German-Polish European BLOG

Introduction: Similarities above differences: Poland and Germany in EU front against aggressive Russia

Poland and Germany are the only two countries among the biggest EU Member States genuinely interested in the Eastern Europe and by default concerned by the Russian aggression against Ukraine. In consequence, the shape of EU policy towards the Eastern Partnership countries and Russia is considerably correlated with the character of the bilateral relationship between Berlin and Warsaw.

Adam Balcer  

The Russian aggression against Ukraine has dramatically changed the security situation in Europe and substantially influenced the debate on the security of Europe. It revealed serious divergences between Poland and Germany which, however, did not hinder their cooperation. The key positive factor which facilitated finding a modus vivendi between Warsaw and Berlin was Germany’s consistent position on the EU sanctions against Russia. In fact, Germany became the most important proponent of keeping them until the Kremlin changes its aggressive policy towards Ukraine. This consistent German policy is based on solid social foundations. The Russian aggression against Kyiv resulted in a decisive rise of Germans’ distrust of Russia and, especially, President Putin. In consequence, sanctions still have the support of the majority of Germans. However, in the summer of 2017 a Forsa survey revealed that almost 65 percent of Germans would like the German-Russian relations to be improved while only 40 percent would like to see similar efforts towards the transatlantic relationship with the US.

In fact, Germany became the most important proponent of keeping the sanctions until the Kremlin changes its aggressive policy towards Ukraine. This consistent German policy is based on solid social foundations. The Russian aggression against Kyiv resulted in a decisive rise of Germans’ distrust of Russia and, especially, President Putin.

Poland – because of its frontier location within NATO and the EU, and being the only country that borders Russia, Ukraine and Belarus – sees Moscow’s neo-imperial policies as an immediate and serious threat towards its own security. Therefore, Poland and the majority of countries from the Eastern flank (the Baltic states and Romania in particular) have emphasized that Russia has been permanently violating the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. Meanwhile, Germany in particular wants to stick to the original spirit of the Founding Act. Berlin’s restrained position should be explained by its traditional post-Second World War pacifism and convictions that a larger NATO military deployment may provoke Russia’s over-reaction. However, Berlin has engaged in the enhanced forward presence (EFP) launched by NATO after the summit in Warsaw, taking over the command of one of four battle groups (Lithuania). Despite the abovementioned deficits, the EFP sends a clear signal: if Russia invaded, it would have to fight the forces of most of the allied countries, including the main powers, including Germany.

Germany in particular wants to stick to the original spirit of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. Berlin’s restrained position should be explained by its traditional post-Second World War pacifism and convictions that a larger NATO military deployment may provoke Russia’s over-reaction

On the other hand, Poland’s position on the Russian aggression against Ukraine presented as principal seems sometimes ambivalent. The Polish-Ukrainian bilateral relations deteriorated considerably in the Summer of 2017. In Poland, the far-right anti-Ukrainian groups which treat Russia as a lesser evil or even as a  potential ally, may count on the lenient approach of the Polish government. In August 2017 the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs tried unsuccessfully to start a rapprochement with Russia by giving lessons to Ukraine regarding its politics of memory in a Russian pro-government newspaper. Muslims, Germany, and the rise of nationalism in Ukraine (which is presented in a distorting mirror) are more often presented as key challenges than Russia’s aggressive policy. Moreover, after 2014 Poland has not managed to speed up the modernization of its armed forces. To the contrary. According to the most recent report published recently by Stratpoints, a think tank established by prominent former Polish generals, the modernization program is facing serious delays.

Poland’s position on the Russian aggression against Ukraine presented as principal seems sometimes ambivalent. The Polish-Ukrainian bilateral relations deteriorated considerably in the Summer of 2017. In Poland, the far-right anti-Ukrainian groups which treat Russia as a lesser evil or even as a  potential ally, may count on the lenient approach of the Polish government.

Poland’s and Germany’s interests in the security of the energy sector diverge as well. Poland has a strong negative position on the Nord Stream 2 project which foresees constructing the second gas pipeline running under the Baltic Sea between Germany and Russia. As seen from Warsaw, Nord Stream 2 would deprive Central-Eastern Europe of its status as a transfer region between Germany and Russia. At the same time, it should be admitted that the Nord Stream 2 project has met with a substantially stronger internal opposition in Germany compared to the first pipeline.

Blogs written by Gabriele Frietag and Ernest Wyciszkiewicz show the differences of Polish and German approaches to Russia, nonetheless both authors point out the similarities in their policies towards Moscow. Gabriele Frietag underlines that “What is wanted from the EU and especially from Germany is a more coherent policy towards Russia that acknowledges the anxieties of Central European and Baltic countries like Poland regarding Russian expansionism.” However, she also recognizes that “The current Polish government, with its prominent anti-Russian rhetoric,shows striking similarities to its demonized foe when claiming to be the true representative of European values while simultaneously discrediting its own democratic institutions and political opponents. Thus, the casus belli and the battle lines are not as clear-cut as the political rhetoric makes us believe.” Meanwhile Ernest Wyciszkiewicz stresses that “there have been recurring attempts in the EU, including in Germany, to water down Russia’s responsibility. And so quite often some European and, to a lesser degree, German politicians make a semantic twist and start seeing the Ukrainian conflict as a civil war instead of an inter-state conflict triggered by an obvious aggressor (Russia), or separatists instead of Russia-backed proxy forces. […] Nevertheless, political consensus in the EU prevails, though it has been under pressure from certain EU Member States. Poland and Germany, cooperating closely, contributed greatly to the European unity vis-a-vis the Russian aggression against Ukraine.”