Piotr Wilczek, Polish Ambassador to the United States: Ladies and gentlemen, first of all let me thank the leadership of the U.S. Strategic Command for the opportunity to share the Polish perspective on the vital elements of Polish and allied security which is deterrence. I appreciate it very much.
To say that deterrence is crucial may sound a bit obvious. The U.S. national security community knows this better than anyone else. Having contributed to the concept of deterrence through the work of Kissinger, Brody, Schelling or Kaufman during the Cold War, but if you put this in the context of a country like Poland you immediately understand that when we Poles express our strong support for U.S. and NATO deterrence, we really mean it, and you understand that we are so focused on Russia.
Allow me to briefly explain this perspective. Let’s start with two important factors, both of which are unfortunately out of our control. These are geography and history.
If you look at the map of Europe, Poland occupies mostly flat land between, the Baltic Sea in the North and the Carpathian Mountains in the South. Apart from some rivers, there are no significant obstacles that could impede movement of military forces on the East-West axis. That’s what we as a nation experienced for centuries. We were on easily accessible land, sandwiched between European empires and consequently, Poland was erased from the map for a painful 123 years.
Almost immediately after Poland regained independence in 1918, our young country faced another existential threat in the form of soviet aggression which led to two years of war. However, things ended differently this time around. The Soviets, with their aim of spreading communism across Europe, were stopped by the Polish Army in 1920 in the suburbs of Warsaw. We won this defensive war and the Russians remembered it.
Then came the horrors of the 2nd World War. Two weeks and three days after Nazi Germany attacked Poland on September 17th, Soviet Russia fulfilled a secret pact with the Nazis and invaded us from the East. Both occupants met along a line dividing our country agreed to by them in advance. Although Polish soldiers fought on all European fronts against German forces, Poland wasn’t spared from becoming a victim of geostrategic calculations by allied powers.
Against our will, with rearranged borders and a smaller population, we ended up behind the iron curtain. To make our humiliation even more acute, Soviet leaders, as you know, founded a military alliance in the Polish capital and called the Warsaw Pact. How ironic.
Enduring over 40 years of an imposed communist regime, Poles were the first in the Eastern Bloc to assert their political and economic freedom. Actually two months ago we celebrated the 30th Anniversary of Poland’s first partially free parliamentary elections in 1989. The Berlin Wall fell shortly after. Then our Eastern location appeared more favorable, as we now had the opportunity to rejoin the West and become members of first NATO and then the European Union.
As I said earlier, our geography and history with our neighbor to the East are something we can’t change easily, despite our best intentions. And these two factors are crucial to understanding our foreign and security policy, especially our approach to deterrence.
Mark Twain used to say that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. We see that clearly today on the Eastern flank of NATO. So, these lessons are with us as we think about today and tomorrow. Lessons of the past and those of today remind us why U.S. and NATO deterrence matter in our part of Europe. They are an integral part of our security. This perspective is shared by the majority of the public in Poland as well as of the main political parties.
For example, this is why the Joint Declaration on Defense Cooperation regarding United States force posture in the Republic of Poland signed by Presidents Duda and Trump this past June has been welcomed by all of Poland’s major political parties.
No other country shares our geography and history. Being a member of NATO and the EU, Poland recognizes that there are varying perceptions within the transatlantic community of threats coming from Russia and how to best respond to them.
It’s no secret that different allies have somewhat varying ideas of how to approach Russia, and this is expected since NATO is an alliance of sovereign countries with various views and interests.
As a country that was part of a very different kind of alliance under Soviet domination, Poland appreciates these differences and the opportunity to express them directly. That’s something we can’t take for granted in NATO. Differences within any alliance can be trying at times, but all in all we appreciate that they can be expressed freely. Most importantly, through deliberation and debate, however heated, it leads to unity and outcomes that benefit all members.
One of these outcomes of allies’ discussions in NATO policy towards Russia based on deterrence, defense and dialogue. NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, explains this NATO position in plain and simple language. We want dialogue with Russia, but from a position of strength.
