A US-Germany-Poland Leadership Coalition for Ukraine
Germany is currently the second-biggest contributor after the United States in terms of total bilateral aid to Ukraine.Poland is a top contributor in terms of percentage of GDP, as well as the primary logistical hub for Western military aid. At times, political constraints in the two countries have stifled the development of their Ukraine policies, but both have long-term strategic and economic interests in stabilizing Ukraine and are therefore likely to support it “for as long as it takes”. Ukraine needs unwavering allies whose strategic interests lie in Europe. It also needs a powerful backer that Russia fears: the United States. Germany, Poland, and the United States must therefore take the lead on Ukraine trilaterally.
The future of Europe depends on what leaders in the United States and Europe do about continuing aid for Ukraine’s war effort and about defining Ukraine’s place in the EU and potentially NATO. The United States has pledged to stay in the war for as long as it takes. But in fact there is a discrepancy between the Americans and the Ukrainians on how long they are willing to keep this war going. There is an absence of clear policy. With war fatigue growing and an election on the horizon in the United States, competing challenges in the Middle East, and a new pro-European government in Poland, it is high time to devise a coherent strategy. There are currently several visions of peace in Ukraine. The German and Polish views encapsulate the two main camps well. Chancellor Scholz has said that "Russia must not win this war, Ukraine must prevail," Poland’s prime minister responded, “Instead of saying that Russia cannot win or Ukraine cannot be defeated, we should change the paradigm and say: Ukraine must win. Russia must be defeated”. The difference is subtle but important. For Poland and others on the eastern flank, including Ukraine, use of the term “prevail” instead of “win” foreshadows gentle but premature calls to bring Ukraine and Russia to the negotiating table. Germany’s fear that the conflict will escalate beyond Ukraine and farther into Europe has been another point of difference between East and West.
Warsaw and Berlin therefore find themselves on opposite sides on important questions regarding Ukraine—in particular, on Ukraine’s membership in NATO, and on future policy towards Russia. The new government in Poland will be easier to talk to, but its strategic perspective will differ little from Law and Justice’s early policy toward Ukraine. Even so, out of these diverging perspectives, Europe has the chance to build an effective strategy. The United States should work with Germany and Poland precisely because they represent these differing views. European security should be led by Europeans (albeit with US input), and the European strategy towards Ukraine must be anchored in a transatlantic vision of security.
German-Polish cooperation is crucial to this vision. Germany is an economic heavyweight in the EU, and Poland has an opportunity to become a key player in Europe on Ukraine. The incoming pro-EU, liberal democratic government led by Donald Tusk has pledged to return Poland to the fold of Europe. The dysfunctional Polish-German relationship was a major roadblock for Europe’s Ukraine policy, and even after the Germany-bashing in Poland subsides, overcoming years of mutual distrust caused by Law and Justice’s scapegoating of a crucial EU and NATO ally and neighbor will not happen overnight. History, geography, threat perception, and economics will continue to divide them. The United States has significant influence in both countries, and by forming a trilateral coalition, it can help two allies who do not always see eye-to-eye maintain EU and NATO alignment on Ukraine aid and transatlantic security more broadly.
The US-Germany-Poland trilateral format furthers US interests as well. The United States has provided more aid to Ukraine than any other country, and though this may be sustainable economically ($66.2 billion out of a $1.7 trillion total defense budget), it may not be politically. To make it politically sustainable, Washington must highlight Poland and Germany’s role as co-leaders of defense assistance to Ukraine. The trilateral format demonstrates greater European action towards European security, as well as greater European willingness to align with the United States on issues involving the war in Ukraine and deterrence of Russia.
Continued, long-term US involvement through selected formats such as the US-German-Polish trilateral furthers American interests because it promotes greater European responsibility for European security. The choice of Germany and Poland as partners reflects their degree of involvement in Ukraine, as well as their commitment to its long-term security. Poland and Germany are crucial for Ukraine on its path to the West. Their diverging outlooks on approaches to the war in Ukraine can be a source of strength rather than tension, showing how a rise in hostilities within the EU can be avoided in the future. If the Biden administration wishes to ensure the durability of current policies on Ukraine and European security, it must act now to raise the profile of these two European allies in the overall response to the war in Ukraine.
This publication is part of a project on American-Polish-German cooperation sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung and The Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation.
The views and conclusions expressed in the text represent the author's opinions and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Heinrich Böll Foundation or the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation.