It has been almost two decades since the fall of the USSR, and the world is eager to leave the realpolitik tension of the cold war firmly in the past. Such a move isn’t always easy, especially for border countries such as Poland, which lies on the Eastern front of two megalithic international institutions, the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). Maintaining a border with non-European Union states Belorussia and Ukraine gives an added responsibility to Poland that most members of the EU do not have. Additionally, as a border state of NATO, Poland often finds itself in the middle of continuous East-West political posturing. The responsibilities and security risks held as a border state of the EU and NATO, are compounded by the sometimes unpredictable and revanchist behavior of Russia.
In December 2007, Poland, and many other Eastern European countries joined the European Union and were added to the Schengen travel agreements; now it is possible to travel from Lisbon Portugal to Tallinn, Estonia, without encountering any border patrols. However, the edge of the EU aims to be a “sealed” border to prevent unauthorized movements of people and materials. Poland, with one of the longest borders on the EU’s eastern front, has more than its share of responsibilities that have come with the need to “seal” the border with Byelorussia and Ukraine. In 2008, officials in Poland identified 3,298 illegal border crossings, while neighboring Slovakia detected fewer than 1,000. As a “frontier” nation of the European Union, Poland acknowledges its increased vulnerability to international terrorism, smuggling, illegal immigration, and international crime (trafficking, corruption, etc.). In addition to these threats, the borders are susceptible to the potential trafficking of nuclear and other radioactive materials from Russia or other former Soviet states.
Possibly even more of a threat to Poland’s security has been its participation in the Bush administration led “coalition of the willing” and its active support of NATO and US security policies. The participation of Poland in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has potentially exposed it to a higher threat of terrorist attack, and as such Poland has increased funding for military police and counter-terrorist operations. Additionally, despite Obama’s announcement in 2009 to cancel the development of missile defense sites in Eastern Europe, Russia will not soon forget Poland’s eagerness to host such a site. The repeated alignment of Poland with the US puts them into a position of opposition with Russia and draws them even closer to a US-dominated NATO for protection. The remnants of the cold war and the Soviet era are not easily forgotten by older generations, and Poland’s physical location on the eastern edge of NATO is a clear border for the reach of Russia’s sphere of influence.
The responsibilities and security risks of being a border state of NATO and the EU are compounded by recent revanchist and threatening moves by Russia especially with regard to energy politics, could leave Poland feeling vulnerable to Russian hostility. The North European Gas Pipeline (NORD STREAM), specifically, has raised serious energy-security concerns for the Baltic States, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. The pipeline, which could be finished as early as 2011, emerged as a joint Gazprom-BASF (Germany) project and would be the first gas pipeline to bring Russian gas directly to European consumers. Current transit countries, however, including Poland, Czech Republic and the Baltic states, are concerned that the existence of such a pipeline will not only lead to environmental problems, but also may allow Moscow to cut off gas supplies for political purposes without threatening market relations with Western Europe. Russia’s shutting down gas supplies to Ukraine in 2006 and 2009 suggests that this is a political tool that Moscow may use again in the future. Poland’s previous open distaste for the project has included comments by Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski suggesting that the pipelines leading from Siberia to Germany were the “Molotov-Ribbentrop pipeline.”
It has only been two years since Russia invaded Georgia, a sovereign state with a pro-Western government seeking increased partnership with NATO. It is still clear that Russia is interested in maintaining its sphere of influence, and is willing to use force if necessary. Russia has in fact threatened that Poland’s offer to host a US missile defense site might be exposing itself to the possibility of a nuclear strike. As Poland continually aligns itself with the West and with NATO, it risks alienating itself further from an easy-to-anger Russia. Although the cold war may be firmly in the past, tension between the West and Russia still exists. Poland, a border state of both the EU and NATO, must not only shoulder the responsibilities and security risks that come with such a location, but must negotiate an evolving relationship with a sometimes aggressive Russia.