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Poland’s changing role on the eastern flank of NATO

Poland has the potential to be a regional leader on NATO’s eastern flank. It will be up to politicians both in Warsaw and Washington to make this a reality.

June 29, 2021 - Jakub Bornio - All Quiet on the Eastern Flank?Articles and Commentary

A Polish army honour guard marches during a parade at the opening ceremony for Exercise Steadfast Jazz in 2013. Photo: British army Sgt. Ian Houlding flickr.com

Poland and NATO in the post-Cold War era.

As the Cold War came to an end and the Warsaw Pact was dissolved, a ‘grey zone’ of security emerged across Central and Eastern Europe. Faced with these new international conditions, Polish foreign policy became focused on pursuing Euro-Atlantic integration with organisations such as the EU and NATO. This choice, at both a political and social level, was not only understood in terms of geopolitics. Indeed, it was also viewed as a ‘civilisational’ change. The country was not simply joining Europe but was rather ‘returning’ to Europe. In the post-Cold War period, which is often described as the ‘End of History’, NATO moved away from its original task of providing collective defence to more expeditionary missions. Changing international realities and the new role that NATO assigned itself determined the nature of Poland’s membership in the Alliance, as well as the various tasks that it would pursue. Following accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in 1999, Poland hoped to increase its credibility as a new member of the Alliance. As a result, Warsaw became involved in numerous NATO missions and interventions alongside the US, the organisation’s de facto leader. The country’s second priority was to uphold support for the Alliance’s eastward enlargement policy. This complemented a similar strategy within the EU. Particular attention should be paid to Poland’s efforts regarding the membership promises extended to Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the NATO summits in Bucharest and Strasbourg / Kehl. The third focus of Polish activities involved efforts to include countries admitted to the Alliance in 1999 and later within ‘real’ collective defence initiatives.

Another factor that has influenced Polish policy within the Alliance has been the activity of the Russian Federation. Other than a short period of attempting to ‘reset’ relations with Moscow alongside the Obama administration, Warsaw has continued to view Russian activities with distrust or even as a direct threat. This became especially clear after the conflict in Georgia. This flashpoint resulted in a simulated nuclear strike on Warsaw during Russia’s Zapad 2009 exercises, the progressive militarisation of Kaliningrad and increasing ‘threats’ to deploy Iskander missiles in the area. Naturally, such events have not calmed tensions between the two countries. In this context it is worth mentioning a period, when Poland remained divided internally over how exactly it should approach relations with Russia. It was between 2007 and 2010, when President Lech Kaczyński and Prime Minister Donald Tusk attempted to pursue different visions with the support of their respective political parties.

The changing role of Poland within an Alliance adapting to new security conditions

The most recent game-changer for NATO and its understanding of security in Central and Eastern Europe was the Ukrainian crisis. Of course, this event also highlighted Poland’s unique role within the Alliance. Up until the annexation of Crimea, Russian assertiveness was not always clear to all the members of NATO, which bases its decisions on consensus. Before 2014, therefore, many countries were not ready to support the militarisation of the Alliance’s Central and Eastern European members. It is worth noting that restraint in this regard was visible even after the events of 2014. Furthermore, the crisis in Ukraine proved pivotal in the development of the ‘NATO’s eastern flank’ concept. Since the outbreak of the conflict, the term acquired various political attributes beyond a purely geographic character. Overall, it is now associated with militarisation, safeguarding, deterrence and rivalry with Russia.

During the initial armed phase of the Ukrainian crisis (March 2014), Poland’s efforts were focused on the ‘internationalisation’ of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict – noteworthy this strategy is still being continued. This led to a series of meetings held by top-level politicians in various regional formats. These included the European Union, the Nordic-Baltic Eight and the Visegrad Group. A large number of joint statements were generated as a result of these initiatives. Poland’s clear support for sanctions directed at Russia placed the country firmly among the Alliance’s ‘hawks’. Activities on the NATO front also served to internationalise the conflict. For example, on March 1st President Bronisław Komorowski announced that Poland had requested an urgent meeting of the North Atlantic Council as provided for in Article 4 of the Washington Treaty. This stipulates that a meeting can be held if a member state believes that its territorial integrity, political sovereignty or security is under threat. By calling for this meeting in such a manner, it was hoped that Russia’s intervention would be treated as a threat to all of NATO. Certainly, the event would be seen as an expression of solidarity with the countries of the eastern flank, which currently feel threatened by Moscow’s actions. This move also helped to ‘internationalise’ the conflict, as it involved NATO and even allowed the organisation to adopt the status of an endangered entity. The Article 4 summit was not held until March 4th. Meanwhile another meeting was being held. This suggests that Poland faced some difficulties in achieving its goal of involving as many actors as possible in the events of the crisis.

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict also gave Poland the chance to involve itself and the whole eastern flank in concrete initiatives that could help improve collective security. Consequently, the country was able to achieve one of its most important goals within the Alliance. Poland quickly called for the transfer of significant armed forces onto its territory. On April 1st, Radosław Sikorski even said that he would be “satisfied and happy” if two heavy brigades, or  ten thousand soldiers, were deployed in Poland. Russia’s tactic of limited aggression, however, made it difficult to work out a common position on military deployment within NATO , as well as on EU sanctions. The changes in the region’s security architecture were of an evolutionary character which paradoxically limited tensions in the region. Another challenge was to recreate or build military structures across the continent that could operate effectively in the context of collective defence missions. Poland’s desires to internationalise the conflict at the political and diplomatic level and develop military/strategic capabilities were also emphasised in the country’s 2014 National Security Strategy. The document includes the line  that “Poland will focus on measures supposed to consolidate NATO’s defensive function, including strategic strengthening of the eastern flank of the Alliance”.

