Polandʼs role in Central and Eastern European affairs has been strengthening. The country is a pillar of NATOʼs presence in the region and is among Washington’s closest allies. Its role has been further elevated in connection with the conflict in Ukraine, in which Warsaw has played an active part since the very beginning. Instead of escalating the war and deepening the divisions between Russia and Europe, the country could use its growth and potential to promote the development of European strategic autonomy, writes Valdai Club expert Ladislav Zemánek.
Warsaw has been one of the engines of Western assistance to Ukraine. The Polish Prime Minister―together with his Czech and Slovenian counterparts―paid a visit to Kiev less than three weeks after the launch of the special military operation, thus triggering an avalanche of these favourite tours of Western politicians to the Ukrainian capital. The conflict in the adjacent country has accelerated the implementation of the long-term priorities set by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party after it succeeded in gaining control of the domestic political scene in 2015. The National Security Strategy does not leave room for doubts. Russiaʼs “neo-imperial policy” must be resisted through the strengthening of NATO and EU capabilities, the deepening of transatlantic ties, as well as the further expansion of both organisations eastward. Warsaw wants to develop strategic cooperation with Washington while actively shaping the regional political, economic and military landscape through a variety of instruments.
Integrating the region militarily
The first of them is the Bucharest Nine (B9). This grouping was set up in 2015 to strengthen the security and military ties between the nine post-communist NATO countries stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, boost NATO’s military presence along its eastern flank, and promote the incorporation of other countries―originally Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, now also Finland and Sweden―into the alliance. The orientation of the initiative is obvious from the open US support. The B9 summits held in May 2021 and February 2023 were attended by Joe Biden. Warsaw, nevertheless, does not limit itself to the NATO members, for it tends to perceive the post-Soviet states from Transcaucasia to the Baltics as pertaining to its sphere of interest, which is to be rid of Russian influence. That is why Poland actively supports the Eastern Partnership, which was launched in 2009 to integrate these post-Soviet states into the EU. The European Peace Facility has delivered the security and military aspects of this initiative. At present, it provides financing to military operations in seven countries, including Ukraine.
The prospect of more post-Soviet countries joining NATO remains rather remote. However, it is not excluded that Poland, in conjunction with other CEE partners, could enhance joint military cooperation through such instruments as the B9, as well as bilateral or multilateral agreements similar to that between Azerbaijan and Türkiye (originally concluded in 2010, it is being expanded based on the 2021 Shusha Declaration), as well as forming joint units. Warsaw already has experience of such a kind. In 2009 Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine signed an agreement on the establishment of a joint brigade. Even though it took several years to make the unit operational, the structure exists and can serve as a model for military cooperation between NATO and non-NATO actors. Military integration in the region has been supplemented with political structures. In addition to the Interparliamentary Assembly, which was established in 2005, the Lublin Triangle was set up three years ago.
Revival of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth?
The beginnings of the organisation were affected by the pandemic, so one can expect more activity from the development in the future. The three countries do not conceal that the Lublin Triangle draws upon the heritage of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was once one of the largest empires in Europe. Polish influence expanded to the shores of the Black Sea, and King Sigismund was powerful enough to meddle in Moscowʼs affairs during the Time of Troubles and installed his son as tsar of Russia. These historical episodes of Polish expansionism may inspire the present ambitions, provoke culture wars in the Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and other vulnerable countries, and destabilise the region. The Lublin Triangleʼs presidential summit, held in January in Lvov, declared the need for the conquest of Crimea and the Donbass, the admission of Ukraine to both the EU and NATO, as well as the establishment of an international tribunal for Russian “war criminals”. Warsaw used the summit to announce its decision to supply Kiev with Leopard tanks, which expanded the scope of military equipment provided by NATO allies.
The political and military collaboration within the Lublin Triangle, however, goes beyond its territory. It established ties with the opposition in Belarus. Svetlana Tikhanovskaia, as the head of the Coordination Council of Belarus (which gains increasing legitimacy among Western politicians), supports the inclusion of the country in the Lublin Triangle. Poland serves as a base of operations for the Association of Security Forces of Belarus, an organisation whose aim is to overthrow the Belarusian government and install a new cabinet led by Tikhanovskaia. All these activities are heading for the repetition of the tragic Ukrainian scenario. However, Western politicians should be aware that Belarus is not Ukraine; the country belongs to the Union State―and Moscow will hardly tolerate attempts to take control over this territory.
The fight for Trimarium
Last but not least, Polish representatives eagerly promote the Three Seas Initiative (3SI). The platform follows the interwar idea of the Trimarium in its bid for the integration of the space delimited by the Adriatic, Baltic and Black Seas. It could be a useful tool for the development of infrastructure and multifaceted regional interaction; however, such positive content has been pushed aside by geopolitical interests. Washingtonʼs support for the 3SI has been reaffirmed many times, starting from Donald Trumpʼs participation in the 2017 summit and ending with a 2020 resolution of the US House of Representatives. The document explicitly connected the 3SI with US national security, making a commitment to generous financial support to the project to counter Russian energy projects such as Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream, as well as Chinaʼs Belt & Road Initiative and 17+1 (which reduced to 14+1 in the meantime). The geopolitical dimension and incorporation of the 3SI into the US global strategy of containment, as well as the deterrence and encirclement of China and Russia devalue the positive potential of such an initiative. The role of the 3SI will likely grow since it is to be used for the integration of Ukraine into the transatlantic structures. Mateusz Morawiecki summed it up laconically: “There is no Three Seas without Ukraine.”
Poland aspires to become a regional hegemon with the strongest armed forces in continental Europe. Warsaw wants to have 300,000 troops by 2035, which would turn the country into a European military superpower. The Poles support pro-Western tendencies in the post-Soviet space, thus strengthening their role in the expansion of NATO and EU eastward. The Polish ambitions are used by Washington to militarise the CEE region and to press moderate actors in Europe such as Germany or France to join the campaign against Russia. Warsaw thus bears a great deal of responsibility for the growing division and animosity between Russia and Europe, and for the coma of the Europeansʼ strategic autonomy. Poland could play a much more constructive role if it focused on the development of strategic autonomy, including some form of European joint military. Warsaw’s dependence on its overseas ally will never allow Europe to grow into a self-confident actor living up to her own interests.