Lech Kaczynski, Poland's president, is mighty proud these days -- of himself and of his country. As United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took her place at the breakfast table in his Warsaw palace, the president served dishes in white and red, his country's national colors. Mozzarella with tomatoes.
Rice had traveled to Warsaw to sign a treaty for the stationing of interceptor missiles in Poland, a deal that had been in the works for years. In the future, they could be used to intercept warheads launched against the US by rogue states in the Middle East. Of course, Moscow has argued that the missile shield could also be used against Russia. "Poland is now a target of our missiles," one Russian general hissed not long ago after the Polish and Americans reached an agreement. But the country, a young member of the European Union, is determined to remain undeterred. "No one can dictate to Poland what it should do," Kaczynski told his people on Tuesday evening. "That's in the past."
For Poland, nestled as it is between the Oder and Bug rivers, the missile shield has far more than just military significance. Even 19 years after the disappearance of the Iron Curtain, 11 years after it became a member of NATO and four years after its EU accession, Warsaw still feels the need to demonstrate its independence against the old hegemony of Moscow. Russia's invasion of Georgia in recent days, following Georgia's strike on its breakaway province of South Ossetia, has only served to strengthen Polish fears. Prior to the war, a steady majority of up to 80 percent of Poles opposed the missile shield according to public opinion polls. In the past week, however, the polls have swung the other way, with 50 to 65 percent now expressing their support for the shield. Polls show that 65 percent of Poles are afraid of Russia, whereas barely 20 percent are worried about Iran and North Korea.
Poland's trend of closing the ranks militarily with Washington didn't just start when nationalist-conservative politician Kaczynski came to power. Back in 2003, US defense firm Lockheed-Martin won out over the Eurofighter consortium for a Warsaw fighter jet order. And during the Iraq war, Poland not only joined the ranks of the US-led "Coalition of the Willing," but was also handed its own occupation zone. Poland -- a country too large to be a vassal state and too small to be taken seriously by the Americans as a power factor -- wanted to increase its strategic clout in Washington. In doing so, concerns about possible threats eminating from Putin's unpredictable empire were never far from the minds of Warsaw politicians.
After all, had its EU partners in the West not criminally underestimated this danger and left the countries of Eastern Europe to fend for themselves against the Russian bear time and time again in the past? That's a question that's not only being asked in Warsaw, but also in Prague, Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. Brussels did nothing when Russia beat up on the Baltic states with arbitrary trade restrictions, when it launched a full-scale cyber war against Estonia and when it used specious arguments to ban Polish food imports. And that's not even mentioning the weak support given to the young, wobbly Ukrainian democracy as Russia attempted to strongarm it. In addition to all that, comes history: the three times Poland's borders were redrawn, the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the 40 years of oppression under the Warsaw Pact system.
Poland has often strained EU internal relations with its clear partisanship towards its trans-Atlantic partner. But was it worth the trouble? Did courting America ultimately pay dividends?
"We have experienced disappointment after disappointment," says political scientist Aleksander Smolar of the Warsaw-based Batory Foundation think tank. He says Washington seldom listened when Warsaw tried to court it. "Poland's weight as an American partner never grew to the level people had hoped. That also partially has to do with the fact that Sarkozy and Merkel -- pronounced America-friendly politicians -- came to power in France and Germany." He notes that Poland still hasn't succeeded in brokering a deal for a visa-waver for its citizens travelling to the United States.
Back when Warsaw just took over its occupation zone during the Iraq war, the word in the Polish capital was that, "In terms of foreign policy, we are rising in rank to a new league."
But these days one seldom hears such triumphalist rhetoric. Indeed, the hour spent celebrating the signing of the missile treaty was preceded by the toughest of negotiations -- and Washington can no longer expect a free lunch from Warsaw. In exchange for their support for the missile defense system, the country's new prime minister, Donald Tusk, and his Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski negotiated the stationing of Patriot interceptor missiles in Poland. The missiles are being placed there to protect Poland from an attack, but the missile shield itself is primarily aimed at covering the United States.
Warsaw's most important challenge now will be to repair a relationship with Russia that has been left in tatters. "The Cold War is returning," Jadwiga Staniszkis, a well-known Polish political scientist warns. Meanwhile, her counterpart Smolar fears that Moscow could use its entire arsenal of tools to get back at a disobedient Poland: "Economic sanctions, cyber attacks and even by applying pressure on countries friendly to Poland like Ukraine."