The crisis in Ukraine is following a script familiar to Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
Border incidents, endangered minorities, rigged elections, annexations and abandonment by allies are from a playbook Poles know by heart, and not just from Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. In the mid-17th century, a political union that bound Ukraine to Poland was slowly pried apart -- by Russia.
That history is guiding Poland’s actions in Europe’s worst diplomatic crisis since the Cold War, according to Tusk, who’s using closer ties with Germany to urge Europe away from Russian energy dependence to free its hand in Ukraine. It’s a coming of age politically for the European Union’s biggest eastern economy. The country of 38 million is taking center stage in EU policy making for the first time since joining the bloc a decade ago, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“We’ve seen invasions and land grabs before,” Tusk said in a March 18 interview on Radio TOK FM, the same day President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of Crimea and three weeks after Russian troops occupied Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula. “But even a crisis as acute as Ukraine’s could in some ways benefit Poland.”
The Ukrainian crisis is helping Poland shed its image of a marginal player in EU policy making.
In February, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski joined his German and French counterparts to broker a deal between warring factions on the streets of Kiev, a delegation that didn’t include the U.K. At an EU summit last month, Tusk successfully led a drive by eastern European leaders for tougher sanctions on Russia just as their western counterparts pushed for more time.
“Poland is emerging as a very important foreign-policy player in the EU for Russia and Ukraine,” Shada Islam, director of policy at the Friends of Europe advisory group in Brussels, said by phone. “This is in contrast with the past, when it had a much smaller voice in the bloc.”
Poland is also playing a greater role in broader EU politics. Under Tusk, Poland took on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Germany in spearheading opposition to tighter guidelines on shale drilling and stricter emissions targets. The January decision to offer new voluntary guidelines while maintaining current EU oil and gas laws was a victory for industry groups and governments such as Poland and a defeat for environmental lobbies.
The Ukrainian conflict escalating on his doorstep, Tusk seized the opportunity to position his country at the hub of diplomatic activity. His stepping stone was the Weimar Triangle, formed by Germany and France in 1991 to help Poland’s transition as it left behind communism and the Warsaw Pact.
Poland is also staking a claim to molding Europe’s direction as its relationship with Russia evolves. Tusk is leading the push for closer ties between the 28-nation bloc and former Soviet republics.
“The Poles played a smart game,” Jan Techau, head of the Brussels office of the Carnegie Endowment, said by phone last week. “Tusk and Sikorski, especially, have invested so heavily that Berlin can’t simply go it alone with Russia anymore.”
Russia’s seizure of Crimea has given Tusk, 56, an opportunity to plug what he’s called gaps in Poland’s security. He’s pushing to restore NATO as a military deterrent by getting it to redeploy some forces east.
Pressure from Tusk and Sikorski drew a February pledge from EU foreign ministers that Ukraine’s association agreement is not the “final goal.”
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule told Die Welt newspaper on March 18 that the bloc should use enlargement as “its strongest instrument” for change in eastern Europe -- a sentiment shared by few governments as group emerges from its worst economic crisis that also fostered the rise of anti-EU political movements.
After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, most former Warsaw Pact nations, including Ukraine and Poland, had GDP per capita of about $5,000, adjusted for purchasing power, according to UniCredit SpA. While Poland has more than quadrupled its wealth since, Ukraine’s has risen to just $7,000.
At home, the crisis has helped Tusk find a message as he seeks a third term in next year’s general election.
His Civic Platform regained the lead over Law & Justice, the biggest opposition party, in a March 6-12 poll of 1,098 adults by Warsaw-based researcher CBOS, after trailing for most of the previous year. Tusk’s approval rating jumped 6 percentage points from the previous month, to 34 percent. Most other surveys showed Civic Platform still trailing, while closing the gap before May 25 elections to the EU parliament.
“Tusk is an incredibly adroit politician and the Ukrainian crisis is enabling him to rebuild his position,” Wladyslaw Frasyniuk, a veteran of Poland’s Solidarity opposition movement in the 1980s, said on TVN24 on March 18.
