Andrew Michta: Mr. Minister, thank you for taking the time to share your comments with the readers of The American Interest. Ukraine is on everyone’s mind, and especially here in Central Europe. Could you start by giving us your perspective on the changing security environment in the region? Have the EU and NATO passed the test as the crisis in Ukraine unfolds?
Tomasz Siemoniak: Ukraine is the most profound crisis in the region since the end of the Cold War. It poses a direct challenge to the European Union and NATO as it has hit directly at our common security. Crimea has been severed from Ukraine, in effect redrawing the map. We have an intensifying war in a key East European country, with evidence of direct and growing Russian involvement. NATO’s northeastern flank is increasingly exposed, with a growing sense of insecurity along the Baltic and with my own country facing a deteriorating situation to the East. These are all negatives.
At the same time, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has awakened the NATO alliance as a whole to the geostrategic realities in our neighborhood. It has shown that we cannot separate what is happening in Eastern Europe from the security of Europe as a whole, and ultimately the U.S. and the Transatlantic community as a whole. For NATO, which has been searching for a post-ISAF identity, the war in Ukraine has provided a direct answer as to what it should do next. The alliance continues to adapt to a changing global environment, but it also needs to go back to the basics. In general terms this means two words: “collective defense.” NATO needs to build up its operational readiness on the fundamental assumption that each and every one of its missions involves both military and civilian capabilities. Solidarity of all member states, expressed in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, is key. NATO collective defense requires the continuous commitment of all the allies through a robust common defense planning process plus each country’s national effort, including keeping defense spending at a healthy level. There is no credible Article 5 collective defense without linking it to Article 3 of the Treaty, which speaks of effective self-defense. Specifically, NATO needs to reassess—in a non-provocative way but without leaving any doubt as to our firmness—our collective defense assumptions in light of current threats. Admittedly, this process may be painful, as it would entail a re-examination of the post-Cold War NATO military posture; plus, in effect we would have to set aside the “peace dividend” mentality.
Two weeks ago I talked with the British Defense and Foreign Ministers during their visit to Warsaw. We joked that in a way Mr. Putin should be given credit for setting the agenda for the upcoming NATO summit. So there is no question that my colleagues from Western Europe understand what Russia’s intentions are. The key message from the unfolding drama in Ukraine is that Russia is not an international actor that we can count on to preserve and protect the open liberal international order. We see that Russia never intended to keep its word. What happened in Ukraine is not a sudden crisis that erupted over Yanukovych or the EU association agreement, but rather a long-term strategy that Russia has had in place and implemented with iron logic. NATO had no choice but to wake up; in many countries there is now a serious conversation about the need to increase defense spending and a realization that peace is not a given in Europe once and for all.
Ukraine has shown that a lot of projects in Europe have not yet fulfilled their potential, such as the Common Security and Defense Policy [CSDP] of the European Union. This should be an obvious path for the European nations to strengthen their all-purpose military performance, shouldn’t it? Let’s think of what this means long term and what we need to do to fix it. Clearly, part of the problem is institutional and procedural, hindering our ability to work out adaptable yet solid policy frameworks, even in more quiet times. The gist of the problem, however, is strictly political; it often boils down to member states’ unwillingness to be bolder with more usable hard power security projects. We also need to allow for more national input when it comes to project implementation details, and be more open to participation by the EU’s neighbors in some of them. The best example here would be the EU Battlegroups concept. It has enormous potential to enhance the member states’ military capabilities, and it can provide the EU with a standing multiple-purpose, combat-ready force. Thus far, however, the Battlegroups concept has struggled with what I would call a bookkeeping rather than strategic approach. Poland has supported the EU Battlegroup idea for years now in deed not just words, including cooperation with Ukraine.
So for my part, I would expect a serious conversation in the EU about the battle groups going forward, how and under what conditions they can be used, etc. I have tried to put this on our CSDP agenda. Let me give you an example: Several times we proposed that a battle group could be used to replace KFOR in Kosovo. After all, Kosovo is a conflict in Europe, and our American allies are ready to transfer the responsibility there to the Europeans. And yet, despite the fact that all EU Defense Ministers agree to this formula, there seems to be this inertia when it comes to actually implementing it. So we have a situation where I would be hard pressed to find a single Defense Minister in the EU who would agree with this state of affairs, and yet here we are.
AM: Is the inability of CSDP to address the crisis your key concern?
TS: I would rather refrain from ranking my concerns, but it is worrisome to see how difficult it seems for some of our European friends to terminate military cooperation with Russia; or when we witnessed a prolonged lack of consensus on sanctions. The current crisis is also a kind of test of various formats of so far productive regional cooperation, such as the Weimar Triangle or the Visegrad Group [V-4]. The stake is high, as there is a lot of life in such formulas of security cooperation: policy coordination, dialogue with third states, joint military acquisition, and mutual participation in the modernization of national military potentials, to name just a few areas where there is a real opportunity to deepen cooperation. There is debate among the Europeans as to which of these forms of multilateral cooperation formulas have become more or less important today. To me this means we need to focus more on key strategic issues, rather than petty projects. But let’s keep in mind that Central Europe has invested in regional cooperation, and it will continue to expand this effort. This is taken in Poland as a matter of course.
AM: Would you go so far as to say that Europe is failing the test in this crisis? The institutions in place are not working?
TS: No, I wouldn’t say that because, despite these immediate problems, I also see a shift in Europe’s long-term attitudes to Russia. We finally have a discussion about how to lower Europe’s energy dependence on Russia. I will give you an example from our own experience. Prime Minister Donald Tusk has proposed an energy union for the EU. We are finally talking about it, whereas a year ago this would most likely have had little traction in the EU. Today even among countries heavily dependent on Russia we are beginning to see movement on energy policy. I would go so far as to say that for the first time we in the EU are beginning to look for our own solutions. I can say that even without shale gas development or U.S. LNG, Europe could be in a position to reduce its dependence on Russian gas within five to ten years. That is an absolutely key element of our security equation on the Continent.
AM: So am I correct in saying that on balance you see potential for long-term positive change in Europe’s response to the crisis, despite near-term problems? I am sure you know there is a lot of skepticism in the U.S. on that score. And what are the key lessons from how Europe has responded to the crisis in Ukraine?
TS: Correct. I believe long-term Europe will sort it out, our current inconsistencies notwithstanding. I am beginning to see movement in Europe on energy as well as on sanctions. As for the key lessons learned, the biggest and perhaps most painful lesson for all of us has been that in spite of the progress we have made, thus far the EU as a whole has been unable to conduct an independent policy vis-à-vis Russia. We see this with the sanctions issue, for example, as the United States leadership remains essential to bringing us together in an effective response. We see that even the most powerful economies of Europe are pulled in different directions by their specific corporate interests when it comes to Russia. We still have some work to do.
AM: Is this the most important lesson?
TS: This, plus the larger problem of how to make our multinational organizations more effective, including NATO. The need to foster consensus among 28 member states has been slowing us down. We need to think of more effective and more efficient ways of managing this critical alliance, especially in a crisis situation when time is of the essence. The question of improving NATO’s efficiency also concerns the military structure and processes, like the NDPP [the NATO Defense Planning Process] or defense spending. We are going to make this a priority for the summit in Wales. For the EU, reaching an agreement among the members is also problematic. We have different economic interests and business relationships, so there is always the concern that this or that country may be pulled in a different direction. No big mystery here.
AM: Let’s switch to the regional security landscape in North-Central Europe. What would you consider the most important accomplishment during the upcoming NATO summit.
TS: Without question the most important outcome would be the erasing of a mental and political taboo—existing since mid-1990s—of no major U.S. and NATO military presence in the region, including Poland. I mean the stationing of soldiers, requisite infrastructure, exercises, and the prepositioning of equipment. It is not about playing with adjectives in the final communique, like: permanent, rotational, substantial or persistent. Rather, it is about doing what is militarily right and good for NATO allies and the alliance as a whole.
AM: Is it essential that Poland have permanently stationed U.S. troops on its territory?
