Last Friday, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski announced in Washington that his country was prepared, in principle, to participate in the US missile defense program. The move came barely a month after Prime Minister Donald Tusk said that Warsaw “shouldn’t hurry” in the negotiations and just days after Bogdan Klich traveled to Washington demanding extensive US concessions. It is unclear whether the announcement was planned in advance or an act of improvisation. What is clear is that the timing of the move interferes with the Tusk government’s plans for improving relations with Russia, complicates its domestic political position on missile defense and may confront it with suboptimal diplomatic options down the road.
First, the move brings to an abrupt end the momentary thaw in Polish-Russian relations that began with Tusk’s election last October. In Moscow the week before his Washington visit, Sikorski promised to take account of the Kremlin’s views on the shield and hinted that Warsaw might even lift its opposition to talks on a new EU-Russian cooperation agreement. But in Washington, Sikorski shifted tack, complaining that Poland was being “blackmailed by…neighbors who fiercely oppose the project.” In response to the US-Polish announcement, the Russian envoy to NATO accused Poland of duplicity, saying that “the dialogue with Moscow has ended having not even started.” While an eventual reversion to the old pattern of animosity in Russo-Polish relations was probably inevitable, the timing of Sikorski’s announcement (Prime Minister Tusk will visit Moscow on Friday, February 8th) effectively removed what may have been a once-in-a-quarter-century opportunity to improve one of Europe’s most troubled relationships.
Second, by making the announcement so early in its new term (the new government has yet to reach the 100-day mark), Tusk may have a hard time convincing his constituents and other EU governments that he actually drove the “hard bargain” with America he had promised. While the Polish press has heralded Sikorski’s trip as a “breakthrough,” serious obstacles – on Patriot missiles, questions of cost-sharing; on the proposed security guarantee, hesitance to duplicate Article V – remain on the U.S. side. Perhaps for this reason, Sikorski appeared, in a broadcast today on Polish Radio, to downplay the importance of obtaining these two former demands as long as Poland received some form of “military aid.” To many Poles, this may not look very different from the permissive approach of Tusk’s predecessor, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
Looking forward, the Polish government faces three broad options:
- ignore Russia and accept a US deal containing fewer-than-expected offsets;
- heed Moscow’s warnings and use the excuse of unmet demands to back out of the deal; or
- attempt to chart a middle course by offering Moscow a stake in the shield.
Under the first option, Russia loses face and seeks retaliation, while Polish voters may begin to question the earnestness of their new leaders; under the second, the Tusk government loses face, while Washington may begin to question the stability of its Polish ally; under the third (and probably best) option, Warsaw would likely have to accept the presence, in one form or another, of Russian military personnel in the installations – an outcome it has adamantly resisted and that the Polish public is unlikely to smile on.
From a Polish perspective, it is unclear how these options are any better than those that would have presented themselves after even a few more weeks of strategic reflection and diplomatic bargaining. As it stands, we appear to be back where we were this time last year: Washington wants a shield, Warsaw is probably going to host it and Moscow is threatening reprisal. Only now, America has less time, Poland has less room to maneuver and Russia has less patience.
A. Wess Mitchell is Director of Research at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington, DC-based institute dedicated to the study of Central Europe.
Related Materials from the Atlantic Community
- Alexander Bernhard Bitter: Europe and Missile Defense: A Risky Nap
- Anna Nadgrodkiewicz: Expect More Coalition Building After Polish Elections
- Wess Mitchell: Missile Defense: Washington’s Deal with Prague