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Poland’s recently adopted National Security Strategy (NSS) provides a new security policy framework for the most significant actor among the countries on NATO’s eastern flank. There are, of course, divergent views among analysts on how far such documents deserve close attention or whether they merely amount to ‘political advertising and geopolitical signaling’. But even the latter minimalist reading is relevant given Poland’s pivotal geographic position for military mobility and Enhanced Forward Presence, as well as its leadership in regional cooperation formats aimed at strengthening allied responses on the eastern flank.
With Poland’s regional leadership aspirations in mind, how it defines and aims to execute a similarly pivotal role in regional diplomacy matters. After all, Polish President Andrzej Duda explicitly highlighted regional cooperation formats like the Bucharest 9 (B9) and the Three Seas Initiative (TSI) as key new instruments to bolster Poland’s security. The B9 brings together Poland, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. It aims to strengthen the voice of these eastern flank countries within NATO. The TSI has the same membership – plus Austria, Slovenia and Croatia – and focuses on developing regional North–South connectivity in the areas of transport, energy and digital infrastructure. While primarily economic in nature, many of its projects would contribute to energy security and improve military mobility in the region.
The Predictable, and the New
Overall, the new NSS heralds no major departures from its 2014 predecessor or traditional Polish security policy. There are, however, shifts in tone and emphasis. For example, the role of information and communication technology and the importance of cybersecurity have been significantly expanded. The clearly stated main threat is the ‘neo-imperial policy of the authorities of the Russian Federation’. The Russian threat is defined much more specifically, in more depth and with clearer language than before. But it was not portrayed as the main threat, only as ‘an important factor’ among others.
It is worth mentioning that China features in the new NSS – yet another departure from the 2014 version. But, while the document makes a reference to China in the context of increasing great power competition shaping Poland’s security environment, it does not offer any further elaboration, nor does it draw any explicit consequences. In practice, Poland has been keeping the door open for cooperation with China despite close ties with the US, including the adoption of a Joint Declaration on 5G with the latter, which essentially tied Poland to Washington’s view of the Chinese technological challenge.
The US remains, in Poland’s strong transatlantic tradition, as the main bilateral security partner. In the previous strategy document, the Obama administration’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ raised concerns about US commitment to European and Polish security. Yet as strange as it may seem given President Donald Trump’s recent decision to reduce US troops in Germany, the 2020 NSS is far more reassured by US support, based on the development of closer bilateral ties with the US in recent years.
A Regional Lynchpin
What role, then, for regional cooperation? The 2014 strategy noted the growing importance of regional cooperation for Polish national security. At the time, the formats highlighted were the Visegrad Group (with Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) and the Weimar Triangle (with Germany and France). It also referred to other important bilateral partners in the region, like Romania, the Baltic states and Nordic countries.
In the current version, this is expanded by the new formats of the B9 and the TSI. While both formats have gained in stature, their contribution to improving regional security and enhancing NATO’s efforts has limits, most significantly in the divergent threat perception among B9 and TSI members, notwithstanding their demonstrative unity at summits. Still, the B9 format, for example, has the potential to promote practical cooperation and regular consultation on national security matters.
In recent months, there have also been encouraging signs for improved cohesion on the eastern flank. Towards the end of last year, the Czech Republic's political relations with Moscow deteriorated after a long phase of incoherence, despite the advocacy for close ties with Russia from Czech President Milos Zeman. Throughout 2019, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis also intensified relations with the US, including on security matters. And following the March parliamentary elections, the Slovak government of Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini, which had sought to intensify cooperation with Russia, was replaced by a more explicitly Atlanticist cabinet under Igor Matovic. As a result, two central European neighbours are now closer to Warsaw’s views.
One can also add the positive turn in US–Austrian relations, since the coalition between Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives and the Russophile Freedom Party collapsed in scandal, and Kurz formed a new government with the Greens following a snap election. While Austria is militarily neutral, improved relations with Washington and Vienna’s support for a natural gas pipeline through Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary will strengthen regional energy security – another Polish objective.
The TSI has also benefitted from a US funding pledge of $1 billion for regional energy infrastructure projects – one which is augmented by the decision of Poland and Romania to launch the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund with a starting capital of €520 million last year. These developments are beneficial from Poland’s perspective, and can enhance the potential for regional security cooperation.
However, limitations on Poland’s regional aspirations remain. The Polish leadership’s aspirations are not universally appreciated among its neighbours. Significant political differences still remain. The Czech Republic and Austria remain supportive of Nord Stream 2 – the cross-Baltic Sea gas pipeline running from Russia – which Poland has long deemed a direct threat to its energy security. This is reiterated in the new NSS document. And Hungary, despite joining the TSI investment fund, has maintained close ties to Russia.
While Poland’s regional neighbours appreciate formats like TSI as elements in their transatlantic relations, their priority remains direct bilateral ties with Washington. This limits how far Poland can leverage its US ties in the region. Overall, as a study from the International Centre for Defence and Security previously diagnosed, Poland’s problem remains that it’s ‘too big to be small’, while also being ‘too small to be big’. Thus, it cannot bring enough to the table to lead the region on defence cooperation alone.
Still, and despite the limitations of regional cooperation formats, each fulfils important tasks and performs useful functions. And the latest strategy paper offers an opportunity to sharpen Poland’s regional policy to render the country a pivotal actor on NATO’s eastern flank. Poland’s president will need to lead this process.
The imminent presidential elections are unlikely to fundamentally change directions. Despite a tightening gap in recent polls, President Duda maintains good chances of winning re-election. Even a victory for the main opposition candidate, Rafał Trzaskowski, would not alter Poland’s defence posture.
Łukasz Janulewicz is a Research Fellow at the Global Europe Centre, University of Kent and a former Central Europe Analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs. Follow him on Twitter at @la_janulewicz
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Polish soldiers during a ceremony exercise. Licensed under the public domain.