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The Geopolitics of Missile Defence in Poland

October 30, 2013 - Alex Jaholkowski - Articles and Commentary



By fate, Poland has always found itself in a geopolitical quagmire forcing the Polish nation to struggle to maintain its own sovereign state, and at the worst of times fight to keep its own nation alive. It comes as no surprise that prominent historian Norman Davies decided to title his book regarding Polish history God’s Playground. The pivotal location of Poland on the map of Europe has made it yet another point of interest for another recent geopolitical play: missile defence.

The discourse over missile defence has gained momentum in recent years due to the increasing proliferation of nuclear weapons and the technology to launch them, as well as the legitimate threat of the acquisition of nuclear weapons by non-state actors. Some of the criticism directed towards missile defence addresses the technical ineffectiveness of these missile defence systems, the excessive costs, the threat of an arms race, or even entirely erasing the value of a deterrence strategy based on Mutually Assured Destruction, which successfully kept the Soviet Union and the United States from completely annihilating one another through nuclear warheads during the Cold War.

There is also much controversy surrounding missile defence in Poland and the contention between the main two actors involved – Poland and the United States – as well as significant third parties such as the European Union, NATO and Russia. This year’s announcement of the US Administration’s cancellation of Phase 4 of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), which would include long range missile interceptors based in Poland, and the Polish government’s more recent ratification to secure 33.6 billion euros to fund its own middle range Missile Defence System (MDS), have raised concerns and made the topic relevant again.

What the US wants?

The major investor in Poland’s MDS is the US. The system in Poland would be part of the bigger MDS throughout Europe, the so-called European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), and would consist of middle range missile interceptors to be deployed in 2018 in the Polish town of Redzikowo, near the Baltic coast. Phase 4 was supposed to consist of long range missile interceptors to be deployed by 2023, which would also protect the US homeland, but was scrapped by the current US administration this year.

The US justification for the EPAA is the threat of missiles that may be launched from the Middle East, namely Iran which is predicted to have the capabilities to launch an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile by 2015, which could potentially hit NATO allies and its troops stationed throughout Europe. Poland was chosen to be the host of Phase 3 and 4 due to its supposed ideal location to intercept these middle and long range missiles. Now, it seems, the US is looking for ways to back out of the agreements made by its previous administration.

What Poland wants?

Poland has dealt with many obstacles hindering what it sees as a critical part of its national security and self-preservation. First of all, it involves the permanent presence of a foreign superpower (in this case for the first time an ally) only 20 years after the Soviet troops left the country. Poland’s history of foreign occupation and the existence of Red Army military bases in the past have brought about caution and suspicion among many Poles, resulting in mixed views among the population regarding the deployment of major military installation on its soil. Secondly, many Poles worry that their homeland will become a new target for state adversaries and terrorists that regard the US MDS as a threat. Thirdly, when initial bi-lateral negotiations of the placement of a US MDS between US president George W. Bush and former Polish president Lech Kaczyński in 2006 started, Poland enthusiastically jumped into negotiations with full confidence despite the many harsh criticisms of its EU partners.

On top of this, Poland has become a target of belligerent rhetoric coming from the Kremlin in response to the US placing a missile defence system in Poland. Thus, one might ask why Poland’s political elite have enthusiastically offered their territory for a US MDS despite the domestic split on the issue, harsh criticisms from its EU partners, multiple reversals of US plans on the MDS in Poland, and threats of nuclear annihilation from Russia. What Poland sees is less of a threat from Iran and more of permanent presence of a strong ally on its soil contributing more to its security. It also wants to be seen as relevant and credible member of NATO contributing to its overall security and defence while improving its own geopolitical standing.

Polish missile defence

After Poland’s steadfast commitment and the time it dedicated to a US MDS, Poland was let down by Obama’s administration. On September 17th 2009 – the infamous anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in the Second World War, which is still very much alive in the Polish narrative, the newly elected president, with little sensitivity to Poland’s past, scrapped the original MDS that was supposed to be established in 2013 and created a new plan leaving the Poles to dry for another five years. Such a diplomatic blunder made by the US administration on this significant date betrayed a disregard for the goals and hopes of Central Europeans seeking additional security outside of NATO’s Article 5.

This announcement, combined with the Obama administration’s proclamation of the “reset” of the relations with Russia, created a wave of negative sentiment towards the US among Poles fearful of a sellout. Poland once again tried to remain positive about these developments yet was once again let down when Obama scrapped Phase 4 due to budget constraints. Many Poles once again viewed this as an appeasement to Russian demands by the US at the expense of their NATO ally. Obama’s infamous “After my election I have more flexibility” gaffe, with respect to Russian Prime Minister Medvedev, did not help either.

Unfortunately, Poland can only wait and see if the US remains “iron-clad” in its commitment to Phase 3 of the MDS. It is, however, taking no chances and has decided to take matters in its own hands by planning its own middle range missile defence that would become NATO interoperable by 2023.

The future

How the US and Polish MDS unfolds in subsequent years will undoubtedly affect European security. A US MDS in Poland will show that the US is still committed to the long-term security of the region as it slowly pivots its national security interests towards the Asian Pacific region. However, as a result of the US’s inconsistencies, Poland has made plans for its own MDS at a crucial time when many of its fellow EU and NATO member states have faced major budget cuts in defence and cannot afford such investments at this time. Poland is currently one of the very few countries in Europe that has increased the size of its defence budget and stays close within the two per cent of GDP target set by NATO. Such a contribution should be welcomed by Poland’s allies. A resurgent Russia and its recent moves to deploy fighter jets in Belarus this year, as well as its plans to place short range Iskander missiles on the EU border in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, already the most militarised area in Europe, should also not be taken lightly and addressed in constructive dialogue as to not reignite an arms race.

Two decades after its independence, Poland is a rising regional player, increasingly confident in its own capacities and ambitions, yet still struggles with its past and place in the international arena. Nonetheless, the threat of nuclear proliferation is real and Poland should use its geopolitical standing and seize the opportunity to advance the case for a US and its very own MDS with full support of its allies, as it embodies the core NATO values of solidarity and the indivisibility of security, and offers a solution to the many challenges European defence confronts in these tough times of fiscal austerity. Poland has been let down by its allies and used as friend of convenience too many times in the past; give Poland a chance with missile defence, and see it grow into the credible and valuable partner it could become.

Alex Jaholkowski is an MA student at the Centre for European Studies at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow. He received his BA in International Relations at Saint Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota.  

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