A few remarks on the political strategy of the Polish state in the new European circumstances (theses for discussion)
I. Interdependence is not a sufficient guarantee of peace, but breaking interdependence makes peace even more fragile and insecure. This is how one could define the essence of the strategic dilemma into which the democratic West has faced Russia since the outbreak of the war in Eastern Europe. Until recently it was an article of strong faith in the entire democratic world that the knitting together of an ever denser network of interdependencies linking Moscow with the West, from the economy and trade to climate and space, would in a way “force” the preservation of peace. Perhaps this was strongest in Germany, where the state doctrine of “Wandel durch Verflechtung” was established, but it is also common in Poland, contrary to what we now proudly say and write. It is true that Poland was always dominated by scepticism towards the ostentation of German-French fraternisation with the Kremlin, but few or no one believed in the reality of a great Russian invasion in Europe, and this was precisely due to the existence in the 21st century of countless interdependencies that had accumulated on our continent during the half-century, inaugurated in 1975 by the Helsinki Act on “security and cooperation in Europe.”
Today, in the face of the facts, every fool already knows that war, the stake of which is the most classical political hegemony over its neighbours, is of course possible, even if it risks suddenly breaking hundreds of threads knitted together over a long half-century. The only thing is that this fact, verified by history, does not in any way prove the truth of the opposite thesis. Breaking the interdependence, isolating Moscow and rebuilding an “iron curtain” on the Bug River – these circumstances make the hypothesis of the eastern war spilling over into other European countries in future more realistic, especially if an untamed Ukraine were to become a burning and bloody cauldron on the map for many years, rather than a pacified one an area in which Moscow’s ‘normalisation’ prevails. Neither the existing network of interdependence with Moscow (defended, for example, by Paris), nor the reconstruction of the “iron curtain” (requested by Warsaw), constitute – after February 24th – a solid foundation for maintaining European peace. The conclusion is therefore simple: the “post-Helsinki era” is over and the concept of “perpetual peace” in Europe will not come back soon. And if so, then it’s necessary to start living and acting a bit differently than in that era, especially for states that again find themselves on the front-line. That is, those states which can never stop remembering even for a moment that it is on their territory, and not in the territory of neighbouring Ukraine, where the war is now taking place, that the real Armageddon, promised in the speech of the US president, would take place at the Warsaw castle, i.e. an armed stoppage of Russia in the manner proclaimed in the “sacred” fifth article of the Washington Treaty.
II. By its very nature, the front-line state, confronted by an ardent enemy with a great advantage in military potential, must be particularly sensitive to the risk of “strategic loneliness.” In the current war, this is a risk Ukraine has faced, as the US does not intend to defend its independence, despite the formal guarantees of 1994 and the actual political and military alliance that Washington offered to Kyiv after the Maidan victory. The “strategic loneliness” of Ukraine, whose democratic world does provide political and military support, but does not consider its independence as a sine qua non condition for its own security, is in today’s circumstances the primary challenge for the Polish state interest. From the Polish perspective, there is no more important goal in global politics today than to induce America to such a minimum level of involvement in the Eastern War that would guarantee stopping the invasion, pushing the Russian army out of the entire territory of Ukraine and maintaining the national direction of the government’s policy in Kiev. Without going into the details of current Polish policy, it can only be concluded that there are symptoms that the authorities in Warsaw do not define in such an unambiguous manner the strategic interests of the Polish state in the Eastern War. This remark applies less to the government of the Republic of Poland, and more to the policy pursued by the head of state.
If Ukraine is conquered, humiliated, occupied or subjected to the partition of its territory, the central challenge will be the risk of the “strategic loneliness” of the Polish state. More precisely, there are two types of risk involved here. The first of them is the risk of insufficiently effective military deterrence. The example of Hungary (whose strategy towards the eastern war is based on two pessimistic assumptions: that Ukraine will fall, and that subsequent deterrence of Russia on the line stretching from Estonia to Bulgaria, will be ineffective in this regard) is extremely instructive. Therefore, Hungary seems to be striving for the hypothetical future “detention” of Russia to take place on the territory of Poland or Romania, but not within the borders of the small Hungarian state, which is really powerless under such conditions. It is clear that the Hungarian strategy could not under any circumstances become a Polish strategy, considering not only the Polish geographic location and the centuries-old “Promethean” tradition of its eastern policy, but also the particularly fierce hostility towards Poland, which has prevailed in the Kremlin at least since the time of Polish involvement in the victory of the Kyiv Orange Revolution of 2004. Thus, while Hungarian political logic must be rejected in Warsaw, its realistic premises should be treated with the utmost attention.
The second risk relates to the issue of joint defence, should it actually be necessary. The point is that in the course of the present Eastern War, a practice has become established within NATO, according to which the minimum common decision-making denominator that has been achieved in consultations with allies is considered binding for all member states of the pact. The US government, for example, uses this argument to defend itself against allegations that it is doing far too little in terms of its political obligations towards Ukraine; the US response to such allegations is: we must maintain NATO unity, because the effects of the decisions will affect all allies. In all cases, “NATO unity” has become a political fetish, de facto paralysing effective action, or at least providing an alibi for insufficient action. If common defence were also to be conditioned by “NATO unity”, the risk of Poland’s “strategic loneliness” in the event of a conflict is high.
