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More NATO troops in Eastern Europe? New Polish president says yes, please.

Andrzej Duda hopes to enlist fellow Central and Eastern European nations in creating a permanent military presence to counter Russian threats. But he faces resistance.

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Estonia's President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (r.) welcomes his Polish counterpart, Andrzej Duda, during his visit to Estonia in Tallinn, Estonia, Sunday.

Ints Kalnins/Reuters

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Nervously eyeing a resurgent Russia, the nations of Central and Eastern Europe have primarily looked to the US and NATO for reassurance, be it in the person of President Obama, who visited Estonia in 2014, or NATO commanders who have increasingly led joint exercises in the region.

Now they have another figure to turn to: Poland’s new President Andrzej Duda.

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In choosing Estonia as his first foreign trip Sunday – significantly, the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Totalitarian Regimes – President Duda officially kicked off a new Polish-led initiative for a permanent NATO presence along the eastern borders of the European Union to counter Moscow.

Duda follows a long line of Polish leaders who are hawkish on Russia. But where they’ve failed, he now seeks to engage in bilateral diplomacy to solidify an eastern military bloc within NATO ahead of a crucial summit in Warsaw next year. And in doing so, he risks triggering a response from Russia, and ruffling feathers in the EU – including some on the eastern flank.

According to a CBOS Institute poll published three weeks ago, 37 percent of Polish respondents say that during Duda’s presidency, relations with Russia will get worse, while only 13 percent think they will improve.

“Strengthening security through strengthening NATO's eastern flank definitely will trigger reaction from Russia” and meet resistance within Europe, says Tomasz Szatkowski, president of Poland’s National Center for Strategic Studies (NCSS) in Warsaw. But he says many in the region support a “revitalization of Poland’s role in Central-Eastern Europe.”

Invoking history

Duda's travels come on the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which was signed on Aug. 23, 1939, and secretly divided Eastern Europe into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence – essentially ushering in a period of occupation that would hold until the fall of communism.

Krzysztof Szczerski, Duda’s foreign policy adviser, said in an interview in Warsaw that the visit marks the start of “a big diplomatic campaign ... to increase NATO’s presence in our region… and significantly strengthen security in Central Europe. Estonia is the first nexus in building a chain of cooperation.”

Estonia's leaders worry that their tiny nation, a third of which is Russian-speaking, could be in the sights of Russian expansion.

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At a lectern at Estonia’s Museum of Occupations, standing next to President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Duda passionately invoked history, citing the "Baltic Way," the human chain that spanned the Baltics as an anticommunist protest in 1989. He called for another one 25 years later, “from the Baltic sea from Tallinn through the entire central Europe and all the way down to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean sea."

The US announced plans this summer to station heavy weaponry in the Baltics and several Eastern European countries, the first time it will have done so since the end of the cold war. NATO has also stepped up joint exercises and announced new rapid reaction forces in the region.

Duda's effort to push further is not a difficult sell in the Baltics, former Soviet republics with a high percentage of Russian speakers. “I certainly have reason to believe that our eastern neighbor seems to see this region as NATO’s most vulnerable area, a place where NATO’s resolve and its commitment can be tested,” President Ilves said Sunday at Duda’s side. “No other of the big countries had experienced mass deportations, for example to Siberia.”

Resistance to militarization

But obstacles might come from the western members of the EU, particularly Germany, and from Brussels itself.

While Duda’s goal is a continuation of Polish foreign policy, his predecessors from the center took their cases to Berlin and Brussels, carving out a more prominent role for Poland on the European stage in doing so.

They were widely credited for bringing Poland out of the cold war mentality of seeing Russia and Germany as enemies. Some fear Duda and his Law and Justice Party, which could gain significantly at polls later this year, are bringing that mentality back.

Germany cites a 1997 agreement with Russia against putting "substantial combat forces" in Central and Eastern Europe. But Poland and others say that agreement is moot after the annexation of Crimea.  Germany, along with others in the region, also worries about the defensive response new forces could elicit from Russia.

“Western politicians will be cautious about this matter, especially it would be hard to convince Germany,” says Edward Haliżak, director of the Institute of International Relations at the University of Warsaw.

In a recent report, the European Leadership Network in Britain argued that large-scale military exercises by both Russia and NATO have indeed increased war's likelihood.

Meanwhile, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have been seen as ambiguous in their response to Russia, as has Hungary, whose leader has cozied up the most to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Convincing the countries of the eastern flank to speak in one voice and opt for increasing NATO's presence in the region is possible, although it won't be easy,” says Mr. Szatkowski.