View from Warsaw: Sanctions are the EU’s only tool

Poland is more moderate on Russia policy than hawks might have hoped, preferring the use of sanctions to any military option.

For those who expected Poland to be the strongest ally of American “hawks” in policy towards the Ukrainian crisis, the moderate position of the Warsaw government might come as a surprise or a disappointment. Poland’s deputy prime minister and minister of defence, Tomasz Siemoniak, has reiterated many times in recent weeks that deliveries of lethal weapons for Ukraine are not on the agenda, although the Ukrainian government is free to buy military equipment from Polish companies on a commercial basis. To be sure, Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna has said that this option “should not be excluded” (which might be a indirect criticism of Angela Merkel’s firm and unambiguous position on the point that “there can be no military solution of the Ukrainian crisis”). Also, Poland has offered (along with the United Kingdom) military training for the Ukrainian armed forces – although this will take place in Poland, not in Ukraine. All in all, Poland is clearly not at the forefront of countries demanding more substantial European Union or NATO military involvement in Ukraine. As in the past, the official government position stresses the importance of the EU maintaining a common line – and this line is focused on raising the costs of Russia’s aggression through economic, not military, means.

Economic sanctions are the “only weapon the EU has at its disposal” in the Ukraine conflict.

Economic sanctions are the “only weapon the EU has at its disposal” in the Ukraine conflict, Schetyna said in a TV interview in mid-February 2015. Poland was already in favour of imposing more personal sanctions in early February, after the rebels’ offensive in eastern Ukraine. According to the Polish ministry of foreign affairs, Poland and other EU countries backed down on Ukraine’s request so as not to endanger the ceasefire talks that finally led to the Minsk II agreement. But Warsaw considers sanctions to be a stick that the EU should not hesitate to use if the Minsk agreement is violated. An attack on Mariupol seems to be Poland’s red line: the EU should be prepared to impose far-reaching sectoral sanctions immediately if Russian troops should again cross the Ukrainian border and the separatists continue their territorial expansion. Schetyna says the West should proceed gradually with the exclusion of Russia from the SWIFT interbank system, which should be a means of last resort, something similar to an economic “nuclear option”. Poland believes the sanctions imposed in spring and summer 2014 should remain in place – at least until all provisions of the Minsk II agreement have been fulfilled and respected by Russia.

The Ukraine conflict has found its way into the campaign for the presidential election in May 2015.

The Ukraine conflict has found its way into the campaign for the presidential election in May 2015 and has become a source of tension even within the ruling coalition. Adam Jarubas, the candidate of the Polish Peasants’ Party, the smaller partner in the government of Ewa Kopacz (whose party is Civic Platform), has openly criticised the government’s policy advocating a more “moderate engagement” in the conflict. The deputy prime minister from the same party, Janusz Piechociński, has warned against “hundreds of thousands” of migrants entering Poland from Ukraine as a consequence of the crisis and has sharply criticised Ukrainian elites for their poor record in introducing democracy and rule of law. Another critical voice has been the opposition Democratic Left Alliance candidate Malgorzata Ogorek, who has accused the government of risking a military conflict with Russia by not excluding the option of supplying weapons to Ukraine. Against the background of this discussion, the question of a “Russian party” (meaning not a political grouping but actual supporters of Russia’s policy) in Poland has been raised and discussed in the media. However, it is unlikely that these voices will have a major impact on the election results: President Bronisław Komorowski is almost certain to win, while Jarubas and Ogorek can count on about 5 percent each. However, it shows that the political consensus on policy towards Russia is now less firm than it has been in the past.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow

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