Fortunately, this condition of “unity” is a fetish of politics and political propaganda and not a requirement of the treaty. The Washington Pact explicitly leaves the decision on the scope of steps taken as part of joint defence to the discretion of individual states. Meanwhile, Poland’s existential interest is to achieve such a state of an alliance in which its key states could operate without the requirement of unity as to the shape of the steps taken. The requirement of unity in the organisation, which includes countries which have traditionally submissive policies towards Moscow (e.g. France, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, Montenegro) will always result in the paralysis of the operation of the entire alliance. Certainly, this dependence is not understood by Polish public opinion, fascinated as it by the propaganda slogan of allied unity. It is not certain whether the present state leadership understands this relationship clearly enough.
III. Regardless of the strictly military issue of providing the state with the ability to resist the invasion (“stronger than Ukraine has,” as the Polish deputy prime minister puts it), the course of the Eastern War highlights the importance of protecting cities and civilians from devastating attacks. This issue is not resolved by the increased transfers of American soldiers to the territory of Poland. Due to the need to prevent the risk of “strategic loneliness,” the prime interest of the Polish state is to involve its western neighbour in the swift construction of a Central European system for the protection of cities and civilians for the territory of Germany and Poland, and possibly also the Czech Republic and Slovakia (possibly also more broadly, with the participation of Austria, Hungary, Denmark, or the Baltic States). Germany’s behaviour during the first month of the eastern war clearly demonstrates the legitimacy of two, only seemingly not entirely consistent, theses about the new German security policy. First of all, Berlin is not and will not be a reliable partner for jointly taken steps against Russia, if they were to result from any obligations (treaty or political) towards third countries, such as, for example, towards Ukraine at present. Secondly, however, since February 24th, Berlin has been taking into account, for the first time after World War II, the real necessity to defend its own country and its basic interests in the event of the Eastern War spilling over beyond the territory of Ukraine. This is clearly evidenced not only by the course of the recent ‘war’ debate in the Bundestag, but above all by the decision of the Scholz government, according to which Germany will become the third country in the world (after the US and China) in terms of nominal level of spending on armaments.
Today Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic constitute a fully integrated and uniform economic area with very deep mutual interdependencies. Building an integrated and uniform system of protection of this area, especially against missile attacks, would be a natural political consequence of such economic development. From Berlin’s perspective, this would be a symbolic break with the prevailing stereotype about its catastrophically flawed eastern and defence policy of recent years. From Warsaw’s perspective, it would not only be a chance to quickly immunise the country against the danger of blackmailing the destruction of cities and civilians that Moscow is now using against Ukraine. But above all, it is the first opportunity for the country, which is Poland’s key political and economic partner in Europe, to become at the same time a full-fledged and inalienable participant in the common Central European defence. A German-Polish protective shield over Central Europe would have the advantage for the future that it would rule out the possibility of Berlin taking up a diplomatic game with Moscow, if the Kremlin made a diplomatic offer to Europe to settle the issue of Polish demilitarisation in some time, in line with the declared goals of Russian policy, which have been expressed more than once by the president of Russia, as well as in accordance with the promises once made by America to Gorbachev (their submission was confirmed, among others, by the then CIA director, Bob Gates).
It is worth emphasising that these should not be German protection systems, made available or extended to Poland, but joint ventures of both countries, mutually agreed and co-financed. Such a German-Polish shield over the already existing de facto economic “Mitteleuropa” would also increase the certainty of America’s military involvement in our region, both if the next president of the USA was an alt-right politician, willing to confront Germany politically, and if the situation from 2021 was repeated, when the American leader ostentatiously ignores Poland, making it clear that he treats it as a German sphere of influence with which he will only communicate through Berlin. If the course of European events were to be unfavourable for Ukraine, and as a result Poland was not able to protect itself from the unfortunate role of the “bulwark”, it should at least be an integrated “Polish-German bulwark”.
IV. The systemic involvement of Germany in the protection of “Mitteleuropa” will be even more significant because if Ukraine falls or is humiliated and partitioned, the political importance of the European Union’s institutions will inevitably be reduced. Brussels’ high political aspirations have so far been based on two premises: first – that Europe is an area of ”perpetual peace”, and therefore Community institutions are the continent’s strongest holders of “soft power” and anti-crisis financial support; and second – that the war for culture and fighting the growing power of the alt-right parties is the supreme and feasible mission of the EU elite, thus defending itself against the pressure of the emerging political counter-elite. After February 24th, the political value of both of these premises became at least questionable. Soft power has become of little use, and money is of great importance as long as it is spent on weapons. On the other hand, the West-tearing conflict between the “post-liberals” and the “alt-right” did not end overnight, of course, but the war created new, key lines of fronts all over the West, going across the existing divisions. There are many indications that for a long time the main axis of the political division in Europe will be built around the attitude to the plan of complete isolation of Russia and the degree of readiness to engage in the eastern war.
