The Polish-German Rivalry
Germany and Poland have been competing for influence in Central & Eastern Europe (CEE) since before the start of Russia’s special operation in February 2022, but that campaign resulted in unprecedentedly intensifying their rivalry in this geostrategic space. Germany envisages indirectly controlling CEE via the EU institutions that it leads while Poland wants to assemble an autonomous regional bloc within the EU that’ll keep its western neighbor’s continental ambitions in check. Here are a few background briefings:
Spiraling Polish-Ukrainian Troubles
The dynamics of their competition could decisively shift if the German-backed Polish opposition wins the next national elections in mid-October, after which they might subordinate their country’s regional policy to Berlin. Even if the incumbents win, however, then the spiraling troubles in Polish-Ukrainian relations as of late could lead to post-conflict Ukraine deciding to align much more closely with Germany than with Poland. The following pieces will bring readers up to speed about this if they aren’t already familiar:
Improved German-Ukrainian Ties
It’s within this complex context that German Finance Minister Christian Lindner announced on Monday during his visit to the Ukrainian capital that Berlin will provide Kiev with €5 billion worth of annual military aid until 2027. This promised military patronage ramps up Germany’s regional competition with Poland by making a power play over post-conflict Ukraine’s geostrategic direction. Kiev feels increasingly uncomfortable with Warsaw nowadays, hence why it’s warming up to Berlin as a balancer.
Prior to the spiraling troubles in Polish-Ukrainian relations, Ukraine regularly lambasted Germany for allegedly dillydallying in its dispatch of military aid, yet now Ukraine is eagerly welcoming everything that Germany wants to provide. This policy reversal is directly connected to Kiev’s newfound fears that Poland’s rapidly expanding multidimensional, but thus far non-military, influence over Western Ukraine compromises too much of this former Soviet Republic’s sovereignty.
Creeping Polish Hegemony Over Ukraine
While it’s true that Ukraine initially supported this trend in order for Poland to help its western half remain as a more developed and stable redoubt amidst the rest of the country’s destruction, Kiev naively thought that Warsaw was aiding it out of “solidarity” with no strings attached. It wasn’t until recently that this illusion was dispelled upon Poland confirming that it’ll maintain its ban on most Ukrainian agricultural imports after the European Commission’s (EC) deal expires in mid-September.
That set into motion the self-sustaining cycle of mistrust that’s presently plaguing their strategic partnership, which in turn compelled Ukraine to become much more receptive to Germany in the hope that Berlin could function as a balancer for keeping Warsaw’s creeping hegemony in check. This is more important than ever since the fatigue that’s set in after 18 months of proxy warfare and the failure of Kiev’s counteroffensive means that some among the West might gradually disengage from this conflict.
Any reduction of support risks deepening Ukraine’s dependence on Poland by default if the latter’s simply remains the same, not to mention if it grows, with all that this could entail for speeding up the erosion of Kiev’s sovereignty over those regions that used to be under Warsaw’s control before 1939. It’s with a view towards preventing full Polish hegemony over Ukraine in this scenario that Germany just announced that it’ll patronize Kiev’s armed forces to the tune of €5 billion a year until 2027.
The Socio-Economic Path To Polish Irredentism
If Ukraine as a whole becomes a de facto protectorate of Poland, then Warsaw could pull its strings over Kiev to have Zelensky surrender Eastern Galicia exactly as Marshal Pilsudski coerced Simon Petliura to do a century ago in exchange for continued military aid against Moscow. In pursuit of that end, Poland is already trying to convince the locals there to eschew ethno-nationalism in favor of embracing the post-modern revival of its Commonwealth via the “Lublin Triangle” between their countries and Lithuania.
Socio-economic carrots are being dangled under the cover of “reconstruction aid” in their region and the guarantee of better benefits inside Poland if they agree to associate with that neighboring state by applying for the “Karta Polaka” (“Pole’s Card”). This document can be considered a pledge of allegiance to Poland by those who demonstrate their “Polishness” (basic knowledge of the language and Polish traditions) and prove that their ancestors used to hold its nationality (i.e. were from the “Kresy”).
Without a critical mass of Western Ukrainians eschewing ethno-nationalism in favor Poland’s “Neo-Commonwealth” vision, Warsaw won’t be able to sustainably exert military and/or political influence over that part of Ukraine. Since this hasn’t yet happened and will still take some time even in the best-case scenario from Poland’s perspective, Ukraine is hoping that it can successfully diversify from its disproportionate strategic dependence on Poland before then by balancing with Germany.
Checking Poland’s Eastward Expansion
Poland could still make a unilateral move in Western Ukraine prior to consolidating its socio-economic influence there via the previously mentioned means, which Germany’s newly promised military aid to Ukraine couldn’t realistically deter, but it might prove unsustainable. For that reason, it can’t be taken for granted that this will happen anytime soon, but it also can’t be ruled out either. The preceding strategic insight and scenario disclaimer enable one to better understand Germany and Ukraine’s calculations.
Absent the abovementioned black swan event of Poland occupying Western Ukraine on whatever pretext in the near future, Germany’s promised military patronage of Ukraine might empower the latter enough to resist any demand by Warsaw to replicate last century’s cession of Eastern Galicia. In fact, it could even embolden Kiev to preemptively deter this by curbing Polish investment there prior to the end of the present conflict, which could ruin the socio-economic basis for Warsaw’s plans.
Preventing The Loss Of Western Ukraine
This could be accomplished by unilaterally imposing limits on the amount and/or regional scope of this aid, demanding that all such investments involve joint partnerships where the Ukrainian state or companies own over 50%, and/or nationalizing some projects in the worst-case scenario. If Kiev does any of this before Poland consolidates its socio-economic influence over Western Ukraine and resultantly succeeds in convincing the locals to eschew ethno-nationalism, then irredentism might be averted.
Left unchecked, the uncontrollable spread of Polish socio-economic influence over Western Ukraine in parallel with Kiev’s deepening strategic dependence on Warsaw greatly raise the chances that this historically contested region will eventually return to Poland’s military and political control. The only way to offset this scenario is if Kiev preemptively curbs Polish investments there and gambles that Warsaw’s socio-economic influence hasn’t yet reached the point where it’s comfortable militarily intervening.
Worsening ties with Poland could prompt Kiev to make this move on the pretext of responding to Warsaw’s decision to maintain the ban on most of its agricultural products after the EC’s deal expires. That’s not to say that it’ll certainly do any of what’s been described in the last few paragraphs, but just that Kiev likely only has the next half-year at most to prevent the loss of Western Ukraine from becoming a fait accompli, and Germany’s promised military patronage might embolden it to act before it’s too late.
The recent worsening of Poland’s ties with Germany and Ukraine, which is partly attributable to the ruling party’s electioneering strategy, just led to those two entering into a military partnership. Germany’s promised military patronage of Ukraine poses no threat to Poland, but is intended to help Kiev diversify from its disproportionate strategic dependence on Warsaw so as to deter this former Great Power’s irredentist plans in Eastern Galicia that are presently being advanced by socio-economic means.
Zelensky must now decide whether to preemptively thwart the aforesaid by curbing Polish investment there after being emboldened by Berlin’s medium-term military aid pledge, which could compensate for the curtailment of Warsaw’s in that scenario, or risk Western Ukraine’s loss becoming inevitable. The window of opportunity is closing to prevent the further collapse of his country, but he might still not be brave enough to act out of fear that this will trigger a Polish invasion that could spell the end of his rule.