View from Warsaw: Concerns about a Ukraine-Syria trade-off

Russian intervention opens old faultlines in Polish domestic opinion.

Poland has observed the Russian intervention in Syria with a mixture of hope and concern. Taken together, they feed into the recurrent narrative about Poland’s interest in staying in the mainstream of the EU politics, an assumption contested by the opposition in the ongoing electoral campaign.

Should Poland seek compromise and cooperation with Germany and France or, taking into account some diverging interests with Berlin and Paris, side rather with Central European and Baltic states to form a counter-weight to the big powers? This is the main foreign policy division between the still-ruling Civic Platform and national-conservative Law and Justice party likely to form the government after the parliamentary election on 25 October. The decision of the prime minister Ewa Kopacz not to block the relocation system agreed by the EU in September and to admit 5,000 additional refugees was met with harsh criticism by the opposition, claiming that Warsaw bowed to Brussels and Berlin pressures putting at risk Polish national interests. This is the domestic policy background against which one needs to see Polish reactions to Russia’s involvement in Syria.

Most apparent in the statements of Polish politicians and expert commentaries has been the concern that Moscow will try to leverage its key position in Syria to gain concessions from the West in Ukraine (on the status of Donbas or suspension of sanctions in January). It did not go unnoticed that the German vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel openly suggested that sanctions against Russia imposed because of its aggression against Ukraine were counterproductive since Russia became a key partner in solving the Middle East conundrum.

Putin’s strategy, according to widespread opinion in Warsaw, is not only to elevate Russia’s position in the world but as importantly to drive a wedge between EU member states. Kopacz stressed in a TV interview that this new Russian challenge demonstrated how important it was for Poland to show more solidarity within the EU with regard to the refugee crisis and not to become source of lasting divisions in the EU. The representatives of the Polish government welcomed the words of Barack Obama at the Un General Assembly that there is  no trade-off between Syria and Ukraine and that these two conflicts should be dealt with separately.  The foreign minister Schetyna also pointed out that the Polish stance in the refugee crisis (sharing responsibility against the criticism by the opposition) was the right strategy for a country which needs solidarity of its partners in other policy areas. So, the risk of the EU softening its position on Russia has been used by the government to defend its choices on refugees and, more generally, to defend the idea of being part of the EU mainstream.

Interestingly, Russia’s role in the conflict has not been entirely dismissed as cynical and counterproductive. Schetyna stressed that Russia is an indispensable country which needs to be talked to in order to solve the Syrian crisis and voiced hopes that Moscow would form part of the anti-terror coalition fighting the Islamic State. When the Russians air strikes hit the positions of the caliphate for the first time the Polish MFA welcomed the “important signal” that Russia was siding with the global coalition. However, the developments in Syria have not changed the Polish level of engagement in the crisis. Warsaw still supports the anti-terror coalition on humanitarian aid but excludes the possibility of any military involvement which has not been requested by other partners. 


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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