Much effort was directed at consolidating the region with regards to issues concerning security. Poland accepted the responsibility of being a natural regional leader, while at the same time avoiding any public declarations of this kind. Even before the NATO summit in Newport on July 22nd 2014, President Komorowski organised a meeting in Warsaw for the presidents of the region’s NATO members (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia), which was preceded by a phone call with President Obama. This meeting ultimately led to the creation of the so-called ‘Bucharest Nine’ format. Although Polish decision makers most often identified this initiative with the ‘eastern flank’ of the Alliance, Poland also sought to involve the largest possible number of countries with this term, continuing the policy of internationalisation. For example, in April 2020 then Minister of Foreign Affairs Jacek Czaputowicz defined Poland, Romania and Turkey as the key pillars of NATO’s eastern flank. At the same time, it would be a simplification to suggest that Poland has become a regional NATO leader solely as a result of its activities within the Alliance. The Three Seas Initiative, officially inaugurated in 2016, is also significant as its economic decisions often result in geopolitical and even geostrategic consequences for the region. These include i.e. improvements to the ability of regional players to transfer troops along the eastern flank’s north-south axis. Poland created this format and remains one of its most active members in both a political and economic sense.

The impact of external and internal factors on the varied role of Poland on the eastern flank since 2014

Despite continuing challenges to the security of NATO’s eastern flank, Poland’s role has been of an evolutionary nature. Overall, a number of factors have played a role in creating this reality. The first influence on Warsaw’s role was the nature of the Alliance’s adaptation to the new security circumstances in the region. The NATO summits in Newport and Warsaw were of key importance in this respect, as they resulted in a collective policy of reassurance and then deterrence. During the period when the concept of reassurance was pursued, Poland raised the credibility of its militarisation narrative and backed this up with real action. For instance, it was one of the first NATO countries to reach spending levels equal to two per cent of its GDP. Prior to the development of a consensus regarding the “permanent, rotational” deployment of NATO units on the eastern flank, the Allied presence in this area was sustained through intensified manoeuvres. Poland took up the role of a host country, organiser and participant. This time also gave Warsaw the perfect opportunity to continue its policy of bringing Ukraine closer to the West. A great example of this could be seen during the Anakonda-16 military drills, which ultimately failed to receive the approval of all NATO members due to Poland’s determination to symbolically include a Ukrainian component. At the same time, Anakonda-16 also revealed internal NATO disagreements regarding Eastern affairs. Poland also became a hub for allied command components. The Multinational Corps Northeast (Szczecin) was established first and was followed by the creation of the Multinational Division North East (Elbląg). Moreover, based on bilateral cooperation with the US, Poland has made its territories west of the Vistula a key part of American strategic depth, shifting its land components closer to the border with the Baltic states. This may suggest that Poland is taking greater responsibility for any possible military operations in the north-east section, as well as the consequences of such decisions.

Another element that has influenced Poland’s role has been the country’s relationship with key partners within NATO. The changing character of these relations has determined Poland’s role within the eastern flank. Towards the end of the PO-PSL coalition time in government in 2014/2015, the Alliance and Poland both began to adapt to the region’s changing circumstances. At that time, to paraphrase the words of Minister Sikorski, Poland described its foreign and security policy in the EU as looking for geographically close allies. Following a change in government within Poland, relations with key partners in the EU became marginalised. Security policy, meanwhile, became increasingly based on bilateral relations with the US. Poignant examples of this approach include Warsaw’s cancellation of a contract to purchase French Caracal helicopters, as well as the billions spent on armaments produced by American manufacturers. This reorientation ultimately resulted in the deployment of US Army soldiers on Polish territory, together with equipment and infrastructure. This change was a result of several factors. However, in the context of security, it seemed to be the result of various calculations made by Warsaw, which concluded that the US would be the best guarantor of the region’s security. By supporting America, Poland believed that this would lead to greater credibility and certainly shorter implementation times. Despite this, it appears that Warsaw has put all of its eggs into one American basket, which could result also in negative consequences. Another factor that influenced this choice was the fact that the discrepancies between French, German and Polish policy regarding Russia were seen as irreconcilable.

Towards a multilateral policy?

It seems that the recent political changes in America could lead Poland to rethink its policy and role on the eastern flank. Following Joe Biden’s election victory, the relationship between Warsaw and Washington cooled, with fewer high-level meetings and no ambassadorial nomination so far. At the same time, Poland attempted to deepen links with Turkey, which also has difficult relations with the US. This was made clear by the purchase by Poland of Turkish Bayraktar drones. Poland has also made small diplomatic gestures towards China. However, this must be viewed as nothing more than an attempt gaining leverage in its relationship with Washington. It seems that Warsaw is trying to improve its bargaining position, as the country is faced with the threat of another reset in US-Russia relations and warming American links with Germany. Of course, US ties with Berlin were in crisis during the presidency of Donald Trump. Attempting to escape the ‘trap’ of having only one security guarantor and diversifying its foreign policy could turn out to be very problematic for Warsaw. The evolution of Poland’s role on NATO’s eastern flank is therefore not only influenced by decisions made in the country but rather the changing structure of international security.

Jakub Bornio is an assistant professor at the Department of European Studies at the University of Wrocław.

This article is part of a special project titled “All Quiet on the Eastern Flank” funded by NATO Public Diplomacy.

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