BRUSSELS – The bitter political and diplomatic rift between Germany and Poland, both key members of the European Union and NATO, worsened as Russia’s war in Ukraine continued, undermining cohesion and solidarity in both organizations.
The toxic nature of the relationship was highlighted recently by a German offer to provide two batteries of scarce and expensive Patriot air defense missiles in Poland, after a Ukrainian missile veered off course and killed two Poles last month in the small town of Przhevodov.
Poland initially accepted the Patriots’ offer, then rejected it. They then insisted that the batteries be placed in Ukraine, a non-starter for NATO, since the missile systems would be operated by NATO personnel. After considerable Allied concern and public criticism, the Poles now appear to have re-accepted the missiles.
“This whole story is like an X-ray of the sorry Polish-German relationship,” said Michal Baranowski, regional managing director of the German Marshall Fund in Warsaw. “It’s worse than I thought, and I’ve watched it for a long time.”
Poland has long been wary of Germany; Hitler’s invasion in 1939 was the beginning of World War II. He was also critical of Germany’s policy of Ostpolitik, Cold War efforts for rapprochement with Moscow and the countries of Eastern and Central Europe occupied by the Soviet Union.
Democratic Poland has consistently criticized Germany’s dependence on Russian energy and both Nord Stream gas pipelines which are designed to deliver cheap Russian gas directly to Germany and bypass Poland and Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine only reinforced the view in Poland that Germany’s close relationship with Russia and President Vladimir V. Putin was not just naïve, but selfish, and probably merely frozen rather than permanently severed.
Both sides have made mistakes in the current dispute, said Jana Pulierin, the Berlin-based director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The relationship has been deteriorating for years, but now it’s at a tipping point and it’s doing real damage,” she said. “A chasm is looming between the European East and West, old Europe and new Europe, and this only benefits Vladimir Putin.
Germany believes the military aid gesture will be “an offer too good to refuse” and help convince Poles that Germany is a reliable ally, said a senior German diplomat who would only speak anonymously in accordance with diplomatic practice. After all, he said, the Poles themselves were trying to buy the Patriots, a surface-to-air missile system, “so we wanted to make the caricature of this German government more hollow.”
But after Poland’s defense minister and president quickly accepted the offer, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the influential 73-year-old leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, rejected it just two days later.
Not only did he insist that the patriots go to the Ukraine, but he suggested that Germany, which he regularly attacked as Russia’s country over Poland, and whose soldiers would rule the patriots, would not dare to confront Russia. “Germany’s attitude so far gives no reason to believe that they will decide to fire at Russian missiles,” Mr Kaczynski said.
Mr Kaczynski has no official role in the Polish government, but Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak aligned within hours. Polish President Andrzej Duda of the same party, who is also Poland’s commander-in-chief, was embarrassed by the painfully obvious display of his impotence.
NATO allies were quietly furious, precisely because the Patriot will be manned by German soldiers and the defense bloc has made it clear it will not deploy troops to Ukraine and risk war between NATO and Russia. Any decision to send Patriots to Ukraine, Germany said, should be a NATO decision, not a bilateral one.
“Kaczynski knew this and was completely cynical,” said Piotr Buras, the Warsaw-based director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Everyone knew that the Germans would not and could not send patriots to Ukraine. And, of course, there are no Polish soldiers in Ukraine either.
The only explanation for Mr. Kaczynski’s reaction is political, said Mr. Baranowski of Germany’s Marshall Fund, because Poland is in an election campaign and the party’s support is waning. With elections scheduled for next fall, Law and Justice is strengthening its base and “criticism of Germany is a constant party line,” he said.
Some analysts found a political motive on the German side as well. Berlin’s proposal, so soon after the deaths of the Poles, was “clearly an attempt by Germany to win in the bitter, toxic Polish-German diplomatic war,” said Wojciech Przybylski, editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight and president of the Warsaw-based Res Publica Foundation, a research institution . “And it also hurts Kaczynski’s election strategy.”
Even so, “for a leading Polish politician and head of the ruling coalition to say that he does not trust Germany as an ally was shocking,” Mr. Baranowski said. “If mismanaged, it could damage the unity of the union, beyond both countries – I’ve never seen security instrumentalized like this, in this toxic mix.”
But Germany has decided to leave the offer open, the German diplomat said, and opinion polls show a large percentage of Poles think German patriots in Poland are a good idea.
On Tuesday evening, the Polish government changed its position again. Mr Blaszczak, Minister of Defence, announced that after further talks with Berlin he “disappointedly” accepted that the missiles would not go to Ukraine, adding: “We are beginning working arrangements to place the launchers in Poland and make them part of our command system.”
But the bitterness will continue and few expect Mr Kaczynski and his party to stop questioning German sincerity. Only in October, for example, did Warsaw suddenly demand that Germany pay World War II reparations, estimating $1.3 trillion in wartime losses, a matter that Berlin said had been settled in 1990.
But criticism of Germany’s reluctance to help Ukraine and of France’s early willingness to push for peace talks at Ukraine’s expense is not limited to Poland, but also prevails in Central, Eastern and Northern Europe, albeit less heavily.
“There is a lot of talk about the unity and cooperation of the West and the EU on Ukraine, but at the same time this war has caused a significant wave of criticism of Western Europe in Poland and the Baltics,” said Mr Buras of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It deepened skepticism and criticism, particularly of Germany and France, and fostered a sense of moral superiority over them that we were on the right side and they were on the wrong side,” he said. “And this has deepened the mistrust of security cooperation with them, that we can’t rely on them, only the US and the UK.”
The Polish debate conflates two things, he said. First, there is the “relentless political instrumentalization of Germany through Law and Justice – it’s amazing how they portray Germany as the enemy, and Berlin as dangerous to Poland as Moscow, that Berlin wants Russia to win and doesn’t actually help Ukraine at all.”
But beyond the crude propaganda, Mr Buras said, Poland did not recognize that after the Berlin invasion there was a realization that war had returned to Europe, that Germany needed to rearm and had become too dependent on Russia for energy and Chinese trade.
Poland may not be the only country to criticize Germany over Ukraine, Ms Pulierin said, but on another level “it’s the political layer in Poland, toxic and disgusting”. Law and Justice “picks up on this German hesitation and uses it for domestic political reasons, and I think it will only get worse before the election, at the exact time when unity is useful.”
There is one brighter spot of cooperation. Earlier this month, the two sides signed an agreement to work to secure the future of the giant Schwedt refinery, a German facility that processed Russian oil now under sanctions.
Sophia Besch, a German analyst at the Carnegie Endowment, insisted that Germany had changed since the Russian invasion. She pointed to the sharp shift in policy toward a stronger military and greater economic resilience, the “Zeitenwende,” or historic turning point, announced by Chancellor Olaf Scholz. “Scholz is much more committed to listening to the Central European countries,” she said. “I believe our romance with Russia is over.”
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