(Technically, the political leaders of Poland fail…)
Casual students of World War II history will recall the guarantees by Britain and France in favor of Poland against any foreign aggression (which turned out to mean aggression by Germany, but not aggression by the Soviets). Pat Buchanan, in his wonderful book “Churchill, Hitler, and The Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World,” has described this guarantee by the British as one of the bigger blunders of diplomacy leading up to the war.
It turns out that Roosevelt may have been behind the push to make the guarantees, as relayed by Herbert Hoover in his magnum opus, “Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover's Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath.” (There are even backstories to this backstory, as Poland apparently made no friends with its neighbors during the interwar years in any case, as documented by Gerd Schultze-Rhonof in his book “1939 – The War That Had Many Fathers.”)
Clearly, political leaders in Poland have not learned from this history – the history offering a clear demonstration that a) a guarantee from western leaders is nothing more than a tool for western provocation and for western purposes, b) as a diplomatic strategy, cozying up to distant powers is not nearly as effective as making nice with neighbors, most importantly with Germany and Russia, and c) going out of one’s way to make enemies out of powerful neighbors is never a good idea.
First, some background: the backdrop is the Ukraine. NATO, a military institution without a purpose (a very dangerous entity) is talking tough, talking expansion, and talking permanent:
General Philip Breedlove, NATO's top commander in Europe, has proposed that the Polish city of Szczecin expand its existing base to help the military alliance respond faster to any threat posed by Russia. (1)
He said that NATO needs to position resources forward on its eastern flank in response to the concerns of nations close to Ukraine. (2)
“Pre-positioned supplies, pre-positioned capabilities and a basing area ready to rapidly accept follow-on forces,” he said. “And how we man that in a rotational or nonpermanent basis is what we’re looking at now to propose in NATO and we will be looking at that with the (North Atlantic Council).” (2)
NATO's top military commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said last month NATO would have to consider permanently stationing troops in eastern Europe. (3)
Permanently stationed troops in Poland. (As an aside, I wonder if the intent is to keep the Russians out, or keep the Germans in.)
American allies (specifically Britain) seemingly want in on the action:
According to the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think-tank close to NATO, Britain and other NATO allies backing the general’s plans to place supplies — weapons, ammunition and ration packs — at a new headquarters in eastern Europe, to enable a sudden influx of thousands of NATO troops to be ready for action in the event of a crisis. (1)
Thousands of troops, supposedly as a check on Russia. Thousands (against Russia) does not equal deterrence; it equals provocation. Does this dawn on Polish leaders?
Speaking on a visit to Warsaw, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, said that the UK would be sending a full battle group to take part in Exercise Black Eagle in Poland this autumn, in the largest British commitment to the region since 2008. (5)
Earlier, Mr Fallon, on a joint visit to Poland with Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, said that it was important to underline Nato's commitment to the collective security of its members at a time of heightened tensions in the region. (5)
Britain was instrumental the last time such a “commitment to…collective security” was offered to Poland. Britain was also instrumental in not honoring the last commitment in any way that was meaningful to the Polish government, the Polish people, or even to the pre-war Polish borders.
"It is right that Nato members and partners demonstrate our commitment to the collective security of our allies in Eastern Europe," he said. (5)
There is that “commitment” thing again. It’s the lack of the “demonstrate” part that has, in the past, proven hazardous to Poland’s health.
At the end of August light infantry troops from 1st Battalion, The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, will take part in the US-led Exercise Sabre Junction, which is also taking place in Poland. (5)
Poland, demonstrating that it has learned nothing from its past, is all for it:
Poland, in particular, has argued for forward supplies and permanent bases to be moved to eastern member states, a measure opposed especially by Germany, which claims a 1997 agreement between Russia and NATO prohibits such a shift. Poland argues the agreement, known as the Founding Act, is no longer valid after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in the spring. (2)
I will come to Germany’s opposition shortly. Suffice it to say, last time Poland avoided resolution with its two larger neighbors, they made deadly enemies of both. Germany is opposed; what about Russia?
Poland in particular has sought to have permanent NATO bases since the start of the Ukraine crisis, Rasmussen told Merkel. Russia has warned against this. (3)
That answers that question.
Poland's foreign minister had sharp words on the downing of the Malaysia Airlines jumbo jet in Ukraine — blaming the crash on Russia-backed "bandits."(6)
Poland’s foreign minister can’t leave bad enough alone?
Those who back the toughest stance toward Russia are Poland, the three Baltic states and Romania — all countries that fear for their own safety due to proximity to Russia and which, unlike their neighbors, are trying to limit Russian influence at home. (6)
Poland sure talks tough for a nation that is powerless to back those words…just like the last time. Look, even if Polish political leaders are right, poking sticks at a bear is rarely a good idea.
Since the crisis broke out in Ukraine this year, Poland has been seeking more security protections from NATO and the United States, leaving Poles hugely relieved when Obama pledged to do more to protect the region during his visit to Warsaw last month. (6)
Relieved? Is there no recollection of the outcome from the last such western pledge?
Others in Eastern Europe seem to have better memories:
But throughout most of central and eastern Europe, leaders withheld judgment, expressing shock but refusing to say more until more facts are in. (6)
The caution is not surprising: Several former Soviet satellite states have developed closer economic ties to Russia in recent years, making them unwilling to take a strong stand against Moscow in the Ukraine conflict. Though all have condemned Russia's annexation of Crimea, they are divided over what to do beyond that, differences dictated largely by the depth of those economic ties — and whether they feel at risk themselves from Moscow's might. (6)
Fearing “Moscow’s might” may very well be a healthy fear. In any case, fearing a bear is more rational than poking a stick at a bear.
But the relief was not universal across the former Soviet bloc. Czech and Slovak leaders made clear they don't see a need for increased security and would not welcome NATO troops. Prime Minister Robert Fico of Slovakia, like Poland a NATO member, even likened "foreign troops" to the Soviet soldiers who invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. (6)
NATO = Soviet invaders. Mr. Fico seems to have the healthiest view of all.
Beyond Britain, other western allies – most notably Germany – are not so fond of the aggressive approach:
Italy, like Germany and France, has balked at harsh measures toward Russia favored by countries like Poland. (2)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is resisting NATO calls for permanent deployment of allied troops in former Soviet bloc countries, amid fears of retaliation by Russia. (3)
An opinion poll released on Wednesday showed that nearly three-quarters of Germans would oppose NATO having permanent military bases in eastern Europe, despite requests by Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania who fear an attempt by Russia to assert its former Soviet power. (3)
Poland really wants to antagonize both Russia and Germany again? Based on promises from political leaders thousands of miles away?
Russia’s position is clear:
Moscow considers the build-up of NATO troops in Europe as part of a hostile policy aimed at placing the alliance’s military resources closer to its borders. Russia’s current military doctrine allows the use of all weapons in its possession, including tactical nuclear weapons, in response to a conventional force attack on Russia. (4)
That sounds like a recipe for disaster.
I know very well that the situation is not exactly the same, 2014 vs. 1939. I can list all of the differences as well as anyone. I also know that sometimes life deals you a bad hand, as has been true for those who have lived in central and eastern Europe for the past countless decades: sometimes the best option is still a bad option. However, there are some very important lessons from that time 75 years ago that should not be ignored:
1) Better to make friends than enemies with your neighbors – especially when your neighbors are bigger than you are.
2) Promises from those ten-thousand miles away are not as assuring as threats from one mile away are hazardous.
Further: the last time the United States played the leading role in winning a major land war on foreign shores against the local, reasonably equipped, organized military was…never.
Political leaders in Poland would do well to heed these lessons from history.