we have our plane back?”
National interest, in the West, could broadly be defined as the will of the majority, driven by the personal impact of broader economic influence. In Russia, national interest is the interest of a majority of one—Vladimir Putin, and that is from where the main danger to Poland and others arises.
Mr Putin has shown that it is in Russia’s—i.e., his—interests that he remains in power. He does this by building national pride, presenting a strong face to the accursed West by pushing boundaries that receive no serious response. Sanctions? Really? Russian tycoon Mikhail Fridman bought a German company with control over gas exploration in southern Poland in early March; when it was suggested that this could be a problem if Mr Fridman or his company were added to the sanctions list, he said the concern would simply be re-registered in the Netherlands. The only people who are hurt by sanctions against Russia are the ordinary Russians – and the Kremlin-backed media, under an umbrella organisation called Rossiya Segodnya that was set up on Mr Putin’s direct orders, makes sure that these ordinary martyrs to Mr Putin’s authoritarianism understand that they are in fact victims of a pernicious Western conspiracy. They suffer, they are told, in the name of the glorious (and growing) motherland, led by the man who will bring their brothers home. And far too many, with no other sources of information, believe this. It’s a victim mentality that goes back to the springtime of nations and the great romantics of Russian literary history. Poland suffers a similar problem, but it doesn’t manifest in the same way—and that in any case is another story…
The propaganda war isn’t limited to Russian citizens. In Poland, the broadcasting watchdog is on the verge of investigating the Sputnik portal, part of the Rossiya Segodnya group, which has recently launched a Polish language, pro-Russian service. In one sense, there is no point asking if Russia will attack Poland. Through services such as Sputnik, groups such as the Young Communists of Poland, and individuals such as the ludicrous Marxist-Fascist (yes, you read that right) Mateusz Piskorski, the invasion has already begun. So much so, that General Stanisław Koziej, head of the National Security Bureau, made a public statement that Poland must prepare for the kind of ‘hybrid war’ that Russia is currently waging in Ukraine.
But Ukraine is not a member of NATO, so not protected by the Article 5 guarantee of collective security, while Poland is; so we’re safe, right? If Russia steps up the provocation and propaganda war to real military action, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and the rest will leap to our aid, right?
Wrong. We in Poland understand, quite rightly, that we are the most important country on this planet, but the rest of the world disagrees. The US showed its unwillingness to intervene directly in Europe-Russia affairs when it made a diplomatic withdrawal in the missile shield affair after Putin threw his rattle out of the pram. And in any case, regional, military conflicts are far less important for Western Europe and the US, than the economic war of attrition that is being fought on a new Eastern front—with a strong focus on China and the Asia-Pacific region. A military threat to a Central or Eastern European nation is likely to be viewed by the White House as a regional conflict in which it would be against the national interest to intervene. The same could be said of NATO as a whole: what, realistically, could be achieved by invoking Article 5 in defence of Poland, or any of its CEE neighbours? How would ‘total war’ with Russia serve the national interests of NATO members, collectively or individually?
Mr Putin is well aware of all of this. In his drive to build Novorossiya, he will, when he is ready, push further than he has yet done—both to test NATO’s resolve and to further his own image in the eyes of the Russian electorate. That doesn’t mean that Poland or the Baltic states would necessarily be ‘next’. At far more risk are Moldova and, to a lesser extent, Belarus. Yet, with Russia deploying nuclear capable missiles to Kaliningrad, in easy range of most of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, the danger is most definitely clear and present.
The illustration accompanying this article may yet prove prophetic. Bishop takes pawn… the only question is, which pawn falls first.
Counterpoint: “It’s 2015, not 1939…”
The smell of war-fear in the Polish air has begun to compete with that of the smog. The New York Times even reported recently that local civilian militias have sprung up, donning fatigues to run preparedness exercises at 3 am. “I think it is highly probable that Putin will do something against Poland,” one amateur soldier was quoted as saying. “I know from history that Russia has always been a totalitarian state. Now it is trying to regain the territory it lost at the end of the Cold War.”
He seems to be in a pessimistic majority. Former Polish President Lech Wałęsa recently issued a grave warning against the belligerent policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, advocating a heightened state of Polish security: “How can we win,” he lamented, “if he is boxing and we are playing chess?” Poles seem to agree as the military machine and anxious murmurs crank up and up. All the while, Putin’s bombastic saber-rattling (recently gone nuclear) only adds fuel to the fire.
