Is Poland a rising power and what are the implications?
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the growing influence of Poland in regional affairs. Indeed, some have even suggested that the country is quickly becoming a power in its own right. Various issues will decide whether or not such a prediction comes true.
I have always been a bit sceptical of George Friedman, the self-professed “forecaster” who seeks to predict trends through his “intelligence analysis” company, Geopolitical Futures. Friedman believes that we can anticipate such trends by examining demography, geography, politics, economics and military capability. The notion of forecasting seems like pseudo-science at best, and yet Friedman might have been on to something when it comes to Poland. In his 2009 book The Next 100 Years, the forecaster wrote that the Eastern European country would emerge as a major power in the struggle to contain Russia. If current developments and the war in Ukraine are any indication, there may be some merit to debating such views. “It is not just Poland’s view of Russia that is being taken more seriously”, writes The Economist, “it is Poland’s role in the world”.
Indeed, as a frontline state vital to the deployment of materiel via military convoys and supply chains, Poland is poised to leverage its strategic position with the US, much as South Korea, Japan and Germany did in the past. To be sure, there are many unknowns regarding the course of the war, with Russia making recent military gains and some predicting a long and bloody slog of attrition over the summer. On the other hand, others believe Ukraine may ultimately prevail on the battlefield, either through “winning small” or even “winning big”. But even if the war should go badly for Kyiv, Warsaw has already become a significant hub for technology transfer. For example, the US is building an Aegis Ashore facility in Poland as part of NATO’s Ballistic Missile Defence. Warsaw has also spent billions in purchasing the Patriot air and missile defence system, F-35A Lightning Joint Strike Fighters, and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System or HIMARS. Further purchases of the most state-of-the-art US tanks may strengthen Poland as a land-based power.
Historically, Poland has regarded Western European countries as untrustworthy partners within NATO. Indeed, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel played a key role in preventing Ukraine from joining the military alliance in the first place. Many in both Poland and Ukraine regard an entire generation of German politicians as appeasers, given their support for a “change through trade” policy towards the Kremlin. For his part, French President Emmanuel Macron embarked on a “strategic dialogue” with Putin in 2019 without consulting Eastern European countries. If anything, the war in Ukraine has served to heighten distrust, with both Paris and Berlin seemingly reluctant to place sanctions on Russia. Merkel’s successor Olaf Scholz continues to hesitate on arms deliveries, let alone extensive energy boycotts. To put it bluntly, some believe that France and Germany have simply “failed to lead”. This has opened up a “leadership vacuum” in Europe. Not surprisingly, then, Warsaw now views Washington as a more reliable strategic ally.
At first glance, the notion of Poland as a rising European power might seem outlandish, but this ignores history. In the 17th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a significant player whose territory spanned Western Ukraine. Friedman, a political conservative whose former company Stratfor supplied shadowy intelligence to the likes of the US military and private corporations, has gushed about the notion of a so-called “Intermarium”. This would be comprised of a federation of Central and Eastern European countries located between the Baltic and Black Seas. Warsaw finds the notion of an Intermarium appealing, given that such an alliance could stand up not only to Russia, but also Germany to a certain extent. The concept of an Intermarium builds upon existing blocs, such as the Visegrád Group. This is comprised of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia and aims to enhance coordination on energy, defence, economics and military matters. A more ambitious scheme, the Three Seas Initiative (3SI), seeks to foster cooperation through an integrated highway, railway and gas terminal network. There are suspicions that such efforts may raise tensions with the EU, which may regard the 3SI as infringing on its authority. The EU has already criticised Warsaw’s efforts to stifle judicial independence while increasing the power of state surveillance.
Without denying the many contentious internal fissures within the EU, it is unclear whether the Intermarium could actually be viable. To be sure, Poland has one of the most diversified and resilient economies in Europe, and displays a solid financial infrastructure. In addition, Warsaw has not sustained much economic damage from the pandemic compared to other European countries. Poland is safe, corruption is limited and the workforce is well trained and well educated. Countries within the twelve-member 3SI, meanwhile, have experienced rapid economic growth in recent years. It would be wildly premature to predict what will happen in Ukraine, but should Russia face military setbacks, Kyiv could one day rebuild and potentially shift Europe’s economic and political centres of gravity. A free Ukraine would all but guarantee the implosion of dictatorship in neighbouring Belarus, a country which could then cultivate links with Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. This would provide greater heft for a future Intermarium. Amidst the unfolding crisis, Poland could reasonably stake a claim to being a regional leader.
On the other hand, it is by no means certain that Poland has sufficient stature to lead a new geopolitical configuration, since the country has a population of close to 40 million people and its economy is even smaller than that of the Netherlands. For that reason, it seems unlikely that the Intermarium can realistically supersede the EU, let alone NATO, in the short term. But on an even more fundamental level one may wonder, “if Poland becomes a rising power, what are the political implications?” It goes without saying that Putin must be opposed at every level, but Warsaw has exhibited some backwards trends as well. President Duda, a right-wing Catholic populist, opposes same sex marriage and conventions restricting violence against women. Furthermore, Duda has engaged in dubious revisionism concerning Poland’s historic past. The president’s political party, Law and Justice (PiS), espouses xenophobic views towards Muslims and opposes abortion rights. Overall, since PiS came to power, Poland has been slipping towards authoritarianism as the government exerts increasing control over the media.
With the world now focused on the immediate war in Ukraine, few have considered what the long-term fallout of the conflict might be. Not surprisingly, Friedman’s bullish predictions about the Intermarium are music to the ears of Duda and PiS, which share a conservative vision. If or when the dust settles, it will fall to the Polish people to decide what sort of power Warsaw should be.
Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based journalist who has written 82 articles about Ukraine. He has conducted four research trips to the country over the years, reporting for such outlets as the Washington, D.C.-based Kennan Institute, amongst others. He is the author of Ukraine’s Revolutionary Ghosts (recently updated with a new forward).
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