View from Warsaw: Deterrence above all

What is distinct about Poland’s attitude to Russia is its genuine conviction in the potential for conventional military conflict with Moscow.

Security concerns and distrust  have marked Poland’s approach to Russia ever since 1989. However, the imperialist turn in the Kremlin’s foreign policy, including aggressions against Georgia and Ukraine as well as skyrocketing military spending and meddling in internal EU affairs, has strengthened this threat perception and brought bilateral relationship to their lowest ebb in 25 years.

What is distinct about Poland’s attitude to Russia (at least compared to mainstream EU thinking) is its genuine conviction in the potential for conventional military conflict with Moscow. In most EU member states, the  threat posed by Russia is seen in terms of destabilization of the neighbourhood, but in Poland it is the existential dimension of hard security which is shaping policy responses.

This is why deterrence is the chief pillar of Warsaw’s Russia strategy. The July NATO summit was key from this perspective and its outcomes largely met Poland’s expectations. But in light of German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s proposal of a nuclear disarmament initiative and the uncertain future of U.S. engagement in Europe after November's presidential election, Poland is concerned that elements of appeasement policy may diminish the application of renewed deterrence mechanisms.

In the view of the Polish elite (not just the Law and Justice government), Russia’s bullying on the international arena proves that any forms of re-engagement and dialogue are not only doomed to fail but also counter-productive, as they are seen by Putin as an invitation to continue his policy of aggression and blackmail. The official contacts between Warsaw and Moscow are thus very limited. An additional problem under the new (since October 2015) nationalist, right wing government is the ruling party’s suggestions that Moscow was responsible for the airplane crash in Smolensk in 2010 which killed then President Lech Kaczynski and the chief of the Polish General Staff along with 94 other Polish citizens.

At the same time, the deterioration – to various degrees – of Poland’s relations with Germany, the US, France, Lithuania, Sweden and Ukraine in recent months is clearly beneficial for Russia as it weakens Poland’s authority within the EU.

Poland pursues a policy of decoupling from Russia in the economic sphere. Russia’s economic recession combined with EU sanctions has resulted in a dramatic decrease in Russia’s trade with Poland, which has halved (and dropped to 4% of Poland’s total trade by volume) since 2014. The importance of Russia as a destination for Polish exports is today only slightly higher than Hungary’s.

The Polish government has also decided against prolonging a long-term agreement with Russia on the purchase of natural gas which expires in 2022, instead starting negotiations with Denmark and Norway on the construction of a gas pipeline from the North Sea to Poland’s LNG port. It has also started buying oil from Saudi Arabia and Iran in order to decrease its dependency on Russia.

Not surprisingly, Poland remains firm on sanctions against Russia and the full implementation of the Minsk agreement as a precondition for lifting them. This approach will shape Warsaw’s position at the European Council meeting this week. Poland believes that the sanctions constitute the optimal political instrument for deterring Russia’s aggressive policy against Ukraine and EU countries.

Warsaw considers European sanctions as a good example of solidarity and as evidence of the EU’s efficacy. In light of recent escalations in tensions between Russia and the West over Syria, it expects that solidarity to be reaffirmed in Brussels this week.

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


College of Eastern Europe
Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow

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