Poland knows it cannot go it alone. Its indefensible position between Germany in the west and Russia in the east would seem to require either an alliance with one against the other or an outside protector.
Both options have their downsides. If it depends entirely on either Germany or Russia for its security, Poland would have no defense if its ally turned on it. That happened when the Soviet Union helped liberate Poland in World War II and went on to subjugate it as a communist-led client state. When it relies on other powers to safeguard its independence, they may decide that Poland is not worth the fight or prove unable to live up to their commitment. In 1939, Britain and France did go to war on Germany when it invaded Poland. But they were in no position to restore Polish independence.
After it liberated itself from Soviet rule in 1989, Poland pursued a dual strategy. On the one hand, it made itself economically indispensable to the Germans within the context of the European Union. On the other, it relied on the United States, within the context of NATO, to keep it free.
But this is not enough to keep the Poles secure. Germany is the most powerful state in Europe but it is militarily impotent and reluctant to lead. The United States are far away and may once day decide that Poland is a price worth paying to avoid a war with Russia.
Unlike during the eighteenth century, when Poland had no defense against Austrian, German and Russian landgrabs, it now has the advantage of neighbors of equal or lesser strength.
As the unofficial leader of Central Europe, Poland has played a key role in using the economic and political appeal of the European Union to draw Ukraine, another former Russian vassal state, into the Western orbit. Although this triggered another East-West standoff in 2014, Poland needs an independent Ukraine to act as a buffer lest it be seen as a buffer itself.
Before it joined the European Union in 2004, the country led the Visegrád Group with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia to promote their joint European integration. Poland can still use the platform to coordinate policy and security initiatives, such as the tentative Visegrád Battlegroup.
The idea of a free Central Europe under Polish leadership isn’t new. Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, a leader of the 1831 Polish uprising against Russia, proposed a Central European federation stretching from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. So did Józef Piłsudski, the head of the Second Polish Republic, who called it Intermarium. It was obviously opposed by the Soviet Union which was only just coming into being at the time. But many of the federation’s prospective members also saw it as a thinly-veiled attempt to resurrect the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. During World War II, Polish resistance fighters and the government-in-exile floated the idea once again. It was killed by Allied indifference and Soviet hostility.
The fact that all Intermarium nations are now in the European Union and NATO would make Polish leadership seem far less menacing. A Central Europe that can escape the “in-between” dichotomy of the Cold War would give Poland a third option between relying on either Germany or Russia for its security and seeking an Atlantic protector.
Poland’s conservative Law and Justice party, which is popular in the inland areas of Poland that used to be Russian, may most inclined to push for such a strategy. It is more hawkish about Poland’s former enemies and more vocal about the need to keep the United States engaged in Central Europe. President Andrzej Duda has recently spoken about Poland as NATO’s “eastern flank” and called for an alliance of Central and Eastern European nations to meet Russian aggression.
The liberal Civic Platform, which dominates politics in the once-German northern and western areas of the country, is more sympathetic to balance-of-power politics and German leadership in Europe. It would like to assume that Germany’s economic and political integration with what it calls Mitteleuropa will offset or even trump its historical sensitivity to Russia. For the right, this is a risk not worth taking.
The two parties need to find a consensus. Poland’s demise in the eighteenth century had as much to do with the strength of its rivals as with the disunity of its ruling class. History teaches that the country cannot rely on either the assurances of its allies or the weaknesses of its foes. It must find the political will to chart its own course.