The protracted agony of “strategic partnership”
Arvamus 23 Apr 2012  EWR
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Tomas Jermalavicius, ICDS 23.04.2012
As recently as 2011, Poland and Lithuania still managed to insert some “strategic partnership” parlance into their language of mutual communication, despite their growing quarrel. The presidents and defence ministers still talked to each other. The Polish deputy defence minister even attended, for the first time, a regular meeting of Baltic defence ministers held in Kaunas. Even in January of 2012, the chiefs of defence of Poland and Lithuania had a productive meeting, discussing various cooperation projects such as Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian brigade LITPOLUKRBRIG and the ideas of closer collaboration between special operations forces of the two countries. There was a hope that regional cooperation in defence would be spared the damage of bilateral political relations getting off the track. Lithuania‘s chief of defence LtGen Arvydas Pocius went as far as to announce that “cooperation with Poland, our strategic partner in military cooperation, is efficient as never before”.

But the dominos of the broader relationship have already been falling at an increasing speed. Diplomacy was one of the first to succumb when the Polish foreign minister decided that there was enough of endless futile talking (as if talking is not what the diplomats usually do). It was closely followed by the collapse of intelligence cooperation. Energy came next, when the Polish national energy company essentially pulled a plug on its participation in the Visaginas nuclear power plant project (although work to link up the energy grids is still slowly proceeding). Many pundits have already started whispering that the entire project of “strategic partnership” was devoid of any substance and, indeed, was based solely on the cordial relationship of a few top leaders. It was naïve to expect that defence could be insulated and protected from this “falling domino” effect thus adhering to the principle of not meshing the problems of bilateral relations, centred on the matters of the minorities, with the business of defence.

It should come as no surprise then that, lately, some players in the Polish diplomatic establishment and beyond it revealed they were as versed in the “dark arts” of misrepresentation, rumour-peddling and latent threats as their colleagues in Moscow. The target of choice is NATO’s Baltic air policing operation, which the Baltic states have worked hard to secure and support. The apparent aim of the campaign is to discredit Lithuania as a host nation (one of the three, actually), drive a wedge between it and its Latvian and Estonian counterparts and portray Lithuania as the main spoiler of regional defence cooperation and even NATO’s presence in the region. The ways to achieve that range from spreading rumours about Poland’s readiness to block the operation altogether to anonymous complaints (mostly misguided) to the media about the level and quality of host nation support to, once again, spreading the rumours about the alleged Polish intentions to insist on moving the air policing operation to Ämari air base in Estonia (which is not yet ready for that).

This choice of subject for practicing the skills of “dark arts” is indeed quite a good one. NATO‘s air policing operation has been a delicate undertaking all along. Only recently the Baltic states could celebrate a major achievement of forging a consensus among all NATO Allies that the mission had to be extended indefinitely and that such a solution was in the spirit of “smart defence”. But this consensus remains fragile, as some Allies are quite indifferent to the project, if not openly opposing it on the grounds that it is meaningless in the present security environment. The Balts also have a solid track record of quarrelling about the arrangements to enable and support the operation, which still breeds a measure of distrust and suspicions between the three defence organisations. And Lithuania’s reputation as a nation serious about its own and Alliance’s defence is already in doldrums, largely because of the defence spending levels. Apply a bit more pressure at this point of overlaying multiple sensitivites, the presumed thinking in Warsaw goes, and the Lithuanians will climb down on the Polish minority’s issue (provided, of course, they have enough sound mind to realise what’s at stake).

A lot can be and has been said about Lithuania’s president not being able to hold her nerve and abrasively rejecting the invitation to attend a Polish-Baltic summit in Warsaw. Or about the lack of wisdom of the Polish foreign minister, who did everything he could to poison attitudes towards Lithuania in his country’s diplomatic and political circles. Or about lunacy of the Lithuanian and Polish nationalists, bigotry of many Lithuania’s lawmakers and the absurdity of the entire situation. The point is that the person stirring up the whole trouble for his political gain, the leader of the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania Waldemar Tomaszewski (yes, using W in spelling names in blog entries or even in Lithuanian passports does not represent any major problem to me and, indeed, my many countrymen of liberal leanings – only to some politicians to whom corporate citizens such as Maxima or BMW are above the citizens-human beings in their right to spell their names as they stand), is succeeding beyond his wildest dreams. In his bid to lock in his political monopoly over the Polish minority’s votes, which even the strongmen in such places as Transnistria or Abkhazia would envy, he managed to endanger strategic relations in a critical and vulnerable region of NATO. Even the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, with its silly protestations over the launch of NATO’s air policing operation or “Iskanderesque” sabre-rattling over the elements of NATO’s ballistic missile defence in Europe did not manage to pull this off.

But he and his obliging patrons (or, rather, “hostages”) in Warsaw, as well as all those paranoid nationalist politicians in Vilnius zealously protecting the obsolete status quo in some aspects of policy towards ethnic minorities (and thus clinging desperately to their own hard-core electoral base), should do well to remember that, in grand strategy just as in politics, every success of today (especially narrow-mindedly defined) plants the seeds of tomorrow’s failure. In geopolitical terms, we have already been in a tight spot before, and most of the wounds were self-inflicted. We all know and remember the consequences. In present circumstances, when NATO’s effectiveness and credibility are constantly “on probation” by those yearning the Alliance’s death, similar consequences would reverberate far beyond our corner of Europe. Unless, of course, the true masters who engineered the entire predicament sit elsewhere than Warsaw or Vilnius and now happily watch us entering a familiar self-destructive trajectory that led to the demise of the Commonwealth and the interwar republics of the past: Being puppets, knowingly and willingly or not, in these designs, prevents from seeing a bigger picture of things and from taking a long view. Evidently, in Poland and Lithuania, the subtleties of grand strategy are still beyond the reach and grasp of politicians, and lessons of history still mean nothing.

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