Poland has had strategic interests in the territory occupied by the modern nation of Ukraine going back to the days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. At its furthest extent, this union encompassed most of modern Poland and Ukraine as well as the Baltic states, Belarus and part of Russia. It lasted from the 16th to the 18th century before it disintegrated in a series of partitions that became part of the Russian, Prussian and Austrian empires. When Poland re-emerged as an independent state after World War I, it included parts of western Ukraine. This iteration of Poland was short-lived, however, and the nation once again lost sovereignty during World War II. When the war ended, Poland was absorbed into the Soviet bloc, and Moscow redrew the territorial boundaries to exclude all Ukrainian territory from Polish control.
Following the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet bloc, an independent Poland allied itself with the West, joining NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. Although Polish and Ukrainian territory remained distinct, Poland emerged as a strong advocate for integrating Ukraine into the Western camp. This reflected Poland’s historical fear of Russia but also Warsaw’s desire to influence Ukraine on the political, economic and security levels.
The Eastern Partnership initiative and Ukraine
In pursuit of these interests, with Sweden’s help, Poland initiated the EU Eastern Partnership program in 2009. The initiative provides a platform for greater cooperation between the European Union and the former Soviet states on the EU periphery, which encompasses Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Initially, the Eastern Partnership was slow to gain momentum, but it paved the way for the association and free trade agreement between Ukraine and the European Union. The agreement was scheduled to be signed at a summit in November 2013. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, however, made a last-minute decision to pull out of the deal, a move that provoked large demonstrations in Kiev that culminated in Yanukovich’s ouster in February.
Yanukovich’s removal from power represented the success of the Polish vision of a pro-Western Ukraine. The new pro-European government that formed in Kiev reversed the previous administration’s decision to reject the association and free trade agreement and signed the EU deals into law. But the reversal led to heightened tension between Ukraine and Russia that resulted in Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ongoing pro-Russian separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. It also led to the broader standoff underway between Russia and the West, which has strained ties to the greatest extent since the Cold War.
Because of this standoff, Poland now finds itself on the frontlines of a more assertive Russian position throughout Eastern Europe. Moscow has deployed more military forces not only on the border of eastern Ukraine but also along the borders with the Baltic states and Moldova. In response, Warsaw has called for a permanent NATO presence in Polish territory, and some Polish officials have even asked for 10,000 troops on the ground. NATO and the United States have rejected those calls, but they conceded some ground by increasing in size and frequency the rotations of NATO troops in Poland, the Baltics, Romania and Bulgaria. Deployments are now on a semi-permanent rotational basis until the end of the year.
Still, the increased rotations have not assuaged Poland’s fears of Russia. Poland not only straddles the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, it shares a long border with Belarus, a staunch Russian ally. The result is that Poland is vulnerable when it comes to Russian power projection. Furthermore, despite the gains Poland has made with Ukraine’s re-orientation toward the West, there are already signs that Kiev is tempering its position toward Moscow. One clear sign is the recent cease-fire between Ukrainian security forces and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. The potential for a revision or loosening of EU sanctions against Russia as a result of the cease-fire is also driving concerns in Poland that the Europeans — and particularly those with strong commercial ties to Moscow, such as Germany and France — are heading back to the status quo of cautious cooperation with Russia.
Poland considers going it alone
These circumstances have led Poland to push to establish greater ties with Ukraine outside of the consensus-driven EU and NATO frameworks, including the Visegrad states, Romania and Ukraine. In fact, Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak said Sept. 22 that Poland would be interested in selling arms to Kiev.
Germany and France would not support these sales within a NATO context. While Siemoniak did not specify which weapons Poland would send to Ukraine and over what time frame, this is nevertheless a demonstration of Poland’s continued commitment to promoting a pro-Western and anti-Russian Ukraine. His comments were also designed to signal to Russia that although a de-escalation is underway in eastern Ukraine, a NATO member country is still concerned about Russian military activities within Ukraine’s borders and is willing to support Ukraine’s armed forces.
Along similar lines, Poland has also been pushing the idea of establishing a joint peacekeeping brigade combining personnel from Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania. The brigade, which would involve 4,500 troops that would be made up of separate national military units, would participate in joint training exercises and potentially participate in third-country peacekeeping operations, with a joint headquarters unit stationed in Poland. Such a unit has been discussed since 2007, and while an agreement was reached on its formation Sept. 19, it is still unclear when it would actually take shape.
Ultimately, Poland’s strategic interest in pulling Ukraine closer to its orbit is clear, but Warsaw will continue to struggle to find the necessary means of doing so. This position not only puts Poland in direct conflict with Russia, it serves to distance Warsaw from other EU and NATO members, such as Germany, that seek to maintain more pragmatic ties with Moscow, potentially to include the easing of sanctions against Moscow. And as the prospects for a de-escalation of the standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine increase, it will make Poland’s efforts to achieve its own strategic goals only that much harder.