Poland is very much interested in dialogue with Russia too. We see dialogue as a way to decrease tensions, reduce risks and avoid the misunderstanding of actions and intentions. Being a country defined as one of the first targets during potential confrontation with Russia, Poland has no other choice than to maintain dialogue with Moscow. We are committed to talks with Russia just as any other member of the alliance. Still, as you expect, there is some small print along with this statement. Our readiness to talk to Russia should never compromise our deterrence, security and values while the dialogue itself should bring results.
This approach isn’t only based on history, but also on recent experience. NATO’s open hand to discuss security matters at the political and military level have not brought any change in Russian policy. Over the course of just the last three years, Russia has continued its provocative military activities including near NATO borders such as the deployment of modern dual-capable missiles in Kaliningrad. Russia does not see its irresponsible and nuclear rhetoric as well as its largescale no-notice snap exercises. Russia has also been challenging Euro Atlantic security and stability through hybrid actions including attempted interference in elections and the sovereignty of our nations as was the case in Montenegro. Widespread disinformation campaigns and malicious cyber activities.
We see no real changes on the bilateral level as well. For instance, for almost a decade we’ve been having a bilateral dialogue with Russia on one simple issue. Trying to arrange the return of the wreckage of the presidential plane that crashed near Smolensk in Russia on April 10, 2010, killing Poland’s presidential couple as well as 94 state officials and crew members. But more than nine years after the disaster Russian authorities continue to refuse to return the wreckage to the Polish state whose property it still is. But we haven’t given up and are committed to holding constructive conversations with the Russians on this issue because we believe in the power off dialogue.
A sober assessment of talks with Russia is shared by our other allies in the region. We all want to maintain sincere dialogue with Russia and believe it’s the best way to solve tensions and misunderstandings. At the same time, we see the limitations of dialogue. Countries in Central Europe, especially those bordering Russia, have only one chance at communication. We don’t have the comfort enjoyed by our allies located further away from Russia who have two opportunities to engage in dialogue with Moscow. The first, before any kind of conflict starts; and the second, when something goes wrong and dialogue is needed to resolve the new situation. Most countries in my region only have the first option. They can talk before conflict begins. This prospect substantially influences our perception of dialogue. Just think, if something goes wrong there could be no second chance.
While this reality highlights the value of maintaining dialogue, it also leads us to understand that dialogue alone is not enough, especially if it hasn’t brought in any change, and a backup plan is needed. The main elements of this backup plan are of course strong deterrence and defense.
Deterrence and dialogue are used to reach an end goal. They can’t be aims in and of themselves. Instead, dialogue and deterrence should be applied in a way that will lead to stability and safety.
In order for these tools to be effective in realizing this objective, we must have a clear view of our competitors. It’s necessary to take a realistic approach and not be overly optimistic or idealistic regarding our adversaries because with its skewed analysis our capabilities and deterrence may not be appropriately calibrated to ensure our security.
And we can’t disregard the actions of our competitors in an attempt to make dialogue more effective. Russian intentions and motivations are at times viewed differently by politicians and the public in the West. On the one hand, Russia is seen as a capable country that has been able to outsmart the West such as in Syria or Ukraine. The second competing position is that Russian leadership doesn’t know what it’s actually doing and that we, the West, have to help Russia understand that it will be better off if only it listens to us and respects the international rules we crafted.
This last view is especially dangerous. Lecturing Russia is counterproductive, and I suspect that this is an approach welcomed by politicians in Moscow because it can only be used to their advantage. Russian authorities will play the same game as they have in the past, giving the impression that they are unaware of what they are doing or pretending to lack knowledge that they in fact possess.
We’ve seen this many times as when authorities in Moscow acted surprised by how so many Russian soldiers traveled to Crimea during the holiday in 2014 to participate in a process that ended in the illegal and illegitimate annexation of this Ukrainian territory. If we buy this into this narrative, if we begin underestimating Russia, we are taking the first step to weakening our security. And the first victim of this will be our deterrence capabilities.
Being an academic scholar for most of my professional life, I couldn’t resist giving you a short lecture about the history of Polish relations with Russia at the beginning of my speech. As a diplomat I should give you my assessment of current threats we are facing in my part of Europe. And lest you think that the history of Russian aggression to Poland is something unique to my country or buried in the past, I’d like to recall facts that are probably well known to all of you.
