In December 2021, Germany’s new Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, stopped in Warsaw on her inauguration tour and met her Polish counterpart, Zbigniew Rau. Before the minister’s visit, tensions were already high between Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party and the newly formed German government. Tensions between the two countries are not new, but the situation on Poland’s borders is putting a new light on them, writes Jūratė Važgauskaitė on tv3.lt news portal.
As soon as the 2021 elections in Germany came around, Polish politicians rushed to make their own assessment. “The language used in the new coalition agreement and the statements made by German politicians are unequivocal to me: the new German government sees Poland as a German protectorate,” said Sebastian Kaleta, Poland’s deputy minister of justice, ahead of the Baerbock visit. For their part, Polish officials have also started talking about World War II-era reparations and the termination of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Germany and Russia.
The differences are many and painful
When Baerbock arrived in Poland, he tried to quell those tensions. Her diplomatic defusing of the situation included laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, referring to German-Polish relations as “priceless”, and expressing Berlin’s solidarity with Warsaw in the face of Belarus’s campaign to arm asylum seekers and refugees on the border with Poland.
During their joint press conference, the German Foreign Minister was careful to express her disagreements on issues such as the rule of law in Poland, saying that “strong friendships sometimes have to face uncomfortable issues”.
This meeting, which was neither easy nor very pleasant, showed the fragile balance between the two countries and their growing disagreement.
For a brief moment, however, Russia’s surprise invasion of Ukraine at the end of February seemed to have opened up an opportunity for the two NATO allies and European Union members to come closer together. Common interests in the face of a threat should have brought them closer together.
Even before the actual invasion, the provocative actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin had created the political space to restore relations between the two countries. However, subsequent events have brought back several persistent issues and differences. And these differences reflect deeper problems, such as the misunderstanding between the East and the West on security, threat perceptions and approaches to national security.
What are the long-term implications of Berlin’s and Warsaw’s response to the war in Ukraine for their bilateral relations? And how might this affect the future cohesion of NATO and the EU?
Initially, the war in Ukraine seemed to bring Germany’s national security position closer to Poland. On 27 February, three days after the Russian invasion, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave a speech in the Bundestag announcing a new €100 billion fund for modernising Germany’s armed forces.
Scholz’s Zeitenwende, or “historic turning point”, was a fundamental change in Germany’s post-Cold War national security. The cautious and restrained European power ensured that defence spending exceeded NATO’s target of 2 per cent of GDP, halted the controversial Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea pipeline project, and began providing arms and other military support to Ukraine.
At first, it seemed that the sleeping giant had woken up and urgently assumed a more significant leadership role on the continent. And so far, Germany has registered more than 700 000 Ukrainian refugees for temporary protection, continues to provide military support to Ukraine, and is weaning itself off its dependence on cheap Russian natural gas.
However, there are still doubts about Germany’s resolve, especially in Poland, as many fear that Berlin’s old habits will be difficult to break and that the rhetoric of the German government, especially Scholz, is not in line with its allies’ needs and expectations. Scholz has repeatedly promised that Germany will continue to support Ukraine as much as necessary. Still, arms exports have been slow and do not give Ukraine the military edge it needs for strategic superiority on the battlefield.
Poland has long been a critic of German policy towards Russia. Its own proximity to Russia and history have shaped its perception of the potential threats from its eastern neighbour. Many Poles still remember the Russian troops stationed at military bases in Poland during the Cold War and fear that Putin’s neo-imperialist project will one day seek to bring Poland back into Moscow’s sphere of influence.
The Poles now see the fate of Ukraine as their own, and their overwhelming support for helping Kyiv to defend itself will continue because Russia’s strategic defeat is their ultimate goal. Polish officials have long called on Germany to devote more resources to collective security arrangements and support the deployment of permanent bases and other capabilities in NATO’s Eastern Flank Member States.
Germany’s Zeitenwende has been met with caution in Poland. Poles have not forgotten how, in the early days of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Germany decided to offer Kyiv only basic equipment such as military helmets.
Poland itself took on huge responsibilities from the start of the war, hosting more than 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees, serving as a major logistics centre and transit corridor for NATO arms supplies to Ukraine, and sending its own weapons to reinforce Ukraine’s critical capabilities on the battlefield. And all the while, Warsaw has been pushing Berlin to do more, particularly to send heavy weaponry such as battle tanks to Ukraine.