It is true that the attacks on Poland will not cease as long as power in Warsaw is exercised by the alt-right, but the political significance of these attacks will also be much smaller. It will be crucial with whom and how Poland is to undertake joint steps in the field of security policy. Macron’s project of a “Europe of concentric circles,” according to which “the heart of the European reactor” was to have been Paris and Berlin, and in which receding orbits were to revolve around, with Russia and Turkey on one of them as countries “united by democratic values” – looks like an unsuccessful joke today about the future of our continent. What matters most is whether Poland is able to take important steps in the field of security in Europe in bilateral relations with Germany, the Czech Republic, Sweden or Finland, rather than the tedious and less and less important philippics about Poland voiced by fanatics in the European Parliament. Ideological compromises with these fanatics have already become less important to the interests of the state than they were just two months ago. We need to get used to the belief, abandoned by Polish politicians, not without rational premises in 1989, that the future of the Polish state, including the issue of its independence and European importance, will be decided in Eastern Europe, just as it was otherwise many times in the past, from the end of the 14th century to the 20th century.
Brussels has a chance to save its current political significance on the continent only if peace is restored relatively quickly in eastern Europe, and Kyiv remains the subjective centre of Ukrainian politics focused on Ukrainian state interests. In short, if Ukraine were to somehow win the war that is currently going on. The key European issue will then be the program for the reconstruction of a ruined Ukraine, which in such circumstances should become the supreme mission of the European Union in the coming years, carried out simultaneously with accelerated accession negotiations with Kyiv. From the perspective of the Polish state interest, the key challenge would then be to build a European coalition capable of pushing through both of these goals at the same time, and Warsaw would have a potentially important role to play here, given the fact that in recent years it has been the largest nominal recipient of EU funds, which under the new circumstances they would probably have to be reduced. It is also not without significance that Europe, and not Berlin, becomes the promoter of the reconstruction of Ukraine, given the memory of the excessive positioning of German interests in this country, which was unfavourable to us in the past. For the time being, however, the entire European scenario of this kind should at best be regarded as the less likely ‘plan B’.
V. The reality of the eastern war spilling over onto Polish territory may persist for a long time, even over the next years, unless (by some miracle) Russia is defeated in Ukraine militarily and forced to renounce its geopolitical aspirations to the west of its borders. No provisional truce or any other temporary suspension of hostilities will eliminate the real risk of a spill-over of the war, especially if the vassal regime against the Kremlin persists in Belarus. This completely new situation of the Polish state requires – obviously – not only a serious military effort (which is not mentioned in these remarks), but also the immediate creation of a general system of defence of the country, with the participation of the entire adult population of both sexes. You can look for potential inspiration in Scandinavia or Israel, of course, without the intention of simply copying any of them. This is a difficult undertaking in the field of domestic politics, as it requires the reconstruction of the dominant type of civic attitudes that have been shaped in Poland over the last thirty years. A long-term plan in this respect should be developed by the government and subject to a national debate. And next year’s election campaign before the parliamentary elections should be focused on variants and dilemmas of such a plan, which would inevitably have to emerge.
In addition to armaments and a universal defence system, the third equally important task facing Polish domestic policy is a well-thought-out and comprehensive reform of the structures and mechanisms of crisis management of the state, so that they are adapted to the conditions of a potential threat to the country. The 2002 law on martial law, which focuses on the issue of civil rights and extends the possibility of creating territorial receivership authorities, is an act completely devoid of vision and knowledge about state management in conditions of serious danger or real war. It must be clearly stated that in the sense of the concept of emergency management, especially over a longer period of a hypothetical conflict, the Polish state is unprepared and anachronistic. Generally speaking, there are three groups of systemic and management problems to be solved, each of which carries considerable potential for interinstitutional and political conflicts.
The first group concerns the creation of a unified centre of power for an extraordinary period, taking into account the risk of cohabitation of unfriendly centres of government and presidential power, as well as the need to involve serious forces of the political opposition in the governing process at such a time. Such a centre must be shaped around the government, because only the government under Polish constitutional conditions has the ability to execute its power, thanks to the administration structures subordinate to it. The second group of problems results from today’s institutional weakness of the state executive, which does not have the tools necessary to design policy, to run the government and its subordinate agencies, and account for the performance of tasks. Under “ordinary” conditions, this often gives rise to so-called State “impossibilism”; in exceptional conditions, it may pose an existential threat to the country. Finally, the third group of problems results from a peculiar “Chinese wall” that separates the civil and military administration in Polish conditions. Unfortunately, the structures on both sides are incompatible with each other, which will make it practically impossible to manage the country during a war. It is worth noting that during the third week of the war in Ukraine, President Zelensky deemed it necessary to consolidate the military and civilian administration of the Kiev region, while at the same time putting the most important Ukrainian general, Alexander Pavluk, at its head. In the Polish institutional reality, such a decision would be rather impossible to carry out effectively.
Due to the relatively high level of complexity of each of these three system-management issues, it would seem advisable to soon establish a government think-tank of several people, which would receive full insight into the mechanisms of managing the civil and military spheres of the state and propose the shape of reforms that should be carried out.