TS: I realize how complicated such a commitment would be for the U.S. in political terms, as well as economic, as the Defense Department is looking for savings. But for Poland it is a matter of principle that soldiers be stationed where there are serious threats. At least there should be no artificial obstacles to it—based on policies adopted back when some thought that history had ended. It has not, so the responses should not be dependent on unilateral commitments obviated by events happening twenty years later. I for one never frame this in terms of whether the more recent entrants into NATO are in a different category than those who became members during the Cold War, as I believe such a discussion ultimately leads to nowhere in the alliance. We are all members of the same organization; we share the same commitments. But it is difficult for the Polish government to make a credible case that NATO should station troops in places where threat levels are low, while neglecting those exposed to external pressure. It’s a matter of strategic clarity for the alliance. Today’s vulnerability here in northern and central Europe—if unaddressed—will ultimately impact the entire alliance.
NATO needs to respond to this reality, and it should be able to do so without having to re-negotiate or renounce the politically binding NATO-Russia Founding Act. We simply need to respond proportionately to the challenge. Today the de facto division of NATO into the “old NATO,” where there are allied troops and infrastructure, and the “new NATO,” where there are virtually none, is simply unsustainable. On the other hand, Poland’s position is clear and unequivocal: We stand ready to cooperate with Russia provided Russia decides that it wants to cooperate with NATO and will respect international legal norms and its bilateral commitments. We realize this would be a difficult process, but we are determined to explore every venue according to the criteria I just articulated. Regrettably, we don’t see any indication today from Russia that it is ready to engage with NATO on those terms.
Poland has been working with its NATO allies to devise a formula to strengthen the northeastern flank. This is not just a reaction to the crisis across our border, but a rational and thought-through response. NATO as the key defense alliance must be prepared for any eventuality, and this must be understood and recognized by all. Nothing will communicate our resolve better than the Alliance simply doing its job when it comes to collective defense. Planning to enhance allied military presence in Poland is not an aggressive move on NATO’s part; rather, we are doing our job as an alliance that is unequivocally committed to mutual security. We want good weather in Europe, but we understand the need to invest in umbrellas nonetheless.
AM: Do you see uncertainty about U.S. and NATO military presence in the region being caused by hesitation on the U.S. side, or by opposition to the idea among some European allies, for instance Germany?
TS: I would not call it hesitation on the U.S. side. In fact, President Barack Obama during his visit to Warsaw [on June 4, 2014] was unequivocal in his expression of U.S. solidarity and commitment to NATO and Poland’s security. This was a highly successful visit with exactly the right tone and message. In my view, historically U.S. foreign policy has always been the most successful when words, values, and actions have aligned. We are now at the implementation stage following President Obama’s visit, and expect no less. I believe the United States will be making its decisions in the larger context of its global priorities, and it seems clear to me that whether we are talking about the U.S. rebalancing to Asia or responding to crises in other regions of the world, there is no escaping the fact that Russia, with its policy directed to counter U.S. and NATO priorities, must now be an important variable that will impact any of those calculations.
AM: How do you assess Russia’s policies today?
TS: It seems that Russia has decided that it can best pursue its national interests outside the rules of international law, violating the sovereignty of its neighbors while also rejecting cooperation and partnership with the West. In terms of Russian domestic politics this may seem to President Putin’s government like a recipe for near-term success, as it has tapped into Great Russian nationalism and imperial rhetoric. The underlying objective is to reintegrate the post-Soviet sphere by using various military, economic, and political levers. This strategy has also relied on “frozen conflicts” as a tool, for example in Moldova or Nagorno-Karabakh. But I hope those making policy in Moscow today revisit the lessons from the implosion of the Soviet Union. Russia continues to rely on gas and oil to fund the government; it has not modernized its state institutions and it has been governed through ever more tightly controlled authoritarian processes. Its governance has been built around one leader, who has increasingly suppressed Russian civil society. Its foreign policy seems to believe only in the “divide-and-rule” principle, and even in trade we see this on ordinary issues like where it should purchase apples. Today Russia is pouring resources into its conventional military modernization, while playing the nuclear card. At a risk of stating the obvious: This all looks awfully familiar. This is not to say that the Russian Federation today is the Soviet Union of yore. But someone should perhaps remind Moscow that the days of the Russian empire are over.
