Poland’s stake in the Ukraine crisis: hawkish or insightful?

Rados?aw Sikorski (centre) flanked by Catherine Ashton (L) and Carl Bildt (R)

This article is part of our special report Poland: Ambitious achievers.

SPECIAL REPORT: Observers generally agree that Warsaw plays a major role in the EU’s handling of the Ukraine crisis. Some call it hawkish, while others say that Poland is simply more insightful, and that the rest of the Union should attach more value to its understanding of Russia, and Eastern Europe.

As the Ukraine crisis is becoming the game-changer of the post-Cold War period, Poland, the largest EU member to border Ukraine, is watched with increased interest by the world’s major players.

For many years, Poland has tried to be to Ukraine what Germany is to Poland. Back in 2005, EURACTIV wrote that Poland and the Ukraine, who were for a long time hostile towards each other, have become much friendlier since the ‘Orange Revolution’ in the Ukraine, which brought President Viktor Yushchenko to power, and was openly supported by Poland.

The February 2014 Ukraine revolution, which Russia calls a “coup”, has marked a new stage of rapprochement between Warsaw and the pro-European new leadership in Kyiv. From a Russian perspective, Warsaw has helped orchestrate this ‘coup” and Poland fears its security being challenged.

Reality is probably much different.

Poland was largely instrumental in pushing through the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement (AA). The document was ready for signature well before the November 2013 Vilnius summit of the Eastern Partnership. But at that time, Germany insisted that the signature be conditional on the release of Yulia Tymoshenko from prison. Poland was much more flexible in this regard, and was in fact furious at Berlin’s shortsightedness. In the meantime, Russia defined its own geostrategic project, then played its cards and made the-then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich back down on the signature.

>> Read: Ukraine stuns EU by putting association deal on ice

In the subsequent dramatic events of the EuroMaidan uprising, Poland tried to provide advice to the pro-European leaders of Ukraine and to prevent them from indulging extremism. On 21 February, Poland’s Foreign Minister Rados?aw Sikorski told opposition leaders that if they don’t sign the EU-brokered deal with Yanukovich, “you’ll all be dead”.

>> Read: In Ukraine, Poland comes of age as an EU power broker

But the same night, the above-mentioned revolution, or coup, as Moscow calls it, took place. Since, Poland has been largely evicted from the diplomatic circles handling the Ukraine crisis. Sikorski was not invited to join his German, French, Russian, and Ukrainian counterparts in the negotiations on conflict resolution held in Berlin in early July and early August, nor is Poland playing a role in the more recent Minsk peace process.

This of course hasn’t prevented Polish leaders from conducting many bilateral meetings with the country’s new leaders, in particular with Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk and President Petro Poroshenko.

In the meantime, Poland has voiced concerns that its own security, as well as that of the Baltic states may be at risk. Poland wants permanent NATO bases on its territory, although Moscow insists that the West promised not to set up any military bases in the former Eastern Bloc countries that joined NATO after the fall of the Soviet Union. Moscow refers to a 1997 NATO-Russia Act which formally ended the rivalry between Russia and NATO.

A dramatic statement

During the European elections campaign, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said that on 1 September, Polish children may not go to school, hinting that the situation in Ukraine can deteriorate much more than most people imagine. This happened during a dispute over whether children in Poland should begin school at six or seven.

In this context, Tusk said the question wasn’t at what age children will go to school, or if they will be able to go to school on 1 September at all.

“For every Pole, 1 September is the break of the 1939 war, when kids didn’t go to school, because Poland started to be bombed,” Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, a Polish MEP and Vice President of the European People’s Party, told EURACTIV.

Saryusz-Wolski said “We feel much less secure, we feel threatened, we still believe that NATO and indirectly, EU membership, give us security, but the question is how strong is it?”

Asked about the position of Germany, who insists that a 1997 Russia-NATO agreement prohibits new bases in Eastern Europe, Saryiusz-Wolski said the said agreement was not binding.

“Seen from Warsaw, it is not binding, because it was so many times violated by Russia. And the formulation in this document says: no bases, if the conditions as they are now, continue to be. Poland is asking this agreement to be nullified, because it is not respected by the other side. Inutile de dire comment: a war in Ukraine, not to mention Georgia before,” he said, mixing English with French.

