With Russia rising, Poland looks west

Posted in Russia , Europe , Asia | 21-Aug-08 | Author: Nicholas Kulish| Source: International Herald Tribune

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski shake hands after signing a missile shield deal in Warsaw.

WARSAW: The bustling streets of Warsaw, increasingly filled with gleaming new automobiles and lined with Western boutique stores, seem a world away from Tbilisi, where jittery residents this month faced the once-inconceivable threat of Russian tanks advancing down Rustaveli Avenue in the center of Georgia's capital.

But the events in the Caucasus, and threats of a nuclear attack by a Russian general after the announcement of a deal to place a U.S. missile defense base here, have cast a pall of doubt over Poland, which until now, flush and confident, has taken its place in the West, specifically on the side of the United States, as an ally rather than a vassal.

As the United States and Poland formally signed the missile defense agreement Wednesday, the Russian reaction was sharp.

"Russia in this case will have to react and not only through diplomatic protests," the Russian Foreign Ministry said, Reuters reported from Moscow.

But polls in the daily newspaper Dziennik have shown Polish public opinion swinging sharply over the last month from opposition to the missile base to support for it.

"Before the Georgia invasion, I was against the installation of the missile shield in Poland, but now, after the events there, I feel threatened from the east, and I don't regret the decision," said Julian Damentko, a university student out for a walk in Saski Park here earlier this week.

Poland, the nation in which the Solidarity trade union hammered significant cracks into the old Soviet bloc, has been feeling its strength as a leader of the new Europe of former Soviet-sphere states. But since the Georgia crisis, this largest of post-Communist EU members has moved to cement its relationship to the action-oriented United States and not just the tentative bureaucracies of Europe and NATO.

The Russian invasion has reminded Poles once again of how quickly and dangerously the world, in Poland and around Eastern Europe, can divide. Poland is struggling now to show that it will not fall behind the old lines of the Cold War, which may have seemed almost forgotten since the Berlin Wall fell, but are remembered all too well here.

On the newsstands here, the cover of the mainstream, right-leaning weekly magazine Wprost is an illustration of Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, with an instantly recognizable little mustache and sweep of hair across the forehead that make the headline "Adolf Putin" redundant. The Polish-language edition of Newsweek featured the outspoken and at times impolitic Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, in the pilot's seat of an airplane cockpit under the headline "You Have to be Tough With Russia."

"Parchments and treaties are all very well, but we have a history in Poland of fighting alone and being left to our own devices by our allies," Radek Sikorski, Poland's foreign minister and the government's point man on missile defense, said in an interview this week.

It is not a Cold War mindset that drives Poland, Sikorski said, but one that harkens back to World War II, when despite alliances with Great Britain and France, Poland fought Nazi Germany alone, and lost.

It was "the defining moment for us in the 20th century," Sikorski said. "Then we were stabbed in the back by the Soviet Union, and that determined our fate for 50 years."

As a result, Poland's foreign policy is stamped by mistrust not only for Russia's ambitions, but also for hollow assurances from its own allies. Georgia's lonely fight against an overwhelming Russian military did serve as an object lesson - a refresher that some here said no one in Poland needed - on the limits of waiting for help from friends.

"We're determined this time around to have alliances backed by realities, backed by capabilities," said Sikorski, pointing out that, right now, all that Poland has in terms of NATO infrastructure is one unfinished conference center.

This kind of strategic thinking was supposed to be on the way out. It was just this past December that Poles celebrated the removal of all border checkpoints with Germany and other European neighbors, a powerful symbol of the country's full membership in the Western club. The economy has been churning out new jobs and higher wages, allowing Poles to enjoy a standard of living that, though not up to French or German standards yet, is far beyond what everyday people even could have imagined in communist times.

In Warsaw, there remains a sense of remove, if no longer complete security.

"There is a certain climate of safety, that we are already long-admitted in the Atlantic alliance, that we proved to be a good member, a good ally," said Marek Ostrowski, foreign editor of Polityka, a mainstream weekly news magazine in Poland. There is a feeling among Poles, he said, that "the summer is nice and finally people don't feel threatened here."

Poland's sense of security did not blossom overnight. It was a result of close to two decades of assiduous work to burrow as deeply into Western institutions as possible, leaving behind the Russian sphere and taking what leaders in this Roman Catholic country had long argued was its natural place in the West. Poland also lacks the sizable Russian minority that so worries officials in Ukraine and other former Soviet states. Data show that Poland's 38.5 million people are 97 percent ethnically Polish.

In signing the deal Wednesday to allow U.S. missiles to be based on the country's soil, Poland is being true to both its tortured past and its present as a new European power. It is allowing the missiles on its territory but doing so on its own terms: The deal prescribes that U.S. troops will man the batteries for the time being, binding Poland and the United States in a way that increases both the risk and the cost of confrontation with a newly emboldened Russia.

Poland is not just relying on allies like the United States for its defense. The country is in the process of revamping its military, ending conscription and modernizing its professional army. Among the former Communist nations now integrated into NATO and the European Union, Poland has grown into the role of outspoken advocate for those countries, like Ukraine and Georgia, still in Russia's orbit.

"Poland will be a normal European country when it has normal, democratic, free-market countries on both sides of its border," Sikorski said, adding, "And that includes Russia, by the way."

In many ways, this assertive country, bolstered by Western allies and institutions, is a model of what can be achieved with Western support, but also of exactly what Russia does not want Ukraine and Georgia becoming on its southern flank.

Public support for the missile deal was far from universal on the streets of Warsaw. Some residents said the threat was being hyped by leaders here for political gain, others that any steps that might provoke Russia were a mistake.

"It's the dumbest thing we could have done," said Slawomir Janak, a retiree. "This decision is going to have its repercussions on Poland for a long time. It might even lead to the Third World War."

But most said it was a necessary step.

"If the Western nations don't defend such a strategic target as the pipelines in Georgia, why should they defend Poland, which is less strategic?" said Szymon Chlebowski, a student from Gdansk, out for a walk in Warsaw. "In the perspective of five years, I see a real threat for Poland, starting in the Baltic nations, north to south first, and then Poland, with the same lack of reaction by Western nations."

"As in the Second World War," said Joanna Skicka, who was out with him, "the story will repeat itself."

Chlebowski said he and his friends had started discussing concrete plans for where they would go if Poland were attacked. In a sign of Poland's orientation to the West, they said they planned to escape to either Italy or Spain.

Michal Piotrowski contributed reporting.