Most of all, by chasing the imperial chimera the current Russian government is forfeiting the enormous potential of that great country. It is missing the opportunity to bring Russia into the international system as an important and influential player and respected partner. I strongly disagree with the argument that you sometimes hear from Russian nationalists that if Russia began to evolve towards a real democracy and were to work with the West instead of opposing it, it would by default lose its status. On the contrary, it is precisely the suppression of civil society at home and aggressive policies abroad that have put a brake on Russia’s growth and are undermining its global image. The clock is ticking for the model Russia has adopted, both internally and externally; still, I worry how Russia’s chosen path will impact the world, especially its security.
Stability in East Europe and in Eurasia more broadly is essential. And if we want to be sticklers for geography, I like to remind those who emphasize the “pivot to Asia” that Russia is also an Asian power. Russia’s policies will impact not just Europe, but also countries in Asia. How Russia shapes its relations with China will have a bearing on Japan, on South Korea, etc. Hence, I believe that there is no such thing as a strictly regional response to the crisis in Ukraine, for whatever the United States and NATO do here will impact on the global power equation.
AM: Mr. Minister, let me move on to Poland’s security directly in the context of what we just talked about, that is, enhanced U.S. and NATO military presence in Poland. It is likely that at a time of significant resource constraints on the U.S. side there will be skepticism among some in Congress or in the Obama Administration as to the simple economic costs of such a decision. What is Poland prepared to do to address these concerns?
TS: First, we mean it when we say we are serious about defense. Let me mention our defense budget, the fastest growing among NATO allies, and our ambitious military modernization program. In other words, Poland has been doing what the U.S. expects from its European allies. Helping those who actually help themselves is a win-win; it’s cost-effective and the right thing for Washington to do. Poland is also prepared to step up and do what’s needed to defray the added costs of stationing U.S. and NATO troops here. We addressed this repeatedly at the highest levels, both bilaterally with our U.S. allies and in NATO structures. The Polish government is ready to do what’s needed in that regard, regardless of whether that means shifting line items in my ministry’s budget or finding additional monies altogether. Let me be as plain as I can: We will ensure that cost-sharing will never stand in the way of what we believe to be a fundamental decision for NATO, for North-Central Europe, and for Poland, that is, enhancing U.S. and NATO military presence here. We believe that we have effectively addressed the financial considerations in our communications with our friends and allies. The Polish government has ensured that should there be objections to such additional military deployments, the reasons will not be financial. NATO today can draw upon multiple models to provide host nation support. We need to be creative in how the host country would fund the military infrastructure necessary for allied forces on its territory, and how to support their daily training and other requirements. This can be negotiated on a bilateral basis. But I wish to make one thing clear as far as Poland is concerned: We are not standing before the United States and our European allies hat-in-hand. I will give you an example. In April Secretary Hagel and I agreed on the Solidarity and Partnership Program—a framework program for enhanced Polish-U.S. military cooperation. It is not a wish list on our part; rather, it shows how Poland’s investments in defense and our actions to strengthen NATO and to enhance regional defense cooperation can contribute to our common security. So when Poland speaks of the need for enhanced U.S. engagement in the region, it is against the backdrop of what we have already done and are planning to do, to give America and Poland more bang for the buck, so to speak.
AM: To continue with our focus on Poland and regional security: How do you assess cooperation with the Baltic States and Scandinavian countries? Are we seeing a changing regional security architecture as a result of the war in Ukraine?
