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The prickly Poles

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Poles can be prickly, especially when it comes to their own painful history. They often express dismay that the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 is widely seen as the start of the collapse of the Soviet empire, when it was actually 1988 strikes in Poland that pulled the communist leadership into "round-table talks" with Solidarity, the banned trade union, and which set off the domino effect of the collapse of communism. In the semi-free elections 25 years ago this week, Solidarity took all the winnable seats except one.

Under normal circumstances Poles would be feeling elated that President Barack Obama, the leader of the world’s most powerful country, and dozens of other international leaders, including the presidents of France and Germany, had traveled to Warsaw to mark that 25th anniversary. The unrest in neighbouring Ukraine overshadowed the celebrations, however.

On his arrival on June 3, Obama went straight to an aircraft hangar where American and Polish airmen serve together to announce that he was asking Congress for $1 billion to finance troop rotations, bigger training programs and joint exercises aimed at increasing America’s military presence in Europe. To show that Poland is willing to do its bit, the Polish president promised to increase his country’s spending on defense to 2 percent of GDP.

This "European reassurance initiative" may unsettle some western Europeans who are worried about annoying Russia, but it fell short of Poland’s real, long-standing goal, which is a permanent presence of NATO forces on its territory.

"Something very dramatic has happened," says Eugeniusz Smolar, a foreign-policy analyst based in Warsaw. "For the first time since the war, a European border has been changed by force. Poland wants NATO troops here. They don’t have to be American, but they do have to be from NATO."

The idea of NATO troops in central Europe causes concern in parts of western Europe, however. NATO promised Russia in 1997, during its eastward expansion, that it would not base troops in the region. This agreement is not valid any more, argues Marcin Zaborowski, head of P.I.S.M., a think tank in Warsaw, because the security environment has changed. In his view the distinction between old Europe, where NATO troops can be stationed, and new Europe, where they cannot, has been blown away by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its intervention in eastern Ukraine.

Poland and the Baltic states have been NATO’s most hawkish members in pushing for a strong response to Russia’s destabilization of Ukraine. Leaders of all four countries have argued that President Vladimir Putin will go as far as he can with his territorial expansionism until he sees a firm red line laid down by the West.

Poland’s determination has cast a shadow over the Weimar triangle, a loose club of Germany, France and Poland. Germany is more circumspect about sanctions against Russia, and wants NATO to keep to its 1997 agreement. France is at loggerheads with Poland – and with America – over its plans to sell Russia two amphibious assault ships.

In recent years Poland has focused its foreign policy on improving relations with its European Union partners, particularly Germany. The Poles’ bruising experience of taking part in American-led military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as disappointment with Obama’s decision to relocate and postpone a proposed American missile-defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, had cooled ties.

However, faced with the irredentist expansionism of Russia, Poland’s old imperial master, and with the EU’s indecisive response, the Poles again have turned to America as their most crucial ally and protector against possible aggression from the east.

For Poland it is imperative that NATO move some of its forces permanently from, say, Germany into Poland and the Baltic states. Obama’s initiative is not enough to satisfy Polish demands for an unmistakable message of deterrence, but it is a step in the right direction.

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