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DISPATCH FROM POLAND—DECEMBER 2022

The Reasons for Poland’s Growing Unpredictability

December 01, 2022
by
Piotr Łukasiewicz
Andrzej Bobinski
7 min read
Photo Credit: MediaPictures.pl / Shutterstock
Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine in February has turned Poland into a front-line state.

For the government in Warsaw, the war has vindicated its deep-rooted but sometimes misunderstood “anti-Russia” stance. However, its “We told you so” attitude to Poland’s main NATO allies would have been more effective if used in moderation, and if it had taken into account their clear ruling out from the start of an open conflict with Russia.

The first sign of trouble was the misunderstandings related to the United States’ idea that Poland should hand over its MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine. The government responded by publicly demanding that these be delivered through a NATO/US air base in Germany instead of directly from Poland. Washington refused, also publicly. Ultimately, Kyiv did not get the MiGs, and the NATO allies saw that discussions about transferring weapons to Ukraine could not easily be separated from the danger of coming into direct combat contact with Russia.

Even more controversial was the idea of Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, that NATO should send a “peacekeeping mission” to Ukraine. This ran contrary to the alliance’s position, and particularly that of the United States, of offering military support to Ukraine but not to put “boots on the ground” there, something that was clear from the beginning. Kaczyński rapidly dropped the idea to the relief of Poland’s NATO allies.

However, the threat of the war spilling over onto the territory of a NATO member resurfaced on November 15, when an explosion in the small village of Przewodów, near the border with Ukraine, killed two Polish citizens. Warsaw initially suspected that this was caused, purposefully or accidentally, by a Russian missile. But, with the help of US military information, it soon became clear that a Ukrainian air-defense rocket had gone off course and accidentally struck Przewodów. After President Andrzej Duda spoke with President Joe Biden that same day, the authorities began sending reassuring messages that it was a one-off incident and that Poland was not threatened by a Russian attack.

What Germany meant as a generous offer to an ally became the cause of yet another spat between Warsaw and Berlin.

This good example of alliance restraint was overshadowed by what followed, however. Germany’s Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, in a gesture of support, proposed deploying anti-rocket Patriot systems in Poland. This was initially welcomed by the Ministry of National Defense as the country does not possess a sufficiently well-developed, multilayered air-defense system. However, three days later, Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak made a U-turn and proposed sending the Patriot systems to Ukraine instead. Germany responded that these are meant to defend NATO territory and can be operated only by NATO personnel. What Germany meant as a generous offer to an ally became the cause of yet another spat between Warsaw and Berlin.

The key to changing Błaszczak’s attitude was Kaczyński’s statement that it would be better to deploy the Patriots in western Ukraine, from where they could also defend Poland. This was effectively a variation on his idea of NATO peacekeeping in Ukraine, this time with a deliberate anti-German twist. Commentators and the opposition recalled Kaczyński saying in 2014 that he “would not wish German troops on Polish territory,” and he surely knew that Berlin would not follow his suggestion.

The Reasons for Poland’s Unpredictability

There are many reasons for Poland’s growing unpredictability since the full invasion of Ukraine.

First, the foreign and defense policy of the PiS-led government has always been a function of Polish politics but this is increasing as the 2023 elections near. With their party stagnating in the polls and facing the real prospect of losing power, and having seen how Poles rallied around the flag in the first half of the year, PiS politicians understand that the war can give them much needed electoral fuel.

The war plays into the hand of Defense Minister Błaszczak, who is using his ministry’s procurements shopping spree to showcase his efficiency and patriotism. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also often plays the patriotic card. He tries to present himself as a tough, seasoned politician who speaks truth to foreign powers and calls for unity at home in a time of crisis. PiS leader Kaczyński mainly focuses on attacking Germany, demanding reparations for the Second World War, and pushing a narrative in which Berlin wants Poland’s demise and will use opposition leader Donald Tusk to regain control over the country. This messaging stems from Kaczyński’s anti-German upbringing in postwar Poland, but it is also a way to mobilize PiS voters and to steer clear of the difficult topic of the conflict with the European Union over the rule of law, among other things. As most Poles are very pro-EU, he needs a proxy antagonist and Berlin serves this purpose.

Second, Poland’s foreign and defense policy is chaotic because of the absence of a clear chain of command. As Kaczyński does not like or trust diplomats, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been marginalized and is often bypassed. Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau knows his place and, even if he is on good terms with the PiS leader, he stays out of the limelight and leaves most decisions to others. Morawiecki holds more sway, especially in European affairs and thanks to his frequent and high-profile meetings with foreign leaders. But he has difficulty focusing on issues because he is in a permanent conflict with Solidarna Polska, PiS’s coalition partner, as well as with a legion of dissenters in PiS. Ultimately, it is Kaczyński who signs off on most important decisions. These centers of influence do not always agree, and they have different agendas, interlocutors, and means. This fuels the sense of chaos and creates a decision-making bottleneck.

Poland’s foreign and defense policy is chaotic because of the absence of a clear chain of command.

In addition, after a disappointing if uneventful first term, President Andrzej Duda has started playing a more active role in politics as well as in foreign and defense policy. He has been praised by some for restoring a working diplomatic relationship with the United States and for building a deep and strong political friendship with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. However, Kaczyński does not perceive Duda as a partner and the president has not regained his patron’s trust after vetoing PiS’s judiciary reforms in 2017. This weakens Duda’s position and enhances the feeling of chaos.

PiS has invested heavily in Poland’s friendship with Ukraine and Zelensky, regardless of the political costs and benefits. Duda, Morawiecki, and their advisors and subordinates have worked relentlessly to overcome historic differences between the two countries, to help Ukraine’s war effort, and to speak out for it on the international scene. Poland is perceived as a staunch ally and advocate of Kyiv and Zelensky, which sometimes works to its disadvantage as this means it can be accused of a lack of clear judgment when it comes to the war.

This risks poisoning Poland’s relationship with the United States and its other major NATO allies because it means Warsaw is not always consulted on the most important issues. And, when this happens, Poland feels vulnerable and unsafe. That is the result of occasions throughout history when the country’s fate was decided above its head. This creates a self-perpetuating mechanism in which, feeling out of the loop, Warsaw raises its concerns in a way that increases tension, making it more difficult for it to be included. 

A chaotic decision-making process, a foreign policy influenced by internal politics and by coming elections, a PiS leader with a deeply held grudge against Poland’s largest neighbor and ally, and the downside of an unconditional alliance with Ukraine—all this leads to an unpredictable Poland that is not always trusted with participating in NATO’s decision-making process. In this context, Warsaw needs to do all it can to rebuild trust and friendship with its allies. There should be no place for political games and playing to threats to win votes. The times are too dangerous for behaving unpredictably.

Piotr Łukasiewicz is an analyst in security and international affairs at Polityka Insight.

Andrzej Bobinski is the managing director of Polityka Insight.