TS: This crisis has really brought Poland and the Baltic States together. There is no question now that we share the same security optics. Please remember that Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are the only NATO allies that were directly incorporated into the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Hence, they feel especially vulnerable when it comes to Putin’s strategy of rebuilding Russia’s sphere of influence. And they are vulnerable, especially Latvia and Estonia, because of their ethnic Russian minorities. Here I would like to underscore how important actions by the United States and our NATO allies have been in sending a clear signal that these three small states are unequivocally within our defensive perimeter. I am referring here to the additional exercises, ground troops, and enhanced aircraft presence for Baltic Air Policing, etc. This was the right response, both in terms of its symbolism for the citizens of the Baltic States and as a message to Russia. As for Scandinavia, we have very close relations both with our NATO allies and other European Union states. We welcome the selection of the new NATO Secretary General. Mr. Stoltenberg was here in Warsaw, and we feel that Norway is a key player for us in Scandinavia as a NATO member. Sweden and Finland are moving forward with their debate on how to combine their traditional neutrality with closer partnership with NATO, even discussing eventual membership. Both are great partners in a strategic dialogue. To maximize it we will continue to deepen our cooperation.
But also remember that Poland is very much committed to close cooperation with Romania and Turkey as we understand that the changing security dynamic stretches beyond our immediate region. Romania is an important and trusted political partner for us, and we have also been paying close attention to Turkey, another NATO boundary state with a strong history of military cooperation with the United States. Turkey brings to the table a lot of experience when it comes to military modernization, including missile defense. In allied councils, Turkey often speaks plainly on tough issues and does not shy away from difficult questions. We in Poland value such directness and also see similarities in our geostrategic positions. Hence, we believe that we can both benefit from engaging more closely with each other.
Bottom line: We need as much regional cooperation as we can to strengthen NATO’s ability to respond. But with one important caveat: Enhanced regional cooperation should never be pursued at the expense of the principle of overall allied solidarity. The Polish government has always taken the position that there is one NATO, and our security is interconnected—whether in our immediate neighborhood, or farther afield, or where our allies are threatened. When threats are global, Poland is ready to assist, as we have amply demonstrated on several occasions, be that in Iraq or Afghanistan. But we expect full reciprocity from our allies, especially today when security in our region has been deteriorating fast. For us it’s a matter of a strategic imperative, not a quid pro quo. Let me stress: it’s about allied solidarity in NATO.
AM: How would you describe the core tenets of Poland’s strategy when it comes to national defense? These must be questions that have become even more relevant today with the situation in Ukraine.
TS: We think about our defense as an intersection of our own capabilities and those of NATO. Our goal is to modernize the Polish armed forces to such an extent that we can respond effectively in the event of an attack, while at the same time being able to continue receiving NATO’s reinforcements. This approach has been the axiom of our thinking about national defense—it drove our earlier decision to buy the F-16s and informs our current focus on building air and missile defense systems. Please note that we are also investing in our naval capabilities. We just enhanced our armor with the purchase of another batch of Leopard 2A5 tanks and are in the process of finalizing our new helicopter tender. We are investing in equipment and training to ensure that we have a qualitative edge. In fact, I believe that the Polish society would accept more than our current 2 percent of GDP on defense. Should we decide to ask the Sejm [Parliament] for more money for defense above the current levels, we would widen the scope of our effort to enhance the overall defense readiness of our society. Poland has had sufficient, often bitter, lessons from the past to take national defense seriously. The majority of our citizens understands and supports these expenditures.
AM: I think we will be wrapping up soon so allow me the most basic question: If someone back home were to ask me why Poland’s security matters to the United States, what would your answer be?
TS: Mine would be a simple, straightforward answer: What is happening in this region today will have a direct impact on America’s security. I don’t want to repeat what should be obvious, but the tragedy of Flight MH17 should drive this point home. Russia considers the United States to be its principal adversary. I don’t recall in the past quarter century Russia being so anti-U.S. in its policy choices. And this is not just my view; this is the opinion of experts and politicians alike with whom I interact across Europe. Putin wants to compete with the United States. He has been conditioned to think in those categories from the beginning of his professional career. His policies on Syria and Iran are just the most direct examples of how he sees Russia’s role vis-à-vis the United States.
In short, Poland is America’s ally not just because of the ethnic and historical connections between our two countries, but also because we share common interests in preserving a strong Transatlantic link and in ensuring regional and global stability.
AM: Thank you very much for your time.