By law, Poland must spend at least 1.95 percent of its GDP on its military. That’s just a shade under the 2 percent that NATO asks its members to devote. Aside from Estonia, however, Poland is way ahead of the rest of the region in military spending. And when President Barack Obama visited Poland in June 2014, Poland committed to upping its allocation to 2 percent, with an expectation that it will rise to 2.5 percent in 2015. The situation in Ukraine – a divided country, with Russia backing separatists in the East – is fueling security concerns in Poland and the Baltic countries in particular.
Even before the Ukraine crisis broke, however, Poland stood out in the region for its commitment to modernizing its military. “The attitude of Polish politicians is very unique and interesting,” Marcin Piotrowski, of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), told me in an interview in August 2013. “They usually are counting every zloty when it comes to other issues. But with the modernization there was and there is a consensus.”
This consensus was strengthened by the short war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. That conflict was a wake-up call for many Poles that the security situation to their east remained unstable. “Poland was one of the leading forces pushing to change some assumptions within the new NATO strategy concept, which was approved at the Lisbon summit,” Piotrowski pointed out. “We actively lobbied for emphasizing contingency planning in NATO and preparing for the worst-case scenario. Georgia, of course, was a main factor here.”
Although the acute concerns generated by the Georgia crisis subsided, Poland remained committed to a substantial military modernization. “Compared to the situation after Georgia, and the reactions of politicians and the public at that time, we are much more confident about ourselves,” he continued. “We might not be satisfied with all the aspects of the relationship with whole NATO. But we’re satisfied with bilateral military relations with the United States.”
Piotrowski dismissed concerns that Russia finds Polish modernization a threat. “It’s probably not so much irritating for Russians,” he explained. “They have some obsolete equipment. And we clearly have obsolete air defense systems – delivered during the Warsaw Pact period – so we must change this military equipment. Probably if the Georgians or the Azeris would start this kind of investment, we would see a strong Russian reaction. Also they recognize that since 1999 Poland is a serious member of NATO. Russia may recognize that Poland, like Turkey, must take this aspect of military security very seriously because of our specific geographic position.”
Polish attitudes toward NATO missions have been divergent. There was initial support for the war in Iraq, but considerably less for the war in Afghanistan. In 2009, more than three-quarters of Poles wanted their troops withdrawn. “In Poland, even when we lost 30 soldiers in Iraq, this war was not so controversial in public opinion,” Piotrowsky pointed out. “In Afghanistan, since the time when we increased our troops in 2007, public opinion has been largely negative. It became even more skeptical with the Obama policy and the surge. And now we have 41 soldiers who died in Afghanistan.”
Still, he concluded that the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan were useful for the Polish military. “We have through the experiences of these expeditionary missions gained a certain amount of capital,” he pointed out. “Even if we could imagine a worst-case scenario of military crisis in East-Central Europe, this kind of interoperability, getting to know American soldiers, and working under real combat conditions has been very useful for the military.
We talked about Polish-Russian relations, the shift in emphasis in Polish foreign policy toward Brussels, and the role of Polish peacekeeping.
Tell me about your work here at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM)?
PISM is a publically funded think tank focused on foreign policy and international security. I’m an analyst of international security dealing mainly with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, which are sexy subjects for the United States but perhaps not so much for Poland. Since I started my career in the ministry of foreign affairs, those areas have been the focus of my interest. That’s what I followed in my post in Washington when I was a diplomat.
It’s my second year here at PISM. It’s a very different job. I’m writing an article every quarter for a peer-reviewed journal. The Polish system is similar to the German academic system. We need a habilitation after the PhD. I defended my PhD in 2005, but I wanted to have a break from civil service and get my so-called habilitation.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
My memory is perhaps not the best. But that was sometime after the elections here in Poland and the successful creation of the first non-Communist government headed by Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki. Of course, these elections in 1989 were not fully free and democratic. But the results were clear. The majority of society and Poles were in favor of politicians who were former members of Solidarity and in coalition with the Citizen’s Committee (OKP).
After a few months, divisions emerged among the leaders of the OKP and Solidarity. Before that I was not aware of divisions within the Solidarity movement. In my family, some people were active in dissident circles and in Solidarity, but there were also people in my family who were somehow close to the government. For me, the elections and the collapse of Communism in Central Europe was part of my growing up and seeing a more complicated picture than what existed during Communist times. Even as a kid, it was clear in my family that the Communists and the TV were lying. Everyone was listening to VOA or BBC Polish section. As a teenager, I wasn’t aware of the issues that might divide the former members of Solidarity. Especially when I finished high school, I was watching how the Polish scene was evolving. In the first few years, there was still conflict between post-Communists and post-Solidarity politicians. But what was even more emotional for people like me were the divisions among former Solidarity members.