Poland: instrumental for the EU sanctions?

But Michael Emerson, A Reserch Fellow in the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) and former EU ambassador to Moscow, sees things differently.

“I may not be fully informed about what Sikorski is been up to, but it seems that Poland has put itself in the hawkish end of the spectrum of opinions of what to do [regarding the Ukrainian crisis], both in their statements and in their advocacy of sanctions, Emerson told EURACTIV.

He admits that Poland is “an important influencer” and “a strong voice among the new member states”, adding that the Baltic states “are equally hawkish, if not even more so”.

According to Emerson, Poland has concentrated its efforts at the meetings of the Foreign Ministers of the EU, with the objective of pushing through as tough as possible sanctions against Russia.

“An outcome [of the Polish effort] are the sanctions which have gradually developed, but not very impressively so. In the recent high-level diplomacy, Germany has been doing things on her own with France, but not actually with Poland. It seems that Germany sees itself able to work as a mediator, while Poland cannot play such a role, because its position is strongly marked,” Emerson said.

‘EU is a slow-moving beast’

Christopher A. Hartwell, President of CASE Management Board, told EURACTIV Poland that while the EU is a “slow-moving beast”, Poland has to pull it and get it moving. CASE, the Centre for Social and Economic Research, is one of the best think tanks in Poland, ranking high among the global think tanks and the best one in Central and Eastern Europe.

However, Hartwell admits that Poland has its limits in its efforts to influence the rest of the EU.

“Poland needs to continue to advocate for the EU’s engagement in the east, but unless the EU is responsive, there is not much more that Poland can do. Let us never forget the fact that it was Poland’s Foreign Minister who brokered the deal that Yanukovych eventually ran away from, though, so Poland’s interest and activity is unquestionable,” he said, confirming the views that a historic chance nay have been lost to sign the AA under Yanukovich.

Vis-à-vis Ukraine, Hartwell advises Poland to focus less on its experience as a EU member, but rather on its expertise in overcoming communism.

“I think the most important thing that Poland has to offer is its experience in overcoming the yoke of Soviet oppression. And by this, I mean by sharing its experience from the early years of transition, 1989 until maybe 1999, rather than focusing on the pre-European Union accession years of 2000-2004. Poland’s greatest strides forward came when it was outside of the EU and it was not guaranteed that it would become part of the EU. This is the same situation the neighbourhood countries face today, although they are even more of a stretch to ever enter into the EU than Poland was in 1989,” Hartwell said.

‘If Poland waits for France, nothing will happen’

Asked what one should expect from the future, Hartwell said that “if the invasion of a sovereign nation on the EU’s borders cannot mobilize the EU to take the eastern countries more seriously, nothing will”.

“And this is why I think that Poland needs to continue a two-track approach, acting as an ambassador of the east to the EU, but also working to further its own interests in a prosperous and stable Eastern Europe. If Poland waits for France, nothing will happen”, Hartwell said.

The crisis in Ukraine erupted after its former President Viktor Yanukovich cancelled plans to sign trade and political pacts with the EU in November 2013 and instead sought closer ties with Russia, triggering protests that turned bloody and drove him from power.

Moscow annexed Crimea in March following a referendum staged after Russian forces established control over the Black Sea peninsula in the biggest East-West crisis since the Cold War.

Pro-Russian militants control buildings in more than ten towns in eastern Ukraine after launching their uprising on 6 April. On 11 May pro-Moscow rebels declared a resounding victory in a referendum in Donetsk and Luhansk, which the West called illegal and illegitimate.

The fighting has escalated sharply after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered on 1 July an assault on separatists. The EU's resolve to punish Russia strengthened after the downing in Ukraine on 17 July of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane, killing all 298 people on board. 194 of the passengers were from the Netherlands.

Western leaders say pro-Russian rebels almost certainly shot the airliner down by mistake with a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile. Moscow has blamed Kyiv for the tragedy.

On 27 August NATO and the U.S. said Russian incursions into Ukraine took an ‘overt and obvious form’ and on 28 August Poroshenko said Russia had invaded Ukraine.

>> Read: Poroshenko says Russia invaded Ukraine

A United Nations report this week said more than 2,200 people had been killed so far, not including those who died when the Malaysian airliner was shot down.

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