An analogy to the Second World War is easy to make, and it is one we have all heard many times since Putin’s regime began its not-so-stealthy invasion of eastern Ukraine in support of the separatists there last year. The prospect of Soviet-inspired revanchism spilling over the borders of Poland with no help from the West—again—is certainly a frightening one.
Fortunately, it’s not 1939. It’s 2015. The world and its system of international relations have evolved immeasurably in the space between, and history is not necessarily doomed to repeat itself.
The biggest problem with this analogy—and it has a lot of problems—is underestimation of the contemporary commitment of the West to Polish integrity.
Take the United States, which in the first half of the 20th century was vastly different to today both in terms of its position in and its attitude toward global affairs. Long having prided itself on remaining aloof from the constant, petty “European problems,” it had only joined the First World War reluctantly at the tail end and remained resentfully isolationist when the Axis began its rampage on the other side of the sea. 21st century America, on the other hand, is anything but an island: it’s an aggressive, proactive, and long-armed defender of its global interests, which very much include a secure European Union. It’s also a nuclear power that outmatches Russia in every category imaginable.
Some would point to US President Obama’s willingness to negotiate with Russia on the placement of its missile shield (which, recall, was actually opposed by most Poles) as evidence that the US is a paper tiger like all the rest. There is an enormous difference, though, between “Russia preferring not to have American weapons at its doorstep” and “Russia invading a NATO member,” and to compare the American responses to those two contingencies is nonsensical.
As for the other countries of the West, insomuch as they have any military latitude from the US nowadays: Of course it’s true that the UK and France betrayed their alliances with Poland in 1939. The political will wasn’t there: on the very same day the Anglo-Polish agreement was signed pledging mutual support, UK Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax remarked outright, “We do not think this guarantee will be binding.” Moreover, neither country was militarily equipped to go head-to-head with Nazi Germany and the USSR combined, weakened by the Great Depression and by their focus on their overseas colonial empires
It is a different story today, though, and Poland’s material importance to Western Europe is no longer simply a figment of sententious lip service. Poland has the eighth-largest economy among the 28 European Union member states, ranking between Sweden and Belgium. Furthermore, while Poland in 1939 was all but surrounded by a then-allied Nazi Germany and USSR, now it would be an intolerable security threat for all the West to have Russia clawing at the core of the EU. Cynicism toward the moral dedication of the West to Poland may be justified, but these facts reveal the undeniably huge realpolitik interest Poland’s allies have in its safeguarding.
Putin, for his part, knows this. Say what you will about him, but he is no madman hell-bent on world domination. On the contrary, he has proven himself a shrewd and tenacious political actor, an opportunistic master of manipulation. He has had 15 years of power to conquer Europe, including more auspicious times than this one, and he hasn’t yet. Rather, he spied a chance in the political instability following the 2014 Ukrainian revolution to make a limited, semi-surreptitious land grab in areas already very friendly to Russia. Despite his bluster, he has always known when to stop far short of triggering World War III—which, in another tiny difference from 1939, would probably result in a literal global doomsday.
If you want to compare some country to Poland on the eve of the Second World War, fine: but it is Ukraine, not Poland. Ukraine, while certainly not unimportant to the West, is on the periphery of Western influence and interest (as Poland once was) and, as a nonmember of NATO and the EU, is (as Poland once was) only protected by a wishy-washy handful of international promises. If Putin decides to pursue his Ukrainian adventure all the way to Lviv, Western leaders will probably whine and wring their hands but do little else. Ukraine is not worth another World War for them. On the other hand, Poland, in fact a long way away in many respects from Kiev, is not worth it for Putin, and that is exactly what a Russian invasion would get him.
None of this is to apologize for Russian policy or to say that Poland should grow complacent and place blind faith in its allies. But to call Putin Stalin and to dismiss NATO as simply the flimsy treaty system of 76 years ago redux, while seductively in line with a certain view of Poland as a hapless perpetual victim of history, is a naïve oversimplification based on an extremely outdated view of global affairs. Moreover, it is irresponsible: with Warsaw now sending troops to Ukraine as its rhetoric grows more alarmist by the day, it fuels an escalation that, if unchecked, could prove a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And the fiery militia member quoted at the beginning? Grzegorz, age 11. One hopes Polish leaders will have an understanding of the nuanced flow of history that is a little more mature.