Poland is getting nervous. Since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 (and subsequent civil war in Ukraine), Warsaw has been increasingly worried about a threat from its east. At the same time, relations with Poland’s western neighbours have been strained by questions over rule of law and civil rights in the country, with critics arguing that the Polish government is undermining democracy. Caught between the two, Poland has been reaching out to the US as its traditional security ally (offering to host American troops at a permanent base, named “Fort Trump” in an effort to charm the temperamental US President).
Is Poland just being paranoid? The recent high-profile exposure of Russian intelligence agents operating in the UK and the Netherlands has got everybody checking for spies under the bed. Yet is Russia really a threat to Poland’s territorial integrity? Unlike Ukraine (or the Baltic states), Poland has no significant Russian minority. Poland is a NATO Member State and can (presumably) rely on protection from its nuclear-armed neighbours. Does it really need, on top of all that, a permanent Fort Trump to protect it from Moscow?
Our sister think tank, Friends of Europe, has been publishing a series of reports looking at today’s security challenges from the perspective of different European nations. The reports on Germany, France, and the UK have already been published, and on 24-25 October 2018 an Executive Summary and Recommendations on Poland will be released as part of the Warsaw Security Forum. The full Poland report will be available as of January 2019.
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Zsolt arguing that European countries such as Poland should stop being paranoid about the threat from Russia. He says: “First of all, nobody is threatening Europe. Secondly, Europe sure as hell has enough [military power] to take care of itself…”
To get a response, we took Zsolt’s comment to Radosław Sikorski, former Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs (2007-2014) and currently a Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Center for European Studies. How would he react?
To get another perspective, we also put Zsolt’s comment to Katarzyna Pisarska, Program Director of the Warsaw Security Forum and Founder & Director of the European Academy of Diplomacy. What would she say?
I would say that, unfortunately, that assumption is false for the simple reason that, on a daily basis, two to four Ukrainian soldiers die in a war conflict in Donbass. The last four years have shown that Russia is willing and will use military force in order to reach its geopolitical goals. But today I would also say that war is no longer a typical military exercise. We are talking today about wars that are hybrid wars, that have a number of elements including cyber warfare, including psychological warfare – the Skripal case is a very good case of that – trying to threaten society showing power in order for the society to back off. So, in that sense, the last four years have proven that Russia has been aggressive, not only in terms of military, but also willing and able, and capable, of influencing our democratic processes, meddling in elections, supporting anti-democratic and illiberal parties and movements as well. So, to underestimate Russia also means to underestimate the huge pressures and threats that the liberal order is currently under.
Next up, we had a comment from Yordan arguing that Germany needs to take a bigger role in Europe’s defence. Obviously, Poland has a long and bitter history with its Western neighbour when it comes to military might. However, in 2011, Radosław Sikorski said he feared German power less than he feared German inactivity. Does it extend into the military sphere? How would he respond?
Finally, how would Katarzyna Pisarska respond to the same question? Given that Europe’s traditional defence partner, the United States, seems to be pulling back from a global leadership role, will Europe need to do more to look after its own defence? Will that mean a bigger role for Germany? And what should Poland think about that?
Well, I think there is a very strong argument there. I would argue that this is not exclusive. The fact that we continue to have a strong trans-Atlantic link with the United States does not mean that we should not have our own capacities, in synergy within NATO, but also with the engagement of the European Union in the area of defence. First, our societies are expecting the EU to boost its security abilities and security is the number one concern of European citizens. Second of all, that is our obligation: most of EU members are also NATO members and have, for years, had the obligation to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defence matters. Unfortunately, only four countries today – including Poland – do meet that requirement.
If we’re serious about security, we also have to be serious in spending in our security. As I see it, the United States will remain an indispensable partner in trying to deal with the challenges of the global world. Europe has to be very smart about it: it has to meet its obligations; it has to learn; but it also needs to foster that relationship regardless of who is currently at the White House.
When it comes to Germany I think, yes, there is a huge potential when it comes to German security engagement. We all know, of course, the historical background. In Poland that historical background is known the most. But, even here, our politicians, including our current government, do argue that Germany should start spending 2% of GDP for its defence, but also for a common European defence. So there is not as much controversy around the topic outside of Germany, probably the biggest problem is within Germany to convince German citizens that security requires expenditure and that Germany has an obligation to ramp up costs and presence in this area. There are many challenges, starting from the Middle East to terrorism to the need to deter today the Russian federation.
Is Poland right to be paranoid about a threat from Russia? Should Poland support a stronger role for Germany in European defence? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!