Missile Defense in Poland a Sticking Point for Relations with Russia and U.S.

This post is part of my series on Polish-Russian relations. Read the introduction here.

In my last post, I discussed how “Georgia shock” in the wake of the 2008 Russia-Georgia War led Poland to finally establish the Eastern Partnership Program by capitalizing on Europe’s sudden realization that Russia maybe, just maybe, could one day pose a threat to the continent.

Feeling threatened by Russia was nothing new for Poland; even after it brought down the communist system in 1989, defending itself against its eastern neighbor was high on its priority list, and rightly so. If you lived in a country that had been partitioned, attacked, and occupied by a neighboring state all in the span of two hundred years, you’d probably feel threatened too. Poland responded to Russia’s aggressive tendencies through a more active use of Western security apparatuses, a decision which has solidified Poland’s position as a major central European power and continually aggravates Polish-Russian relations.

Since 2002, American plans to establish a NATO Missile Defense system in northern Poland have been on the books in some form or another. The Bush Administration announced its deal to place missile interceptors in Poland (in exchange for some fighter jets and America’s thanks) in 2002. Obama quickly rolled back the Bush plan–which had solicited the criticism of most Western European capitals and the ire of Moscow–in 2009, during the age of the short-lived US-Russia Reset. (Unfortunately for his administration, the move was announced on the anniversary of the Soviet WWII invasion of Poland. Oops.) Instead, Obama favored a “phased adaptive approach,” which would deploy interceptors to Poland much later. In March, this plan was further delayed, but Russia continues to demand that the NATO shield in Poland will never be used against it. Unsurprisingly, NATO has refused to give this assurance.

Poland has–understandably–been a little peeved with the US for not delivering on a decade’s worth of promises. As Ian Brzezinski of the Atlantic Council writes, the American track record has caused Poland to think that, for the US, “security relations with Central Europe [are]…a trade-off in the effort to build a partnership with Russia.”

The United States is not only making light of the important Polish-American relationship (Poland was a longtime supporter of American efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan), but missing the important role it could play in either reconciling Poland and Russia (at least in terms of missile defense) or asserting American defense dominance over Putin’s playground.

Rather than attempting to placate Russia by changing plans for the shield and subsequently offending Poland (again), the United States–and NATO–need to make a choice. NATO may have been born in an answer to Cold War-era defense, but the organization has long been searching for its post-Cold War identity. Perhaps this new identity should include regionally-based cooperation on issues like missile defense. It’s a wild and slightly naive notion, particularly since the US and Russia have such a hard time cooperating on less contentious issues (civil society, for instance). The US has floated the idea before, and was met with much feather ruffling in both Warsaw and Moscow. Unfortunately, we haven’t pushed the envelope since then.

If we aren’t willing to take the high road, at the very least we should be willing to publicly admit that a missile defense system in Poland might one day be used in defense of our allies against not just Iran, not just Russia, but any potential aggressor.

An Introduction to Polish-Russian Relations

Polish-Russian relations. The very connotation of the phrase is packed with a millenium of history. It causes journalists to slough off their descriptions of the problem as “complicated,” and has inspired no dearth of poor quips from academics such as “you could write a book or two about that.”

As is the case with most stereotypes, those describing the “unique” Polish-Russian relationship exist because they are rooted in truth. I’ve lived and breathed Polish-Russian relations for the past six years, and I don’t see the topic getting any less interesting or important as Russia maintains its pseudo-imperialist rhetoric and Poland’s influence in Europe continues to grow…though sometimes I suspect I’m the only one that feels that way.

My interest in Poland and its troubled ties with its Eastern neighbor are embedded in my very person. I am a Polish-American; my grandfather found himself in the United States in 1952 after being deported from Eastern Poland (now Ukraine) by the Soviets at the start of the Second World War, living several years in a work camp in northern Russia, traveling the Former Soviet Union and Middle East with the Anders Army, and finally, marrying in England before emigrating to the US. Understandably, my first childhood associations with Russia were none too kind. As a college student, I decided to pursue a Slavic language and since Polish wasn’t offered at my university, I took up Russian, falling in love with the language, culture, and people.

A few years later, as a student in Russia, I was surprised that my Polishness often helped me connect with native Russians. They referred to me as their “Slavic sister,” or even “svoi chelovek”–one of ours. I was both honored and befuddled. Where was the animosity I expected?

Oddly enough, the Smolensk plane crash, in which Polish President Kaczynski and nearly 100 other Polish dignitaries were killed on their way to a Katyn Massacre commemoration ceremony, furthered my sense that there might yet be hope for Polish-Russian reconciliation. In Saint Petersburg, my teachers and friends offered me their condolences after the tragedy. At the leadership level, the two nations seemed to be acting diplomatically or even civilly toward each other for the first time in recent memory. And this progress was squandered to feed the propaganda monster that still rages in both post-communist countries today.

As I see it, the antagonism between the two nations is fueled by four categories of disagreement: Poland’s attempts to bring countries like Ukraine and Belarus into the European fold through the EU’s Eastern Partnership program, Poland’s plans to allow a NATO missile shield on its soil, economic disagreements, particularly as related to energy politics in region, and lastly, the years of history and bad blood propagandized by both countries whenever a new disagreement flares up.

On Wednesdays over the next few weeks, Wiczipedia will be offering a primer on current Polish-Russian relations. Unlike the Russian and Polish media, which rarely offer unbiased accounts of relations, and the American media, which oversimplifies the issues surrounding them, I will provide the unique understanding of a Polish-American student of Russia and its environs. I hope you’ll join me for the ride!