Many Poles, including myself, remember the collapse of the Berlin Wall as a beautiful moment that somehow detracted from the fact that we were the first to have semi-democratic elections and a democratic transition of power. Nobody in the West or the United States remembers the government of Mazowiecki, but everyone remembers the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I was still a teenager and enthusiastic about the changes in Poland. Even for such a young person, it was clear that it was a domino effect and all of Central Europe would be free and transforming. Also, I remember that at the end of 1989 was the bloodshed in Romania. Also in June 1989, parallel to our first elections, was the massacre in Tiananmen in Beijing. So many people remember that crucial year.
When did you decide that you wanted to go into the foreign service?
I decided in 1998 when I was finishing my first master’s thesis on international relations. The next months I finished my thesis for political science. In 1999, I started to work for the policy planning staff for the Polish ministry of foreign affairs.
Up to that point you were thinking of going into academia?
I was thinking about it. But I was curious about the world. This building was originally part of the ministry of foreign affairs, and the department of strategic policy planning was located here. Policy planning is on the second floor of the U.S. State Department, but we were far from the ministry of foreign affairs. Policy planning was headed by Henryk Szlajfer. He was one of the former dissidents and my first boss. He is now at the Polish Academy of Science. He was a legend in the dissident movement. I don’t know when he started his career in foreign service, but he was head of the policy planning staff for some time. He collected in this place people with different backgrounds. There were former diplomats, people you might call apparatchiks who were tied to Communist period and who started their careers in the 1970s. There were also a few professors and a few very young people, just after university. It was a very interesting place at that time. Those were the first years of our accession to NATO. I remember this time very well.
What was the most important experience for you at the policy planning department?
It was good because we had a mixed and very diverse staff. I learned quite fast that sometimes my ideas are not correct or how to be more precise. I was happy to have a very different experience than people who started their usual career in the foreign service. I was recruited to the policy planning staff, which was a somewhat different experience from the young people starting their career. Szlajfer told me it was a waste of time to learn again background that I’d already learned at university. I was very interested in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Later, particularly after 2001, my interests shifted to Afghanistan and Middle East.
Why were you interested in that part of the world?
I was interested in Russia, its internal matters and foreign policy. At that time, it was interesting because I foresaw the succession of Putin after Yeltsin. Even though I was just out of university, everyone respected me because I wrote a memo about the possible succession, and this was distributed within our government just after Yeltsin’s announcement that he was resigning. Everyone said that I should be sent to Moscow to watch the process of succession.
Did you go to Moscow at that time?
Yes, I spent three weeks in Moscow. We had a number of young people on staff at our embassy in Moscow. One of these people is now the ambassador in Moscow, another one is our ambassador to Minsk. That was also an interesting time. But Russia under Putin became a less and less interesting place for me.
Until 2001, I was dealing with Russian policy toward the Middle East and the Caucasus. But after 9/11, I was the person on the policy planning staff dealing more and more with the Middle East.
How would you characterize Polish–Russian relations today? Many people have told me that the Russian attack on Georgia was a real shock to Poles. It was a wake-up call that NATO might not come to the defense of countries in this region.
It’s a different situation than 2008-9. Polish-Russian bilateral relations have evolved after 2010. You can see from Wikileaks what the American diplomats in Warsaw, NATO, and Brussels were talking about. Poland was one of the leading forces pushing to change some assumptions within the new NATO strategy concept, which was approved at the Lisbon summit. We actively lobbied for emphasizing contingency planning in NATO and preparing for the worst-case scenario. Georgia, of course, was a main factor here. Prof. Adam Daniel Rotfeld, the former head of the Polish foreign ministry, was in this “wise man group” at NATO. He was very active in these consultations when I was in our embassy in Washington. I assisted in his visit there, setting up a meeting, for instance, with Madeleine Albright.
