President Donald Trump’s decision to decertify the Iran nuclear deal sends a message to world leaders that American credibility has been restored and that the United States remains fully committed to its security commitments. It also signals how dangerous the era of “might makes right” is, when adversaries believe they can take advantage of Washington’s meek attitudes.
The United States has been concerned about Polish bluster, particularly since the start of the year when Polish officials made comments about Russia’s forces in Ukraine. Poland asserted that the Russian occupation of Ukraine shows that Ukraine’s neighbors must fear Moscow’s might, and that a “Germany-Poland-Russia triangle” exists to “possess as much territory in Europe as possible.” Although such an alliance was never in reality, it was portrayed as a serious threat and some saw Poland’s statements as intended to undermine NATO.
When the European Leadership Network published an article featuring a Polish politician promoting strategic vigilance in Ukraine, Polish officials demanded the removal of the offending text, threatening that they would pull their seats from the board of the organization and disrupt its meetings.
Just one month earlier, the mayor of Warsaw declared that the United States “is a country which has subverted Ukraine’s integrity.” The Polish government then followed up by denouncing the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision to raise Poland’s engagement in post-election threats of international criminal justice as undermining Polish sovereignty.
Poland is a complex strategic partner. Poles are pragmatic enough to be concerned with Russian actions in Ukraine, however far-fetched their interpretation of them. They would equally be concerned if Poland’s neighbors approached Russia to discuss the future of their countries or simply said, “We are fine.”
But several factors complicate Poland’s position. First, the country’s influence on Ukrainian politics is tenuous and divisive, and leaves Warsaw very little bargaining power with Moscow on the issue. Moreover, today Ukraine is a signatory to the Minsk agreements that have helped to limit the Russian involvement in Eastern Ukraine. Few Poles seem to question how events in Ukraine could have developed given the history between the two countries.
Second, although the country has been regularly advised by NATO members and non-NATO members to be cautious about presidential comments, its leaders have chosen instead to keep up a strong emphasis on tensions with Russia in the run-up to the decision, and to push back against American attempts to limit Poland’s borders to 1,500 kilometers.
Third, the country’s openness to Russia has emerged as a source of controversy, with several foreign-policy analysts and former diplomats criticizing its close ties to the Russian government. But more often than not, those criticisms come from political opponents of the president, who draw most of their funding from the opposition of Poland’s right.
Fourth, the fact that the parliamentary elections will take place in October, therefore six months before the scheduled renewal of NATO’s Article 5, which reads, “An armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” Because of this, many analysts and former diplomats worry that Poland will overstep its borders—often with unintended consequences—within this period of calm. As a result, the government has been pushing to reform the country’s outdated peace treaty with Ukraine, which expires in October 2018, and from whom Moscow has demanded that all foreign troops be pulled out.
These four factors – confusing messages, a general narrative of vulnerability, open borders, and long waits for the elections – have left many Poles wondering whether the more hyperbolic rhetoric of President Andrzej Duda, who compared Brussels to a “concentration camp,” will translate into effective measures.
Much is at stake. All of Poland’s neighbors are currently examining whether the country’s new conservative government stands up to them, and many hope that these elections will be a good indicator of how the country’s foreign policy will evolve.
Jack Pritchard is the founder of European Strategies, a Eurasia Group sister company in Brussels and Brussels, Belgium. This article was originally published by The Diplomat.