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1 July, 2015

"Polish counterparts expect honest talk from their Ukrainian colleagues"

The firm consensus in Poland that Ukraine’s independence, security, stability and a well-functioning state are absolutely key to Polish interests goes across political parties

The Newport NATO summit has changed a lot and revived strategic thinking within the Alliance. As a result, we have the rotating presence of NATO troops in Central and Eastern Europe, large-scale exercises, as well as the Readiness Action Plan on the prepositioning of military equipment in this part of Europe – that’s quite a change. Especially, given the opposition to the Polish idea of permanent positioning of NATO units in Central and Eastern Europe from Germany and France, but also most NATO member-states. Andrzej Duda’s party has been talking about going beyond the original Newport plan in some kind of a Newport Plus. But that creates a risk of overstretching expectations and turning Warsaw summit into a failure which will probably be blamed on the Germans. They, as well as the American administration, are warning Polish authorities against doing that.

What is often underestimated in Poland is that it also changed the thinking in Germany. It’s not yet to the extent we would like it to be, but the Germans are now quite active in terms of joint exercises, building up “spearhead” rapid reaction forces and bolstering the Szczecin base in Poland.

Russia is now considered to be a long-term challenge to NATO rather than a temporary one.  This is at the level of assessment. The question now is what kind of specific policies will follow. Here, we have some disagreements between, say, Poland and Baltic States and Central European states such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary. There is also certain hesitation on part of Western allies to recognize Russia only as a threat and say that this is why we need to have strategic rethinking and deterrence against it. The symbol of that is the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act which Russia has violated in every possible provision, while Western allies, such as Germany and France particularly, still want to stick to it in order to have at least one document to build upon relationship in the future if something changes. An illustration of rethinking is the package of the abovementioned measures: it would not have happened without Russia’s annexation of Crimea and further aggression against Ukraine.

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It is an important aspect politically as there are many other security challenges for Europe coming from the South, global tensions and Asia. So a widespread argument goes that NATO should prepare for all of them, not just for one in the East. But the Polish position is that since the whole Newport package was agreed upon as a response to the Russian aggression, so this the new forces should be designed to be applicable in a potential conflict with Russia, not to deter refugees flocking to the European shores. This is the nature of the current debates and the process of rethinking and the division line in them.

The firm consensus in Poland that Ukraine’s independence, security, stability and a well-functioning state are absolutely key to Polish interests goes across political parties. The change of government will likely have no impact on this status quo. But Polish society is far less blindly pro-Ukrainian than it may seem. When people are asked whether we should support Ukraine financially, probably over a half will say “no”. This could be traditional Polish response: we consider ourselves pretty poor, so we frown whenever we are asked for money. But what counts more is how the political class goes about it at the EU level and in bilateral relations. There is the above-mentioned consensus. But there is also sober and somewhat extent pessimistic assessment of domestic developments in Ukraine. The majority of people knowledgeable on Ukraine and committed to supporting it are really disillusioned. They say that the situation in Ukraine is only partly due to the war in the East and Russia’s policy. But it is also self-deserved as a result of failures to transform the country in the past 20 years. Of course, nobody thinks after the Maidan that Ukrainians deserve this. Ukraine is now seen as a completely different country – but one with partly the same elites. What frustrates people here is that the Ukrainian officials often paint a rosy picture of the situation on the ground at political meetings here. But the Polish counterparts expect honest talk from them, not the stories about how committed they are to reforms. The Poles expect discussions of specific problems and indicating ways to help you, as well as explanation on why no progress has been made on this or that issue.

After all, nobody needs to convince us that Ukraine matters for Europe. But when Polish colleagues tell Ukrainian officials that they see no progress in the reforms of justice or the like, and hear emotional denial in response, that is probably devastating to Ukraine’s interests more than anything else. 

Piotr Buras is Head of ECFR Warsaw

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