Currently, Polish decision makers are more and more trying to separate issues of hard security from soft issues in bilateral relations. Of course this is very painful. But again, in the last few years we achieved many positive steps. We’re working, for instance, on a number of historical issues. Again Adam Daniel Rotfeld is a playing a special role in charge of a task force working with its Russian counterpart on opening the Soviet-Russian archives about the most difficult issues in bilateral relations. Even at the individual level, the attitude toward the Russians is changing. People are following the approach of the politicians by separating the hard and soft issues. Of course, at the geopolitical level, not all Polish or Russian interests could be common in this region. But we are trying to separate out these issues.
And how would you characterize U.S.-Polish relations?
We are satisfied with the bilateral framework agreements with the United States, even if some of them are very symbolic. We have the permanent air detachment, with some air force troops rotating every few months. We are also in a very happy economic situation compared to the rest of Europe or the rest of our region. We are in the middle of a very serious modernization of the armed forces while other NATO countries, even the United States, are dealing with drastic cuts. We are dedicating 2 percent of GDP to the military budget and going through this serious modernization. Compared to the situation after Georgia, and the reactions of politicians and the public at that time, we are much more confident about ourselves. We might not be satisfied with all the aspects of the relationship with whole NATO. But we’re satisfied with bilateral military relations with the United States.
Has there been any reaction from Moscow, beyond rhetorical reaction, to the modernization of Polish forces?
I’m not following this every day. But I’m sure they’re aware of that development in Polish military expenditures, and still they’ve taken a rather low profile. Sometimes Russian generals threaten us with nuclear weapons in the Kaliningrad oblast. But compared to 2008 and how Russian elites behaved after the Russian invasion of Georgia, they are quite calm. As we are talking about this, there are some big military exercises in Belarus and there will be some big exercises in Poland, by the standards set by NATO exercises from past years. I expect that there will be some rhetoric, some threats from Russian generals, but we’ll see. Still, I don’t remember any serious comments from the Russian elite and the Russian military about Polish modernization.
Why do you think that’s the case? In terms of overall military balance, it doesn’t count for much? Or Russia doesn’t consider Poland an existential threat?
These are factors. As far as I know, there are some proposals for the serious modernization of Russian military through 2020. Probably they know that this is a parallel process. It’s probably not so much irritating for Russians. They have some obsolete equipment. And we clearly have obsolete air defense systems – delivered during the Warsaw Pact period – so we must change this military equipment. Probably if the Georgians or the Azeris would start this kind of investment, we would see a strong Russian reaction. Also they recognize that since 1999 Poland is a serious member of NATO. Russia may recognize that Poland, like Turkey, must take this aspect of military security very seriously because of our specific geographic position.
All the other countries in NATO are cutting their military budgets. Washington is trying to encourage its allies to increase spending, but they are ignoring Washington. NATO talks about “smart defense,” but that seems like putting the best face on these cuts. Some of this is the financial crisis, but the trend began before then. How long can Poland buck this trend?
The attitude of Polish politicians is very unique and interesting. They usually are counting every zloty when it comes to other issues. But with the modernization there was and there is a consensus. In the Polish media, these national security issues are not prime time or on the front page of newspapers. We have a lot of portals, websites, blogs, and expert trade journals, and that’s the place where the experts and politicians exchange opinions. But up to now national security issues are not a major topic in the mainstream media.
This wide consensus is a positive surprise for me. These expensive plans and this high level of military spending have support in the Seym and among the mainstream political parties. That’s why the government has had the luxury to think in the long term about these investments into weapons and equipment. There’s no panic, like we saw after 2008, but politicians are taking seriously this worst-case scenario. We have no interest in taking Minsk or Kaliningrad. Also, people who are in charge of this defense reform know more about the intentions and capabilities of Moscow.
The main investments should be in air defense. And that’s an interesting topic: the competition between offers to sell us air and ballistic defense systems. Still, we have this luxury of a separate bill approved last year along with a decree by the president supporting long-term plan for military modernization. If our economy will still be in good shape, if there are no radical changes in the political landscape, which is of low probability, I am sure these plans will go smoothly.
Korea has been boosting its indigenous military manufacturing capacity to substitute for traditional imports, particularly from the United States. Has that been a debate here in Poland as well, to create an indigenous capacity?
We inherited a quite a big defense industry after the Communist period. It’s clear that we cannot produce or design some types of weapons. For instance, when I was going to Washington, there was a contract with a Finnish company for armored vehicles for Polish land forces. Now we are producing these vehicles for export. The Finnish company sold us a license for this model. Now their factories can’t produce it while our factories can. And we’re selling them to different markets.
