Financial Mirror (Cyprus)
Poland won’t start World War III
For the world, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ushered in a new era. For Poland, it supercharged long-standing fears about Russian aggression. While Western European leaders, wary of the war’s economic fallout and fearful that overzealous Eastern Europeans will draw them into conflict with Russia, sing the praises of compromise, in Warsaw security concerns come first.
When push comes to shove, Poland’s high dependence on the U.S. for protection will moderate Polish hawkishness. Warsaw may be forced to settle for something less than a humiliated and defeated Russia, such as a neutral Ukraine. Although this is not the best possible outcome for Poland, it can live with it. It has little choice.
Situated on the North European Plain, Poland lacks any significant geographical barriers to the east or west capable of protecting its territory. To cope with this unfortunate position, Poland relies on allies to strengthen deterrence.
In the 16th century, Poland aligned with Lithuania to form the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, stretching from the Baltic Sea to southern Ukraine. This increased Warsaw’s resources, but more important, it increased the distance and obstacles for would-be invaders to reach the nation’s center – so-called strategic depth.
Persistent conflict, foreign meddling, the commonwealth’s internal problems and the emergence of Prussia eventually doomed this strategy, and in the 18th century, Prussia and Russia led the way in carving off chunks of Poland until there was nothing left.
After World War I, Poland was reestablished as an independent state. At the time, it proposed creating the Intermarium, an alliance that would have essentially comprised the same territories as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The strategic rationale was the same as centuries ago: to gain strategic depth and deter its stronger neighbors from aggression.
But the Intermarium failed to materialize, and of course, Poland was invaded by the Nazis before being occupied by the Soviets. Poland remained an unwilling satellite of the Soviet Union until the Warsaw Pact’s dissolution in 1991.
Determined not to repeat history, Warsaw sought to anchor itself in the West. The European Union offered economic prosperity without costing too much sovereignty (still a sore spot in EU-Polish relations). More important, however, were security guarantees offered by NATO.
Membership in the trans-Atlantic defense alliance permitted NATO military deployments – mainly of U.S. troops – on Polish soil, significantly strengthening Poland’s deterrence. It also put Poland and Germany, a historical rival, in the same bloc. For Washington, Poland became the bulwark against Russian irredentism.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 reignited Polish fears of Russian aggression, making Warsaw one of the fiercest advocates of resistance. Even in the absence of an invasion of Polish territory by Russia or Belarus, Russian territorial gains in Ukraine would put an old foe closer to Poland’s doorstep.
Because of geography, this prospect is less alarming to Western Europe than it is to Poland. As a result, Warsaw stands out in Europe for its willingness to sever imports of Russian energy, which it already aspired to do and which it now hopes will damage Russia’s ability to sustain the war. Likewise, Poland is among the strongest advocates of sending more and more advanced military equipment to Ukraine.
In this historical moment, Poland’s main resource against the Russian threat is the United States. The relationship is mutually beneficial: Washington provides protection, and Warsaw serves as Europe’s first line of defense against Russia. It’s a long-standing imperative of the United States to prevent Eurasia’s domination by a rival power, namely, Russia.
But mutual beneficence doesn’t mean no disagreements. Poland’s quest for maximum pressure against Russia is not always in line with U.S. interests.
For example, while Warsaw has urged the EU to impose a full embargo on Russian oil and natural gas, a few weeks ago U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned Brussels to proceed with caution so as not to create more turmoil in energy markets.
his makes sense if we consider that Poland’s priority is to weaken Russia, while the United States’ main focus is on preserving the renewed cohesion of the trans-Atlantic alliance at a time when many of America’s European allies are struggling to rid themselves of their dependence on Russian energy.
Warsaw and Washington have also fallen out of sync on weapons deliveries. Early in the war, Poland was prepared to send 28 Soviet-made MiG-29s from its fleet to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and then on to Ukraine. But the U.S. balked at the deal, saying the prospect of flying warplanes from NATO territory into a war zone was too risky.
Poland dreams of a scenario in which Russia is bogged down in a quagmire against Ukrainian resistance and ultimately defeated.
A defeated Russia would very likely be a weaker Russia, the best life insurance for Poland.
But neither the U.S. nor Russia wants anything to do with a war against the other, and their staunch determination to avoid that scenario significantly limits Poland’s ability to contribute to a potential Russian defeat. The Kremlin seems content to explore ways to try to divide the Europeans, especially by leveraging its energy.
But the risk of miscalculation remains. In the first weeks of the conflict, for example, Russian missile strikes targeted areas of western Ukraine close to the Polish border.
It wouldn’t take much – a stray missile, a lost pilot, or any number of individual miscalculations – to bring NATO and Russia to the brink of war. Even Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s trip to Kyiv, along with his counterparts from the Czech Republic and Slovenia, represented a risk of deeper involvement in the war, at least in Russia’s eyes.
Therefore, the United States and other European partners will cooperate to moderate Poland’s aims by offering it reassurances and concessions in other areas.
The U.S., meanwhile, has been reinforcing its military presence in the country, sending additional troops from the 101st Airborne Division, not only to deter Russia but also to reassure the Poles of its commitment to their joint security relationship.
Europe and the U.S. are understandably concerned about Polish adventurism in pursuit of its national interests. But Warsaw’s inability to secure those interests by itself gives its powerful allies important leverage that reduces the danger that Poland will overstep and drag NATO into World War III.