Poland and the US: An Alliance of Democracies, Readjusted

Main Image Credit US President Joe Biden, Poland's President Andrzej Duda and other NATO heads of state and government pose for a family photo during the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, 14 June 2021. Courtesy of Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo

Poland’s apprehensions that its interests may be sacrificed as a result of the recent US–Russia summit are misplaced. Still, both Washington and Warsaw need to work harder on their relationship.

As US President Joe Biden's recent tour of Europe concluded, it became clear that the analysis of some very senior politicians and commentators in Poland, who expressed fears that the summit between the US president and Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, could end up producing ’another Yalta’ – a division of the continent into spheres of influence – was either too emotional, or simply misjudged.

The meeting in Geneva did not produce a breakthrough in relations between the US and Russia, and was most certainly not a reset. But at the same time, allied interests were not sold out, and there was no US–Russia agreement negotiated over the heads of countries such as Poland.

For the US, Russia remains a problem that cannot be ignored, due to the country’s nuclear potential and continuing aggression, particularly in cyberspace. The most important points of the summit were the agreement to return to talks on arms control and an agreement to return the Russian and US ambassadors to their posts in the respective capitals. Biden also presented Putin with a list of 16 critical infrastructure sectors that he wanted to be classified as out of bounds, and where any cyber attack from Russia would be met with a counterattack. The significance of this list was made clear to Putin: ‘I looked at him, I said: “Well how would you feel if ransomware took down the pipelines from your oil fields?”’ President Biden later recounted. ‘He said it would matter’, Biden added.

Respect and Mistrust

The negative aspect of the meeting was that Putin was given a propaganda opportunity to appear on an equal footing with the US leader. This could strengthen his position domestically, and could encourage other leaders to meet with him on similar terms. Indeed, the abortive Franco-German initiative to hold a summit with Russia seems to have been inspired by the Biden–Putin summit.

Still, the Russian president’s ability to benefit from this apparent equality with the US leader proved to be limited. Putin did not get the opportunity to interact directly with Biden in front of the media; it is worth comparing this to Donald Trump's disastrous press conference after the July 2018 Helsinki meeting, during which the then US president suggested that he trusted Putin more than his own intelligence services. The Biden administration has recognised that the only way to keep Putin in check is to offer him and Russia a dose of respect, notwithstanding the clear signs of distrust. Whether this strategy will prove successful is something we will find out in a few months. Biden's approach to Russia is not ‘trust but verify’, but a more cautious or perhaps even sceptical ‘verify first and don’t trust’.

The summit took place in the context of earlier US meetings with allies during the G7 gathering in Cornwall, as well as the subsequent NATO and EU–US summits in Brussels. So, what does the Biden doctrine look like? Washington’s thinking is quite simple and has already been communicated many times. The US's primary goal is to rebuild alliances – in both Europe and Asia – among democratic countries, so as to effectively compete with authoritarian countries, especially China.

The key moment for Poland was the NATO summit, during which Biden confirmed his country’s obligation under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, a commitment undermined by his predecessor. The alliance also undertook to further implement the decision to strengthen the eastern flank and, just as importantly, a decision was made to create a new strategic concept for the alliance that will codify NATO's transformation from 2014. There is no doubt that the Brussels summit significantly strengthened the North Atlantic alliance and opened a new chapter after four years of Trump's presidency, a development which is also good for Poland.

Polish Sensitivities, Polish Opportunities

A mistake of the Biden administration was the lack of allied consultations before the decision to withdraw from an intended policy of sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which will connect Russian gas directly to Germany. The US decision was made primarily in the context of relations with Germany, but its impact on relations with other allies was underestimated in Washington, as was its timing just before the Biden–Putin meeting – yet another faux pas which sparked negative reactions in Warsaw and other European capitals. It is also unclear whether the US has obtained any concessions from Germany regarding Nord Stream 2 by abandoning its previous policy of imposing sanctions.

Unfortunately, Poland learned about this decision from the media, despite earlier assurances that such negotiations would not be undertaken over the heads of Poland and the region. At the last minute, the US tried to rectify the mistake: Derek Chollet, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken's right-hand man, spoke several times with high-ranking officials at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and finally President Biden met with Polish President Andrzej Duda on the fringes of the NATO summit. However, Polish frustration and the sense of crisis in the relationship remained.

But Warsaw cannot afford to be offended by the US and Biden. After several months of silence in Polish–US relations, following Biden's election victory there has been a crisis for which both sides are responsible. Poland and the US should return to dialogue not only on matters that are important to Warsaw (including military and energy cooperation), but also on those that will be inconvenient for the Polish government: an honest conversation about the standards of Polish democracy is needed. These two aspects cannot be separated, especially since the defence of democracy is at the heart of Biden's foreign policy.

A recent telephone conversation between Blinken and Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Zbigniew Rau marks the beginning of a return to more open channels between Washington and Warsaw, which could result in a Polish–US strategic dialogue in the autumn, including both traditional items of discussion as well as new ones, such as cooperation on climate matters. At the same time, the US should start a dialogue with civil society in Poland, which may include the possibility of offering financial support. Such a broadened Polish–US relationship will be in line with both Poland's national interests and Biden's doctrine based on allied cooperation between democracies.

Michal Baranowski is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. This contribution is based on an initial article published by Warsaw’s Rzeczpospolita daily.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Michal Baranowski

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