Poland’s credibility has been boosted by its EU-leading economic growth of 3.1 percent a year on average since 2008, along with German-speaking Tusk’s methodical seven-year courtship of Merkel. Sikorski, 51, said in a November 2011 speech in Berlin -- at the depth of the euro crisis -- that he may be the first Polish foreign minister in history to “fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.”
Bilateral trade between the neighbors amounted to $97 billion in 2012, more than the $89 billion between Germany and Russia, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Poland’s benchmark WIG stock index has gained 120 percent in the decade since EU entry, while the MSCI Emerging Markets Index advanced 104 percent in the same period. The Polish gauge lost 0.7 percent at close in Warsaw today.
There is a market incentive for the Ukrainian push as well: Since Feb. 28, the last trading day before Russia’s parliament approved the use of force in Crimea, Warsaw’s WIG30 index has dropped about 2.3 percent, compared with a 5.5 percent drop in Moscow’s RTS index and 5.8 percent for Ukrainian stocks.
Part of Poland’s leverage is local expertise. The country shares a 332-mile (534-kilometer) border with Ukraine that was crossed 16.7 million times last year, up 11 percent from 2012. Ukrainians accounted for 92 percent of the 235,000 Polish jobs taken by foreigners last year, while one-third of foreign students at Polish universities are Ukrainian.
Poland has the densest network of consulates and commercial ties with Ukraine of any EU member. Both the EU ambassador to Kiev, Jan Tombinski, and the head of the OSCE observer’s mission to Ukraine, Adam Kobieracki, are Poles. The two languages are so similar that Polish television often interviews Ukrainians without translation.
Closer ties set the stage for Sikorski’s Feb. 20 mission to Kiev with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his French counterpart Laurent Fabius. All-night talks led to a peace deal to end the street battles that killed more than 100 people in Ukraine’s capital, and the assumption of power by parliament after President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country.
Poland is also the EU’s only country besides Germany to possess a comprehensive Ostpolitik, or what historian Timothy Snyder, in his 2003 book “The Reconstruction of Nations,” called a “grand strategy” to build up neighboring states, above all Ukraine.
That strategy was formulated in the 1960s by fugitives from communist Poland, especially Juliusz Mieroszewski, an emigre journalist so poor he once made a living cleaning fish in a London shop.
Mieroszewski’s insight was that Poland’s only chance to escape satellite status to Russia was to embrace independence movements in Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine. That must happen before the Soviet Union collapses into its ethnic parts, he wrote, to avoid conflict and delay when the moment comes.
His approach evolved into a strategy of rapprochement with Ukraine designed to reshape Europe’s eastern borderlands, much as the postwar reconciliation of Germany and France provided the armature for constructing the EU’s original core.
Support for Ukrainian independence became the prevailing view of Poland’s opposition in the early 1980s and guided policy when the first post-communist government took office in Warsaw in 1989, according to Snyder. Poland was the first country to recognize Ukraine’s independence, in December 1991, while U.S. President George H.W. Bush was still advising against it.
“If Mieroszewski were alive today, he’d say the most important thing is for Ukraine to stay an independent and sovereign state, full stop,” Eugeniusz Smolar, a Warsaw-based foreign policy specialist, said by phone on March 22.
History also tells Poles that Ukraine may face a tougher battle to reform its economy than Poland did in the early 1990s, even as lawmakers in Kiev approved a preliminary deal with the International Monetary Fund on March 27 to unlock $27 billion in international aid. Sikorski has repeatedly warned that the country could expect no outside funding before tackling its corruption problem, which is the worst in Europe, according to Transparency International.
For Tusk, it’s a matter of hunkering down for a crisis he’s repeatedly said will last “years.” Preserving the EU’s unity and changing its direction, however slowly, is more important than demonstrating the 28-country bloc can act as quickly as a lone autocrat like Putin, the Polish premier said at the press conference with Merkel on March 12.
“I know a lot of people in the EU are saying that in a zero-sum game, Ukraine is lost,” Marcin Zaborowski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw and an adviser to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said by phone on March 28. “I’m not prepared to accept this. A nation of 45 million decides for itself, and what Poland can do is make sure the EU keeps the door open.”