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Poland and the Ukrainian crisis: will the Poles be able to overcome the complex of a Young European

Andrzej Duda. Photo: riasv.ru

On Aug 6, 2015, Andrzej Duda was inaugurated as President of Poland. On that and the following few days, he made a number of statements reflecting his attitude towards Russia and the crisis in Ukraine. They are of interest both as his his personal opinion and as the stance of his party, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice, PiS), a force that may well come into power within the next few months.

So, it may be of interest to know the key nuances that make that party’s policy different from the policy of Poland’s current ruler, Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform, PO).

In his inauguration speech, Duda called for an increased NATO presence in Poland and a stronger Polish army. He urged his NATO partners to press for more security guarantees in the region. “We need stronger guarantees from NATO. Not we as Poland but the whole Central and Eastern Europe whose current geopolitical situation is challenging," Duda said apparently meaning the Ukrainian conflict when speaking of the “challenging situation”.

The new Polish president hopes that such guarantees will be provided at the next NATO summit to be held in Warsaw in 2016.

While speaking on the day of the Polish army, on Aug 15, 2015, Duda called for a new NATO strategy against “increased Russian aggression.” In an interview to the Financial Times, he urged NATO to treat Poland as a fully fledged member rather than just a “buffer zone” and to place permanent bases in his country. “We do not want to be the buffer zone. We want to be the real eastern flank of the alliance,” Duda said. “Today, when we look at the dispersion of bases then the borderline is Germany. NATO has not yet taken note of the shift of Poland from the east to the west. NATO is supposed to be here to protect the alliance.  If Poland and other central European countries constitute the real flank of NATO, then it seems natural to me, a logical conclusion, that bases should be placed in those countries,” the new Polish president added.

At first glance, Duda has the same plans as the PO, but he seems to be more resolute in his wish to overcome the Polish “complex of a Young European.” The crisis in Ukraine and the “Russian aggression” are a good chance for the Poles to get a confirmation from Europe that they are part of it. They need to know for sure where the eastern border of Europe is: is it Oder or is it Bug? And the best answer to this question would be permanent NATO bases in their land.

As of today, NATO has one military base in Poland - in the port of Szczecin. In fact, this is a logistics center. For the time being, NATO is planning to enlarge that base and to deploy there a rapid reaction force. But the Poles are not satisfied.

The next NATO summit is to take place in Warsaw in 2016. And, according to Duda, NATO’s increased presence in Eastern Europe will be its key topic – despite Germany’s concern that this may annoy the Kremlin.

Duda’s call for an increased NATO presence is not different from what the ruling PO is calling for. Simply, Duda is more independent. He believes that by the next NATO Summit, he will be able to convince Germany to push NATO presence further to the east. Duda is also more tactful and shows no typically Polish enmity towards the Germans.

In his interview to Polskie Radio on Aug 16, 2015, the new Polish president said that the peace talks on Donbass should involve the strongest European nations as well as Ukraine’s neighbors, like Poland. In fact, he suggested changing the Minsk format (Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France). Duda is ready to discuss this idea but is first going to meet with his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko.

The first to suggest revising the Normandy format was Duda’s foreign affairs advisor Krzysztof Szczerski. In an interview to Rzeczpospolita in June 2015, he said that the peace talks were no longer effective and had to involve also Poland and NATO. To this “Poland and...” formula, Duda has added “neighbors,” meaning Hungary and Romania. For Russia, these two countries are potential claimants of Ukraine’s territory in case of its collapse. For the United States, they are a basis for a military alliance in the region.

On Aug 17, 2015, the Financial Times published an article by former Polish national defense and foreign affairs minister Radoslaw Sikorski, one of the most active political opponents of Russia in Central Europe.

In his article, Sikorski suggests a unified European policy on the crisis in Ukraine. As an example, he remembers the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, when Nicolas Sarkozy negotiated on behalf of the EU and the talks were a success.

According to Sikorski, some EU member states have reverted to the status quo ante in their foreign policies, with specific member states being more visible than the EU as a whole. "On Ukraine, the EU is not even at the negotiating table. Instead, Germany and France — neither of whom shares a border with Ukraine — have taken it upon themselves to manage Russian aggression, with only partial success. The financial crisis has undermined the EU’s clout and shown that member states are the ultimate paymasters and therefore ultimate decision makers. However, what was unavoidable in the resolution of the eurozone crisis makes no sense in foreign policy,” Sikorski says.

He says that Russia is using the divisions inside Europe to create disunity, making a special effort to engage states that have little stake, individually, in the EU’s influence spreading east. “We should go back to basics and empower our president and our high representative to do their jobs. Only then will we be able to evaluate their accomplishments," Sikorski says.

It is worthy to note that once Sikorski already negotiated on Ukraine – on Feb 21, 2014, he met with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to discuss ways to stop the Euromaidan, but the agreement reached as a result was just a cover for a following coup in Kiev. That format was very much like the Normandy Four, but Sikorski evades this subject.

So, the question is if the differences between the positions of Duda and his PiS and Sikorski and his PO are significant enough to cause any serious consequences for Poland’s internal policy life or to have any influence on Germany’s attitude? We don’t think they are. Sikorski’s project may prove to be more attractive for the Germans and may help him to save his face. On the other hand, Duda’s plans have shown that PiS will be more nationalistic and less Europe-oriented. This is it for the moment and nothing more significant.

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