Americans provide licenses to allies – for tanks, for instance – for national security purposes. It usually doesn’t make sense commercially. Why would the Finnish company undercut its own market by giving Poland the license?
Probably they didn’t expect to undercut their own production. It’s an irony.
Especially in our trade journals, there are clear concerns about lobbying from military industry companies. But it’s also obvious, especially for politicians from districts where the factories are located, that this kind of equipment, like air defense or ballistic missile defense, is above our technical knowhow. One aspect of future contracts will be technical cooperation and production of some parts of this system in Poland.
Let’s turn to Afghanistan. I don’t remember where we are with Polish contributions.
We are still one of the biggest contributors – at least from Central Europe. We have 1,300-1,500 soldiers in Afghanistan. They moved to one or two bases in Ghazni province in eastern Afghanistan. Like many other NATO forces, they are focused on advising and supporting Afghan national forces. We had almost 3,000 soldiers in Afghanistan during the surge of 2010-2011. As I mentioned, I was responsible for the greater Middle East when I was in Washington, and I focused then on the American debates over Iraq and Afghanistan. There was an interesting paradox toward the two conflicts in Polish public opinion but also among political elites. Without conducting some sociological research or public opinion polls, I couldn’t really understand why public opinion supported for such a long time the engagement in Iraq, which was criticized so strongly for instance in the United States. And yet, since the beginning, Poles always were skeptical or criticized the increased presence in Afghanistan. This would be a good topic for a political scientist or social scientist to explain this paradox in details.
In Poland, even when we lost 30 soldiers in Iraq, this war was not so controversial in public opinion. In Afghanistan, since the time when we increased our troops in 2007, public opinion has been largely negative. It became even more skeptical with the Obama policy and the surge. And now we have 41 soldiers who died in Afghanistan.
Does it have something to do with the somewhat comparable nature of the regime change in Eastern Europe and Iraq?
Yes, the majority of Poles received this neo-conservative rhetoric positively. Just before the invasion, many commentators and op-eds in Polish media viewed Saddam Hussein’s government as a tyrannical regime. They received this rhetoric sincerely. Even more important for decision makers and public opinion was the issue of WMD, and that was another important factor.
Certainly Adam Michnik supported the war on the grounds that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant. More recently, I believe he came out and said that he made a mistake on this issue. What is Polish public opinion now about Afghanistan?
You can probably find these figures in the latest German Marshall Fund annual report, with comparisons to previous years. But the negative attitude has been quite constant for many years. There’s another paradox, and I’m not sure if the German Marshall report explained this fully. There’s generally low support for Obama administration among Poles. You can see the comparison with other European countries. Paradoxically, the Bush administration has had a better reception than the Obama administration. That’s another mystery for me.
Even when Obama was first elected?
It’s interesting to compare the German and Polish figures for 2008 and 2009: there was a huge gap. It doesn’t mean that there’s anti-Americanism or hostility here. But even though Bush was not popular around the world, he was still popular here among average Poles. Maybe again it was caused by this neo-conservative rhetoric of freedom.
The negative public opinion about participation in the U.S. mission in Afghanistan usually led governments to draw down their forces or remove them altogether. What has it produced here in Poland?
Our politicians are different. They share this philosophy of “together in, together out.” Now the narrative is that we are finishing this combat mission, and we will withdraw. Like on the U.S. side, the mission remains undecided until after 2014. It’s now at the level of diplomats, and the issue is how to shape the Polish contribution to the next mission. De facto there will be two missions in Afghanistan, that is if Mr. Karzai does not do something that will prevent those missions. Meanwhile, the NATO summit planned for June this year has been postponed until next year.
There seems to be a declining appetite among Poles to support expeditionary forces in general.
We have through the experiences of these expeditionary missions gained a certain amount of capital. Even if we could imagine a worst-case scenario of military crisis in East-Central Europe, this kind of interoperability, getting to know American soldiers, and working under real combat conditions has been very useful for the military. I’m not a military man, but I am confident about this experience of Polish military. Even if the Polish military ultimately sets different priorities, it has gained important political and experience capital on these missions far from Europe.
What about peacekeeping – does Poland contribute significant numbers?
Even during the Communist period, we were very active in peacekeeping under UN auspices. We still have some troops in Kosovo, in the Balkans. We were in Lebanon as observers for some time. We participated in EU missions in Africa, in Congo. Even when we had 2,000 soldiers in Iraq in 1,000 in Afghanistan, still we had about 1,000 troops in different UN peacekeeping missions. It’s maybe not a priority now, but it was also a very important experience for the Polish military.
