Poland: The perfect host for US-Ukraine summit?

The first meeting between Obama and Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko comes on a key date in Polish history – and marks Poland's growing influence in Europe.

Neal J. Menschel/TCSM/File
People gather for a Solidarity rally in Gdansk, Poland, in June 1989. President Obama and Ukraine's president-elect, Petro Poroshenko, are set to meet in Warsaw on the 25th anniversary of the election that threw off communist rule in Poland.

It is no coincidence that President Obama and Ukraine's incoming president will meet for the first time in Warsaw on June 4. On that date, 25 years ago, Poland held the historic election that broke the communist grip on the country.

Both leaders have chosen Poland – Obama as the first leg of a European trip this week and Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko as his first trip abroad – as a signal to Russia. Upon landing in Poland today, Obama announced a $1 billion initiative to boost defense capabilities of European allies, calling the security of Central and Eastern Europe “sacrosanct.”

But the setting of the upcoming meeting also underlines how much Poland has been thrust into the spotlight in the midst of the crisis in Ukraine, particularly after Russia annexed Crimea in March. If in 1989, upon the country’s first partially free elections, Poland was a pawn in the cold war, today it has emerged as a serious player in the current East-West power struggle.

“It really feels like a graduation in Warsaw,” says Roderick Parkes, head of the EU program at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) in Warsaw. But while the parties at the table may find Poland’s success a compelling example for Ukraine, he adds, the lessons have a limit – and Poland still faces foreign policy challenges ahead.

High Noon

One of the icons of communism's fall in Poland 25 years ago is a poster that the opposition Solidarity party used to encourage voters to the polls.

Based on the poster for Fred Zinnemann's popular 1952 western film “High Noon,” it features Gary Cooper. But instead of a gun, the actor holds a ballot in his hand. The logo of Solidarity is displayed behind him, and at his feet reads the inscription "High noon, June 4, 1989."

On that date, Solidarity shocked Poland's ruling communists with a landslide victory, breaking their hold on Poland and launching the country's ascent over the next quarter century. It joined NATO in 1999, and the European Union five years later. The country’s GDP has doubled in 25 years. In 2009, Poland was the only EU economy not to enter into recession.

Its economic rise has come hand-in-hand with ambitions in the foreign policy arena. Poland’s minister of foreign affairs, Radoslaw Sikorski, for example, is seen as a possible successor to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Its rise was sealed when crisis befell Ukraine. Mr. Sikorski joined his counterparts from France and Germany in Kiev to help hammer out a deal to put an end to violence. And since the beginning, Poland has led the calls in Europe for tougher sanctions on Russia for stoking deadly tensions.

Poland is a logical stop for the US, which has issued tougher sanctions on Russia than some European countries have been willing to push.

“The fact that the talk [between Obama and Poroshenko] will take place in Warsaw is a strong signal from Obama,” says Marcin Zaborowski, director of PISM and a specialist on EU security and defense policy. “He is trying to say that America celebrates with Poland its freedom and successful transformation, and that he has the same view on the Ukrainian crisis as Poland, which argues that Russia has come too far and something has to be done to stop it.”

It is also a narrative that boosts the image of American influence in the world while not putting the onus on the US to do the heavy lifting on Ukraine. “Poland is very convenient for Washington right now. Obama has no idea how to solve the Ukrainian crisis and Poland says it knows how,” says Zbigniew Lewicki, a specialist on the US at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw.

For Mr. Poroshenko, Poland is a logical first stop too, as Ukraine draws inspiration from the Polish experience.

“For many Ukrainians, Poland is an example, they have seen how the country has changed during those 25 years of freedom and they want the same for Ukraine,” says Zbigniew Bujak, a former Solidarity leader.

Limits to the Polish model

But Mr. Lewicki argues that the paths of Ukraine and Poland are far too different to provide meaningful comparison, and that transformation in Ukraine is far from certain. “Poland had a real and well-organized opposition and state structures functioned well. Ukraine is weak, it's almost a failed state,” he says.

In fact, it was precisely power concentrated in the hands of oligarchs, and a failure to reform, that left Ukraine’s democracy and economy ripe for its current political chaos.

Those aren’t the only limits that Poland faces as it seeks to play a role in bringing Ukraine’s crisis with Russia to an end. As a newer EU member historically at the receiving end of EU largesse, Poland has argued with – but not won over – the bigger economies, like Germany, wary of pushing Russia too far.

Many observers argue that Russia’s threat to the region is over-exaggerated and that this is not a cold war redux.

Some view its ultimate pleading for additional security pledges from the US, like the one announced today – in an era when the US is pushing Europe to secure its own borders – as a regression of sorts. They warn that Poland and other worried Central and Eastern European countries are thinking in bipolar terms, and looking for a patron and protector.

Poland had also led the EU, as a co-initiator of the bloc’s eastern partnership policy, to make key geopolitical miscalculations, according to some observers. In seeking to bring Ukraine and other post-Soviet states into the western fold, Europe triggered Russia’s defensive response.

“Ukraine has a fundamentally different relationship with Russia,” says Mr. Parkes. “Everyone in question is invested in the idea that Ukraine is the next Poland. The US needs that narrative. Poroshenko needs that narrative. And [in Poland] it is helpful. … But it is far from reality.” 

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