Poland Steps into the Gap of Western Absence

It is often said that Poland is America’s greatest ally, and America Poland’s worst. Poland has apparently realized this truth.

Poland is going ahead with its own missile defense system, after the Obama Administration wavered on installing a proposed missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic during the so-called “reset” period with Russia. (The administration has since promised to deploy such a system “regionally,” but on a decreased scale and on a delayed timetable.) US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has been on a photo-op trip to reinforce to whoever still believes him that the United States supports this initiative, which is nominally about Iran, but is really about Russia.

It is safe to say that Poland is sensitive to Russian imperial ambitions, and not unrelatedly, Warsaw is one of the largest defense customers in Europe. (At its current rate of military growth, it will have one of the largest air forces on the continent within three years.) Shielding Poland from Russian ambitions has been American foreign policy for decades, and it is fairly clear that Poland no longer believes that this policy has any teeth.

In fairness, nothing the West has done since the Bush Administration will have given Warsaw much confidence. Russian military adventures in Georgia in 2008 were met with studied consternation and nothing more. Russian interference in Moldova barely rates stern words from Radio Free Europe. Russian bullying of Ukraine exposed the toothless cluelessness of the entire Western foreign policy elite.

It would be downright irrational for Warsaw to conclude that Brussels or Washington will stand beside it in the event of Russian adventurism, EU membership or not, NATO membership or not. If there is a single constant in Western defense policy, it is an absolute aversion to conflict except in the most extraordinary of situations.

In Poland’s experience, “the most extraordinary of situations” does not reliably include “an attack on Poland.”

The fact that Russia has vociferously protested any missile defense system is a clear indicator to any rational person that Russia wishes to maintain credible threat potential against its former satellites; the West instead tends to see this as proof that Russia should not be unduly upset. That in turn is a message Warsaw has been imbibing for over half a decade, and has clearly decided it can no longer outsource its defense.

All of this would be so much petty politics save for the fact that it suggests a new wave of rising instability as Moscow tests its influence and ability to indirectly project power, and the West offers increasingly incoherent responses. The fractured former Eastern bloc will have no choice but to align with Moscow or manage its own defense, and the power vacuum that follows will be significantly more conflict-prone.

For want of strength, the peace will be lost.

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