Stars and stripes rise over Vistula River

US President Donald Trump (R) & Polish President Andrzej Duda (L) at a press conference, White House, Washington, June 24, 2020

The visit by Polish President Andrzej Duda to the White House on June 24 marks an important milestone in the United States’ transatlantic strategies. It comes at a time when a growing number of issues has surfaced over which the US and Europe generally disagree and tensions in the US’ relations with both Russia and China are on the rise. 

The US visualises Poland as an anchor sheet of its European strategy in the downstream of Britain’s exit from the European Union. Discords of a fundamental nature are arising between Washington on the one hand and Paris and Berlin on the other in their respective approaches to the philosophy and practice of Euro-atlanticism. 

Atlanticism and ‘continentalism’ on both sides of the Atlantic are grating against each other, with major European powers emphasising increased regional cooperation or integration over trans-Atlantic cooperation. This dialectic frames Poland’s pivot to Washington to replace post-Brexit Britain as the representative of American interests in Europe. 

There are other poignant aspects, too. Duda’s visit coincided with the Victory Parade on Moscow’s Red Square commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany. Echoes of a controversial past could be audible in the attic of history — the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of 1939, an extremely sensitive topic in Russia and Poland alike. 

Russia often feels that the West is trying to underplay and marginalise the memory of the Soviet contribution to Allied victory in World War 2, accounting for well over half of Germany’s military losses at a cost of almost 30 million Soviet lives. 

While addressing the Russian military top brass in Moscow last December, President Vladimir Putin described as “sheer nonsense” the argument in the western capitals that the 1939 non-aggression pact between Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union helped pave the way for World War II to break out.

The Ribbentrop-Molotov pact — named after the two foreign ministers who signed it, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov — had assured that neither side would attack the other unprovoked. It was signed in August 1939, barely a week before Nazi Germany invaded Poland, which would ultimately trigger the start of full-fledged military combat on the continent. The Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east two weeks later. 

The 1939 pact had a “Secret Protocol,” the precise details of which would only emerge late in the Cold War under Mikhail Gorbachev. It carved up the European map into German and Soviet “spheres of influence,” in a bid to keep the two powers out of each other’s way. 

Putin has condemned the 1939 pact but also labeled it as a “necessary evil”, being the only viable way to avoid imminent conflict with Germany. Indeed, the Allied policies of appeasement of Hitler before the war broke out cannot be ignored, for instance, tolerating Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938. 

But Putin reserved sharp criticism for Poland, alleging in particular that Poland’s ambassador to Germany at the time was a Nazi sympathiser. “Essentially they colluded with Hitler. This is clear from documents, archival documents,” Putin said in his December speech. 

Putin cited excerpts from the diary of Poland’s then ambassador to Berlin, that the diplomat had promised to erect a statue in Hitler’s honour to thank Germany for removing Jews from the country. “A bastard, an anti-Semitic pig, you cannot put it any other way,” Putin said. 

“He expressed full solidarity with Hitler in his anti-Semitic views… It is people like these who negotiated with Hitler — it is people like that who today are tearing down monuments to the liberating warriors, the Red Army soldiers who freed Europe and the European people from the Nazis,” Putin said.  

Poland, of course, has its own narrative seeing itself as betrayed on almost all sides at both the start and then the end of the war, when it became part of the Soviet sphere of influence. 

Now, Duda’s nationalist government has been pushing through contentious laws making it illegal to suggest that any Polish people collaborated with the Nazis, despite broad historical consensus.

To cut a long, tortuous story short, Moscow will regard as grave provocation Trump’s announcement on the White House lawns with a beaming Duda on his side that a US-Poland defence pact is in the making, while also confirming that part of the US troops to be withdrawn from Germany per his recent decision, will be deployed to Poland. 

Trump said, “We are going to be reducing our forces in Germany from 52,000 to 25,000 troops. Some will be coming home and some will be going to other places. Poland would be one of those other places.” 

Duda promptly hailed it a “very reasonable decision.” Poland has offered to meet the cost of any permanent US deployments. Asked what kind of a message the redeployment sends to Russia, Trump remarked wryly: “I think it sends a very strong signal.” 

In an exceptionally sharp rejoinder on June 25, Russia’s top diplomat in charge of relations with the US, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov lashed out that Moscow will not differentiate between Republicans and Democrats in the White House, since “anti-Russian consensus is deeply rooted in the US elites at all levels: US politicians regard Russia as an obstacle to Washington’s dominance in the world.” 

Without doubt, the Washington-Warsaw axis has a pronounced anti-Russian thrust. The Trump administration announced in February a commitment of $1 billion for galvanising Poland’s Three Seas Initiative comprising 12 EU member states — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania. 

The TSI is intended as a political platform to promote connectivity among nations in Central and Eastern Europe by supporting infrastructure, energy, and digital interconnectivity projects. Its main goal is to create a “north-south” energy and infrastructure corridor to rectify the heavy dependence on Russian energy imports by diversifying to LNG imports from the US through terminals in Poland, Lithuania and Croatia with a pipeline grid connecting them.

Poland recently purchased 32 F-35 fighter jets in a deal worth over 4 billion dollars, making it the first user of the F-35s in the region. Trump and Duda had signed a joint declaration on 5G technology last year. Effectively, Poland will chariot the US campaign against Huawei in the Central European and Baltic regions. 

Again, the US has met with grand success by cornering the lion’s share of Poland’s ambitious plan to generate six to nine gigawatts in the nuclear sector by 2040 and 2045. Poland’s nuclear power programme will involve dozens of large reactors with a capacity of 1000 megawatts and more. The North Carolina-based GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy [GEH] and Poland’s largest power company, Polska Grupa Energetyczna SA {PGE] have announced a new agreement to collaborate.

All in all, these strategic moves suggest that Washington hopes to erect an Iron Curtain segregating the Eurasian geopolitical space inhabited by Russia from the platform of Poland’s Three Seas Initiative, which encompasses the swathe of land between the Baltic Sea, the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea. 

The “Old Europe” will no doubt suspect that the US is imposing its agenda. They regard Duda as an aberration on Europe’s liberal-democratic landscape — anti-democratic, authoritarian, and a populist ‘strongman’. 

But these are qualities that endear Duda to Trump, who has voiced support for his candidacy for re-election as president in the upcoming poll on 28th June. Poland under Duda is Trump’s secret weapon to demolish European integration and reassert US hegemony, to put Germany down and to keep Russia out. 

How far the US will succeed in this direction remains to be seen. Trump’s foreign policy record is dismal. In the final analysis, it is a self-centred policy with no strategic coherence. It is improbable that Trump’s leadership will be acceptable to Germany or France. Russia too will militate against such hegemonic ambitions.

Above all, US’ capacity to impose its will on other countries is fast diminishing, and its priorities in immediate terms will be on its own economic recovery. Trump may only succeed in further straining the transatlantic partnership by such blatant attempts to dictate to the major European powers in a strategy of “divide and rule”, which they would deeply resent.

Then, there is a dark horse – China, which is positioning itself quietly with a long-term perspective to be a meaningful partner on the long and winding road to recovery and reconstruction for the European economies ravaged by the pandemic in the post-Covid era. Europe will certainly negotiate the optimal terms of engagement with China, but is unlikely to spurn the Chinese overtures at Trump’s bidding.