COMMENT: Poland’s geostrategy

COMMENT: Poland’s geostrategy
Caught between East and West, Poland is more sensitive to the currents of geopolitics than most European countries. / bne IntelliNews
By A D M Collingwood in London May 7, 2023

This is an area of the world where geopolitics have real, immediate and visceral effects on peoples, in a way that is difficult to understand for Britons and Americans.

In recent years, and especially since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Poland has emerged as one of the most prominent European nations in international affairs. But what are its strategic interests? What are its security concerns? And how are these likely to drive Polish foreign policy in the years to come?

Poland's position has always been extremely precarious, as it sits at the wide-open end of the North European Plain, flat land between the Carpathians and the Baltic, with few natural barriers from the West or East (it is not, for instance, protected by Alpine mountains or a sea). It is, however, even worse than that for Poland, because it is sandwiched between the two 800lb gorillas of European power, Russia and Germany.

Because of this, Poland has been blotted from the map entirely (from 1772, with the first Partition of Poland, until the establishment of the Second Republic in 1918; and then again after 1945, when its borders were shifted westward and the country was reconstituted west of its original boundaries as little more than a Soviet satellite state, designed as a gumshield for Moscow).

Poland also sits in a region, though, where vast empires can emerge as quickly as they vanish. Before the late 18th century partitions, Poland had been the centre of a sprawling empire from Poznan in the west almost to Moscow in the east, and from the Baltic in the north, well into the currently infamous Kherson and Zaporozhye regions of Ukraine, all of Belarus and most of the modern Baltic nations.

After the collapse of the Soviet Empire a process in which the Poles played a leading role Poland sought to secure its independence by joining Nato in 1999. It further sought to cement its exit from the Russian sphere of influence by joining the EU, a crypto-German sphere of influence, in 2004.

Note that in addition to bringing it inside the US defence perimeter (and nuclear umbrella), Nato accession meant help modernising Poland’s armed forces at a time when the Former Soviet Union was falling behind.

Likewise, EU accession meant that, in addition to integrating into the German economic supply chain, Poland secured significant inward investment and private and public aid for modernisation.

The country thus negotiated the 1990s far more comfortably than Russia. Yet geopolitical reality is reality, and Poland must always fear being subsumed by one of Russia and Germany – or both in a nightmare scenario in which the two form a loose alliance, as they have done in the past given their natural trade synergies.

Thus, while Poland has used Germany and America as a shield against Russia, and remained implacably opposed to Moscow, it has also not fully integrated with Germany in the way the Netherlands or Czechia and Balts have. It has never adopted the euro, for example. It has also led the formation of the Visegrad Group – of Poland, Czechia, Slovakia and Hungary – intended to give these new EU nations a greater voice against Franco-German domination of the EU.

Further, Poland has also fought ferociously to prevent increased Russo-German economic co-operation (that old worst nightmare) through its opposition to the Nord Stream pipelines. Increasingly it has directly opposed Germany on the EU response to the Ukraine crisis, and even has gone so far as to demand trillions of dollars of reparations for WWII.

So where next? A simplified view of Poland's geopolitical imperatives would be as follows:

  1. Secure an outside power capable of doing what Poland cannot: guaranteeing Polish independence;
  2. Significantly weaken Russia – for at least a decade or two, but preferably permanently, through breakup or internal strife;
  3. Extend Polish influence and power, primarily southward towards the Black and Adriatic Seas (preferably at the centre of an alliance), but also eastward towards and as far into the Russian heartland as possible; and
  4. Use this security and power to balance against Germany, and gain independence and protection from it.

How do these likely aims fit with Poland's present actions? First, Poland has used the Ukraine crisis to strengthen ties with the USA as the aforementioned outside power that can guarantee Polish sovereignty. This was a trend that was already well underway. For instance, Polish exports to the US have almost doubled since 2015.

This was the year that the Three Seas Initiative was launched, itself heavily influenced by the Intermarium idea conceived by Jozef Pilsudsky in the interwar years. The Intermarium was essentially an effort to use the fall of the German and Russian empires to reconstruct the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to create a multinational federation with the economic (and thus military) power to secure independence from the inevitably great powers either side of Central and Eastern Europe, Germany and Russia.