Russia was behind recent cyber attacks against Estonia. Engaged in a way with Georgia. Illegally annexed Crimea. Is militarily and financially backing militants in Eastern Ukraine. And was responsible for shooting down a civilian airliner over Ukraine. And for chemical attacks in the United Kingdom.
These are simple facts, not some kind of interpretation you can debate. And these facts have implications. They show what a bad idea it is to lecture or dismiss Russia. Believe me, they know exactly what they’re doing.
Generally, we assume that Russia is the same as us, but I doubt this is always the case, especially when I see what’s going on in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Georgia.
Regardless of our adversary’s approach, we have to continue to follow our own rule and values. However, we must make sure that our competitors know we are not afraid to take action if they refuse to change their behavior. Our rivals should know that we are serious about deterrence and we are ready to respond to their moves. There is nothing they do that we can’t counter, and we have a major advantage that they don’t. Our own playbook for how to build and maintain strong and positive alliances. The ability to build free alliances of sovereign countries like NATO is something that distinguishes us from our competitors. It’s very tangible proof that the values we share differ from theirs, and that’s something that can’t be overestimated when it comes to deterrence. The NATO alliance is unique, and this difference makes us stronger. Yes, we are different and we should be proud of it.
We should also be proud of how much we’ve achieved in recent years in terms of deterrence in NATO. Whether you look at the Readiness Action Plan, enhanced forward presence deployed to Poland and the Baltic States, the reform of NATO command structure and the readiness initiative introduced by the U.S., these are all steps in the right direction, which Poland appreciates and actively contributes to in order to secure our region and the whole alliance. I am happy to see that the mainstream bipartisan way of thinking in America on deterrence and threats is directly influencing these developments within NATO. It’s similar to that shared by Polish authorities and the Polish public.
To us too, NATO remains the foundation of transatlantic security. We can’t be grateful enough to Congress for funding the European Deterrence Initiative, EDI, aimed at strengthening U.S. partnerships and deterring Russian aggression. U.S. forces deployed right now in Poland as part of bilateral and NATO agreements are not only enjoying an exceptional welcome by the Polish people, but more importantly, play a crucial role in multi-layered deterrence against Russia on NATO’s Eastern Flank.
Poland’s historical experiences show how in relations with the Soviet Union and Russia, changes were only possible due to the existence of certain pressures. For example, economic pressure from the United States during the Cold War helped the explosion of freedom occur in Central and Eastern Europe. Russia didn’t willingly choose this expansion of freedom, but instead was forced to allow it because Moscow could no longer bear the burden of the pressures imposed on it. Clearly, dialogue with Russia wasn’t enough. Of course dialogue was and remains an important element, but the added pressure was necessary for a free Poland and free Central Europe to emerge.
In order for deterrence to be effective, we must adapt to constantly changing political conditions. Nuclear and conventional warfare remain pillars of our deterrence, but we can’t limit ourselves to these. We must modify our methods and implement deterrence with a multi-faceted hybrid approach such as by including cyber warfare and economic pressure. We must utilize deterrence that will have a lasting presence such as economic sanctions on countries that are violating the international order. Ensuring that deterrence has a constant presence is of the utmost importance. Even though it may not be visible to the general public, continued deterrence especially nuclear, is a must.
Taking this opportunity, I’d like to express my appreciation for your service here at the Strategic Command. I can imagine that some of you might find the Polish perspective I’ve just outlined too narrow, lacking grand intellectual concepts. We won’t apologize for that. Our perspective on deterrence is down to earth and in line with real challenges. Our position on Russia hasn’t changed much since we joined NATO two decades ago, and we didn’t feel relieved when we were proven right in 2014 during the annexation of Crimea. We’ve had different governments since we joined NATO, but our approach towards deterrence and Russia has remained unaffected.
As far as deterrence is concerned, some might argue that we are uncreative or fixated too much on one perspective. But I see our down to earth approach as a big advantage as something that makes us credible in the eyes of our allies.
Let me conclude by pointing out that when we look closer into our debates on defense and deterrence, we see that it’s not really about our enemies and competitors, it’s about us and our efforts to remain coherent and vigilant. And we will remain coherent as long as we respect our different perceptions of deterrence and make the best of them for our common security.
Thank you very much for your attention.