Transatlantic Take

Warsaw Wants to Hold the Line on Russia

Poland has been a staunch ally of the United States — both within NATO as well as bilaterally.

Poland has been a staunch ally of the United States — both within NATO as well as bilaterally. Poland is a member of the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, spends the stipulated 2 percent of GDP on defense, and has joined the United States and other allies in Afghanistan and earlier in Iraq. The countries are deeply intertwined, and the policies of the next president will have profound implications on the security and prosperity of Poland.

These are uncertain times in Poland. Brexit only added to the sense of fragility of the European project and the uncertainty of the future of the West that have been the guiding stars of Poland’s foreign policy over the past 25 years. During this time of instability, the United States has become Poland’s predominant security partner. Together we face the main challenger to a stable, values-based European security order — Russia. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and then covered invasion of Ukraine set off alarms in all NATO’s capitals, but particularly in Warsaw. Russia’s determination to undermine European security order based on Helsinki’s principles meant that the security situation in the region has entered a new era of dangerous competition. Russia’s aggression was met with NATO’s move from reassurance to deterrence codified by the Warsaw NATO summit declaration. But it is the contribution of the United States with the plan to place in Poland an Armored Brigade Combat Team of 4000 soldiers, as well as Enhanced Forward Presence battalion (ca. 1000 soldiers) that consist the core of the Alliance security partnership with Poland. Security will remain the key concern for Warsaw, and security policy will remain the key pillar of Polish-American relations.

The United States is committed to placing approximately 5000 soldiers on Polish soil over the coming months. The armored brigade (ABCT) is scheduled to arrive in February of next year. This is a clear commitment to NATO and European security that the next president should embrace. The troops movement already “in the pipeline” is a message of resolve, and there is no need to modify the military planning. The next administration should focus early on resourcing the increased presence of the United States on NATO’s Eastern flank by quickly working with the new Congress on the next cycle of the European Reassurance Initiative. Any delay or change in the pace of implementing the NATO summit commitments would send the wrong signal to allies as well as to Russia.

In the past, every new post-Cold War president made the mistake of trying to fix relations with Russia in one quick move. Under President Obama it led to an infamous reset that many in Warsaw thought sacrificed the interests of Central Europe on the altar of closer, but in the end unsuccessful, cooperation with Russia. Even if the exact repeat of this situation is unlikely, there is certainly a worry in Warsaw about the next administration attempting to fix the United States’ relations with Russia without addressing the issues that led to the breakdown of this relationship in the first place. It would be a mistake to quickly go back to business as usual without resolving the conflict in Ukraine. This would be seen by Moscow as a confirmation that it can behave badly against Western values and interests whenever it chooses. Such a step would further embolden Moscow in its aggressive policies, which would eventually lead to a renewed clash with the United States. Russia’s behavior will change only if the Kremlin elites understand the Western pressure spans between U.S. administrations.

In the 20th century, whenever the United States disengaged from Europe, it lead to conflicts that required U.S. reengagement at a great loss of blood and treasure. The 21st century is no different. Poland, as well as many other front line U.S. allies, needs a United States that is engaged in the world and focused on the maintenance of the Alliance system that has benefited the United States so much over the past seventy years. The United States remains a key power in Europe. Post-Brexit Europe should be one of the key focal points for the next administration. Clearly, European allies need to contribute more for the burden to be shared more equally — especially when it comes to spending on security and defense. Much of the work should be done behind the scenes, but the next president needs to make it clear that the United States needs a strong, united European Union both as a global partner and as a key player in its neighborhood. As was the case in the beginning of European integration, the strong support of the United States is necessary for a united Europe — something that is key for its own security as well as the security and prosperity of Poland.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of State