Poland is moving closer to the EU and away from the orbit of U.S. foreign policy. What do you think the impact of this is?
We were talking about military reorganization, and there’s only a narrow circle of people interested in that issue. And they basically are all in consensus. Some opinions by some politicians are a little exaggerated. I was in the foreign service for some time and working with different decision makers, both former Communist and former Solidarity. Even if we had different governments, people at the level of minister of foreign affairs or minister of defense didn’t see a big difference between the United States and EU and do not see it as a dramatic choice between mother and father. Professional civil servants or higher-level decision makers didn’t see it as better to be in one group or another, closer to Germany or France, for instance. Still, probably some politicians will make such statements.
I should also mention the worldview of my younger sister, who was born in 1989, the year of the collapse of Communism. The younger generation of Poles who grew up after Communism have much warmer feelings toward membership in the EU and are probably more skeptical of or even critical toward close relations with the United States. I spent six years in Washington, and I could get an easy visa for her, without her waiting in that long line at the U.S. consulate. But she never visited me in the United States. She always spent her vacations somewhere in Europe. I don’t know how representative that is. But there is this openness and warm feelings to Western Europe in part due the lack of any restrictions to travel there. And there are no special feelings toward the United States, which was seen in the case of the former dissidents, or even my generation. I think that my generation has a balanced view. We know that there are two pillars that are equally important: security and economics. Public opinion polls would probably reveal the much more favorable opinion about limiting foreign policy to Europe or the near vicinity of Europe without going on any risky missions. My sister was always critical of Poland’s military engagements far from our neighborhood.
The younger generation in this region has had the experience of the Erasmus program and studying in different places in Europe. Not just travel but living and learning throughout Europe.
This might be a problem for the United States, which can lose an entire generation of future decision makers who have never visited the United States, who didn’t have a chance to attend university there because of these visa restrictions. If you look at the Fulbright fellowship and how many people attended during the Communist period, who were smart even if they were Communists, that probably contributed to the changes in Poland. Maybe decision makers in the United States don’t fully understand how important this was for U.S. standing in this region.
When you look back to what your worldview was when you started in the policy planning department, have there been any major changes in your perspectives?
Especially after spending 13 years in the foreign service, I think I became a much wiser person. I know that the world of politics is much more complicated than even the most sophisticated models or paradigms. When I was at university, I was very interested in abstract theories of politics and international relations. I was a great fan of the debate between realists and liberals in the United States. After spending so much time in the foreign service, I realized that the world is much more complicated than these models.
Now being almost 40, I’m much more skeptical, not skeptical that academicians can’t be helpful, just that the world is much more complicated. Now I’m much more in the middle, trying to find what is useful from both schools of international theory. That’s probably why I don’t like such extreme positions in politics. After six years in Washington, I think that this is a similarity between the Polish and American scene: extreme positions usually try to dominate public debates, including the debate on foreign policy. Of course the world is much more complicated than that.
In my personal worldview, I have never been a radical, never had much sympathy for Communist radicals or anti-Communist radicals. In private life, I’m a little bit conservative and very liberal in economics. I have this Aristotelian approach of the ,,golden mean.” If you’re working in policymaking, the issues are also simplified. Even when I worked as a diplomat I was recognized as trying to have a deeper analysis even of last-minute issues. I’m trying now to fuse these experiences, and I’m quite happy with that.
When you look back to 1989 and all that has changed between then and now, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
Actually I’m very satisfied. I would give a 10 for the strategic choice after the collapse to move toward the West and become part of Western civilization. That’s why I don’t see it as a choice between NATO and EU. Generally I’m satisfied with the transformation, especially compared with the successes and failures of other post-Communist countries. Of course I’ve had my moments when I doubt some politicians. But even when you look at the thorny issue in 2010 with the airplane crash in Smolensk, look at how smoothly the transition of power went. Even with all the imperfections of the parties and the political system, I’m still very happy to be a citizen of Poland especially when I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Central Asia and the Middle East, and to spend a long time in the United States. So, 9 over all.
Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?
Looking into the near future, how would you rate the prospects for Poland on a scale of one to 10 with one most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
Still, I’d be optimistic. I’d say 8.
Warsaw, August 9, 2013