Ukrainian crisis: Poland prepares for the worst

Antoine Renaux, Warsaw correspondent, Poland, Translated by Isabelle Delaunois
10 Mai 2015

A true ally of Kiev, Poland plays a leading role in the development of the Ukrainian crisis. Despite the cease-fire of February 15, Warsaw remains skeptical and is preparing for a new escalation of the conflict.

Credit Antoine Renaux
Credit Antoine Renaux
Supporting the protesters on Maidan Square in December 2013, welcoming NATO troops on its territory or calling for sanctions towards Russia, Poland is actively involved in the defense of its Ukrainian ally. However, the political stance of this country of Central Europe, which shares a land border of 529 km with Ukraine, is merely covered by the media.


The two countries share political, but also historical and strong cultural ties since the fourteenth century, when the western territories of present-day Ukraine were incorporated into the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania. This political entity disappeared at the end of the eighteenth century when the country was divided between Russia, Austria-Hungary and Prussia. Poland and Ukraine regained their independence at the end of the First World War. At the time, 200 km of what is now the Ukraine, forms part of the Polish territory. The borders between the two states were changed again by Stalin at the end of World War II, with the approval of Western powers. During the Cold War, USSR annexed the Ukraine, and at the fall of the Soviet Union, the country inherited its current territorial borders.

Despite all these changes, the political friendship between the two countries remained strong over the last few decades. The crisis firing up in Ukraine has actually brought Poland and the Ukraine, who fought against Russia on many occasions in order to safeguard their independence, even closer.

Cease-fire: Warsaw remains skeptical

On February 15th, following negotiations between the Franco-German duo and Russian President Vladimir Putin, accompanied by his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko, a cease-fire was declared in the Ukraine. However, according to a UN report, nearly 800 violations of this agreement has been recorded.

With renewed hostilities in the background, Warsaw is at the forefront of the regional conflict and prepares itself for a further escalation of the crisis. On February 2nd, Ewa Kopacz, Prime Minister of the Polish government, said that "an absolute priority is the security of Poland and Poles." Her statement echoed those of her predecessor, Donald Tusk, now President of the European Council. The latter said that a consultation of European partners would be underway to launch sanctions against Russia, and thus force it to abandon its political support for pro-Russian separatists.

Worried about a possible escalation of the conflict, the Defence Minister, Tomasz Siemoniak, announced a series of measures to strengthen Warsaw’s military defense. A military training program for all volunteering Polish citizens was launched and Reserve training was also intensified, as stated by the Minister. In total, Warsaw forecasts an increase in military spending of around 42 billion euros over the next ten years.

Warsaw/Moscow: strained dialogue

The government takes the threat on Poland stability seriously, as it has not forgotten the statement of Vladimir Putin in 2014: "If I wanted to, Russian troops could be in Warsaw in two days." This statement might just have been another provocation of the Russian president against a member country of the European Union, but it has led to increased tensions in the dialogue with the Polish authorities. Indeed, the consequences of the turbulent history between the two states still resonates, as reflected in their diplomatic relations. Russia is still perceived as a historical enemy of Warsaw since the division of Poland in 1795. This long and painful legacy has resulted in a strong distrust of Moscow.

Today, the Kremlin's involvement in the Ukrainian crisis is considered by Poland as a come-back of Russian expansionism which in the long term would threaten the country's security. It is in this context that Poland has announced the strengthening of its aid to Ukrainian government by sending additional instructors to the government army. The fight against pro-Russian separatists, together with the maintained pressure against Moscow, is seen by Warsaw as the best safeguard for the stability of Poland.

This strategy of helping the Ukrainian government is also rooted in Polish history. According to Polish-British historian, Norman Davies, in his book “Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland's present”, the policy of support for Kremlin’s opponents is a constant feature of the Polish defense strategy. From the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, to the conflict in Chechnya that has marked the last two decades, Poland has always sided with Moscow’s opponents in order to ensure its independence and security.


Poland: exposed to Russian sanctions

However, behind this policy tinted with Russian phobia lies the wish to stabilize Ukraine. Poland wants to pacify the area and force the Kremlin to stop its support for separatist forces. Ewa Kopacz and his government are trying to avoid an uncontrolled escalation of the crisis that would have serious implications for Poland’s stability.

Warsaw’s dependence on Russian imports, particularly in the energy sector, makes the Polish diplomacy vulnerable to a Russian response. Polish foreign trade figures show that oil and natural gas imports account for 90% of the country's supply. Moreover, Russia is the sixth largest importer of Polish products for an annual amount of 7.7 billion euros. Over the summer of 2014, in retaliation to Western sanctions after the annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin closed the Russian market to European agricultural products, citing health reasons. This decision affected Polish apples producers and caused a loss of 400 million euros for Poland.

Finally, we should keep in mind that contrary to popular belief, the Ukraine is only a minor economic partner for Poland compared to the weight of foreign trade with Russia.


Is Poland and the Poles’ security threatened?

Warsaw is also concerned about a new crisis in Ukraine because of the presence of a large Polish minority in the region. According to figures published in the Ukraine Atlas written by researcher François Jabrun, the Polish minority accounts for 0.3% of the total population or 144,000 inhabitants.

Migration flows are also at the center of Polish concerns. The country shares a land border of 529 km with Ukraine, which is a prime destination for political refugees. According to a survey conducted by the Polish newspapers Rzesczpospolita at the Foreign Office, 28,000 residence permit applications and 2,300 refugee applications were filed in 2014. This is a significant influx of migrants for a country which has not experienced such a challenge since World War II. Therefore, any new aggravation of the conflict would represent an additional stream of people which could be a destabilizing factor for the Polish economy that is currently booming. This argument, however, is controversial. Experts such as Stanisław Kluza, former Minister and Chairman of the Polish Financial Supervisory Commission, argue that a new influx of Ukrainian refugees would be an opportunity for Poland to offset the aging population and declining birth rates.