I don’t believe in German sincerity
Behind these moves are concerns about the durability of the Zeitenwende. Poland’s historical baggage makes Germany a great power that lacks the will to develop a strategic security culture. Germany’s energy dependence on Russia and its role as one of the architects of the failed Minsk agreements is also seen as a sign of the naivety of the country and its politicians.
Polish officials still do not believe that the Germans understood the Russian threat’s reality. On the contrary, they believe that Germany prefers quick peace and a possible return to normal relations with Russia in the near future.
The Germans and Polish officials worry believe that a weakened Russia would further destabilise the continent and that a lasting peace in Europe can only come about when Russia’s concerns are considered. Thus, they see a clash of incompatible strategic objectives: the Poles want to defeat Putin, and the Germans want to help him “save face”.
As the conflict drags on, German-Polish relations will continue to be tested both bilaterally and through multilateral institutions. With parliamentary elections in Poland next year, the PiS party will likely continue to aggravate its bilateral differences and seek conflict with Germany in order to achieve its electoral objectives. On the other hand, Germany will continue to hold Poland responsible for its democratic decline, especially in the EU.
It is important that the goodwill created by European cohesion does not translate into a disregard for the rule of law in Brussels. Poland and the European Commission are currently at an impasse over the failure to carry out the proper rule of law reforms in Warsaw, which is why Brussels has frozen EUR 35 billion in grants and loans under the EU’s pandemic aid programme.
As far as NATO is concerned, Berlin now holds the key to its future orientation and capabilities. Will Germany deliver on its defence reforms and its commitment to 2% of GDP? Will it abandon compliance with the NATO-Russia Founding Act and support the permanent deployment of more NATO forces in Eastern Europe?
Time will tell how many commitments both countries need to implement to strengthen bilateral relations. Germany and Poland’s destinies are intertwined, and the health of their relationship reflects and influences the wider strength of European cohesion.
Poles feel strong and demand rights
Andrzej Pukšto, a political scientist and lecturer at Vytautas Magnus University, says that Polish-German relations have been in a bad state for a long time, more precisely about seven years ago, when the current ruling party, the Law and Justice Party, came to power in Poland. The two countries have different approaches to the global world and to security.
“The Polish Law and Justice Party favour a less integrated Europe, intending to maintain more autonomy. Germany, on the other hand, is consistently in favour of a more integrated EU. Here we can see the fundamental reason why the differences are so significant.
The Poles fear that Germany would dominate the EU even more and that there would be no room for the influence of the middle countries. Another reason why Poland feels superior at the moment is that Polish conservatives have been saying for seven years now that the possibility of aggression by Russia is on the increase and that imperialist desires are on the increase too. Here, Germany’s position has been softer, which is why the Poles now feel superior”, Pukšto said.
According to the political scientist, the Polish political tradition has always been oriented towards the US and less towards Western Europe. However, economic relations between Germany and Poland are close enough, but this does not translate into political relations.
“Poland feels superior at the moment, which is why we hear calls for Germany to pay reparations for the damage caused during the Second World War. The new security architecture offers opportunities for this, and the main “corridor” to Ukraine is through Poland. This country is now of great importance in Europe and beyond. And the desire to show Poland’s historical place is not going away”, said the political scientist.
He added that the West and East-Central Europe have different attitudes towards the war in Ukraine and that if the West were to stand firmly on Ukraine’s side, the course of the war might be different.
“Western Europe is the old Europe that is not hurrying to write off Russia as a partner. That difference in attitude is quite clear. However, attitudes towards Ukraine and Russia are changing. The war has brought them closer together, despite various turbulences. There is some rapprochement not only between Poland and Germany but also within the EU. It speaks with one voice more forcefully than before. The threat level is, of course, assessed differently by the countries.
But the differences are more minor than they were before. The only one that stands out is perhaps Great Britain, which has shown determination and courage on the Ukraine issue. And within the EU, the divide between Eastern and Western Europe has not disappeared. There is also a clear divide between the Germans and the Poles, as both countries play a significant role on the continent”, said the political scientist.