The Three Seas Initiative is essentially the Intermarium for the 21st Century, focusing first on economic integration before imperial cohesion. It seeks to create a greater dialogue between the nations involved, and also secure investment for greater North-South infrastructure in an area where East West links predominate. To this effect, continuous motorways, gas pipes and rail connections and lines are being constructed or are planned. Tellingly, the US has invested since the beginning, most recently agreeing to a $300mn deal to fund energy infrastructure.

Key to Poland’s ability to both construct and project power through such a block, and even more importantly, securing the USA as a guarantor, will be its military capacity (the Queen behind the advancing pawn, as Policy Tensor might say). In this sphere, Poland appears to be going for broke (perhaps literally, as we shall see). It has plans to hugely increase its military capacity, and if it achieves its goals, it would undoubtedly be the second most powerful land force in Nato (after the US) and perhaps the most powerful army in continental Europe.

Two points should be noted here. First, while the Ukraine war has contributed to the greater urgency, these plans predated it by a couple of years: this is a considered plan, not a knee-jerk reaction. Secondly, note that the main purchases are from the US and South Korea, not Germany, a traditional supplier.

It also seems likely that Poland sees the war in Ukraine as an opportunity as much as it is a threat. Defeat for Russia and either the neutering of Russia as a threat, or its outright disintegration, would allow Poland to secure many of its long-term aims in the east through rapid diplomatic tour de force. In the event of total Russian disintegration, Poland would become the main power in Belarus (where we are only two years removed from a significant Western-backed attempt at revolution, which would instantly reactivate amid post-bellum Russian weakness) and Ukraine (which has already passed laws that allow for remarkable degrees of integration between the two nations).

Further, by making itself the US's best friend on this matter, it fits not only with Washington's short-term needs, but also its longer-term requirements to ensure that no alliance between Russia and Germany forms. Such an alliance would make perfect economic and geopolitical sense for Berlin and Moscow (as it always has) but would be a disaster for Washington and Warsaw. Thus, even if the war ends in stalemate or – especially – a defeat (partial or total) for Ukraine, Poland has made itself the only game in town as far as countering Russia, given (at best, from Washington's perspective) a geopolitically exhausted Western Europe, or (at worst) a Germany keen to restart economic relations with Russia. Here, Nord Stream's destruction is crucial: any gas that goes from East to West will have to transit inimical Poland, just as, Washington hopes, any economic trade or army would have to.

So far, so good. The elephant in the room, though, is can Poland afford all this? Philip Pilkington, the economist and financial analyst, suggests that here things are at risk of going seriously off the rails. With inflation at 20%, and a large current account deficit set to be made worse by those aforementioned mega arms purchases from abroad, Poland, as a small, and not yet fully developed economy, risks a classic currency-inflationary spiral into economic collapse, a la Argentina.

To avoid this Poland will likely need support from the US in the form of financial account funding to match the current account deficit. In essence, geopolitical services would be its main export. Poland might also get help from a significant increase in population from the influx of Ukrainians, as well as profit from its position as a funnel for the post-war rebuilding process.

Yet even here there are risks: being so reliant on the US risks making Poland a US client state, forced to act in Washington's interests ahead of its own. Meanwhile, absorbing such a huge number of Ukrainians (and there were already millions pre-war) brings its own issues, despite the close cultural match.

The stakes are therefore as high as they could be for Poland: complete subsumption into the German sphere of influence; an economically ruined nation sandwiched between a co-operating Russia and Germany; internal strife and bordered by a failed state; US client state; regional superpower controlling Europe's Eastern Approaches. They're all on the cards.

Twas ever thus in this neighbourhood.

A D M Collingwood is the writer and editor of BritanniQ, a free, weekly newsletter by Bournbrook Magazine which curates essays, polemics, podcasts, books, biographies and quietly patriotic beauty, and sends the best directly to the inboxes of intelligent Britons. This article first appeared in Bournbrook here.