Poland and the West: between betrayal and one-sided benefits (I)

Poland’s relationship with the West has become a centerpiece of European geopolitics since the end of the Cold War. Through its inclusion into NATO and the EU, Poland became the largest easternmost member of these organizations, thus elevating its perceived importance within them. Just as Poland seeks to acquire certain tangible benefits from these alliances, the West also envisions certain profits from the Polish side. In fact, the West has more to gain from Poland than Poland has to gain from it, presenting an imbalanced asymmetrical relationship of need that has historically resulted in negative dividends for Polish interests.

The article will briefly examine various periods of history and explain the West’s motivations in supporting or betraying Poland each time. The objective is to illustrate how Poland has been of enormous use for the West in fulfilling its geopolitical goals against Russia, yet ironically, Poland has seen little if any positive results from purposely ‘playing the fool’ and going along with its ‘partners’’ will (stated or implied). What it ultimately comes down to is that Poland is an important low-cost, long-term strategic investment for the West that, whenever geopolitical calculations backfire, can be discarded with as little loss as possible.

“The Good ‘Ole Days”

Poland was experiencing the zenith of its power during the late-16th and early-17th centuries. Its combined Commonwealth with Lithuania saw it projecting power and influence deep into the lands of the former Kievan Rus, seized during the period of Russian weakness that came after the Mongol Invasions.

Poland was experiencing the zenith of its power during the late-16th and early-17th centuries. Its combined Commonwealth with Lithuania saw it projecting power and influence deep into the lands of the former Kievan Rus, seized during the period of Russian weakness that came after the Mongol Invasions. The Great Schism between Western and Eastern Christianity had already occurred nearly half a millennium earlier in 1054, but Poland and Russia were still on opposing ends of this rivalry. The question of the Pope’s absolute authority was at the heart of the split, and the Papacy’s power had only increased in the time since then. In the regional context, it wanted to see Catholicism forcibly proselytized as far east as possible, with Poland leading the crusade to convert the remaining resistant Slavs (Russians) under the pane of death. The short-lived Polish occupation of Moscow and the unsuccessful attempts at regime change there (possibly the first historical instance of this occurring in Eastern Europe) in 1610-1612 represented the height of Polish power.

Had Poland been successful, it would have more than quintupled its size, become the largest country in the world, and eliminated the Orthodox faith, all of which would have served Western interests. The Papacy’s control would have expanded past the Urals via its Polish proxy, and Poland could have led a renewed wave of crusades against the Turks, and possibly even the Persians. Alas, this did not occur, and in the following two centuries, Russia would steadily liberate its formerly Orthodox brethren (forcibly converted to Catholicism by the Commonwealth generations ago) and restore the Kievan Rus that had been occupied by Poland. The West, once having supported Poland wholeheartedly, quickly lost interest and abandoned it without a second thought. Western European power struggles and New World colonial rivalries were seen as more dynamically pressing for the elites than fixing a dull, old tool that was obviously approaching the point of obsolesce.

Partition One to Divide All

The next major period of Poland’s history dealt with its partition between Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and the Russian Empire. Although Prussia and Austria-Hungary represented the West to varying degrees and at different times of their history, they also were rivals of France and the UK, neither of which wanted to see them achieve continental hegemony (even while they competed amongst themselves for this). Also, the Western European empires (France and the UK) were powerless to directly influence

Josef Pilsudski
Josef Pilsudski

events in that corner of Europe, and Poland wasn’t seen as being anywhere near important enough to go to war over (a trope that will repeat itself a century and a half later). Actually in the long term (whether or not it was explicitly recognized at the time), the Polish partitions served Western European interests, since the trans-imperial Polish ethnos would serve to destabilize all three Empires administrating it.

As a case in point, the Poles waged bloody uprisings against their rulers, all in an attempt to revive their dead state. Most of these were against the Russian Empire (such as the January Uprising, which Pope Pious IX ordered all Catholics to pray for to support), although the Greater Polish Uprising of 1848 against Prussia and Austria-Hungary marked a notable exception. One can thus observe that the Poles had become the first transborder threat in modern European history, working to weaken the cohesion of the empires that administered them. Additionally, even though Prussia and Austria-Hungary used to support Russia in quelling the Polish rebellions, near the beginning of World War I, they began to promote Polish secessionism there. Austria-Hungary allowed Josef Pilsudski’s terrorist organization to receive training on its territory after 1910, and in 1914 it established the Polish Legions for deployment against Russia. Germany took things a step further and created the Kingdom of Poland puppet state during World War I, showing the importance that it placed on an ‘independent’ non-Russian-administered Poland. The country’s partition thus served as a geopolitical convenience for the West, since it helped foster near-endless problems both between the administrating empires and the Poles, and amongst one another.

The First “Geopolitical Israel”

The rebirth of the Polish state, now officially termed the Second Polish Republic, was a geopolitical godsend for the West. This new country was positioned in the strategic space between Germany and the USSR. In its early days, Poland fought successful wars against all of its eastern neighbors (Ukraine, Lithuania, and the Soviet Union), which then allowed it to expand its territory and forcibly modify the Versailles Treaty’s borders, in a pattern that would later be emulated by revisionist 1930s Germany. Since Poland was artificially and surreptitiously resurrected (Lenin ceded the territory in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the Germans and Austrians were not militarily defeated by the Poles there prior to their surrender) in a geostrategic landscape, it can be termed the first “geopolitical Israel”.

By this, it is meant that Poland’s externally constructed existence immediately created problems with its neighbors, against whom it then fought a series of violent wars that led to a legacy of bitter animosity. Pilsudski, who was now in charge of Poland, attempted to pursue a policy of Prometheism against the Soviet Union, which was by then a ‘rogue state’ to the West. The idea was to foster cultural and national divisions within the USSR which would eventually lead to its self-implosion into numerous entities that Poland could then influence. Interestingly, this serves not only as the ideological precursor to Brzezinski’s ‘Eurasian Balkans’ concept, but also to Israel’s Yinon Plan of creative destruction, both of which are being exercised in their respective regions today. Anyhow, the policy was eventually unsuccessful, but it reminded Western policymakers of Poland’s geostrategic location and ambitious anti-Russian national identity. These could be seen as motivations for French and British arms shipments to Poland and France’s attempts to turn the country into a satellite state against Germany and the Soviet Union.

To be continued…

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