Polish Security and Defence under the new Tusk Government: A ‘go to’ Player once more?

Dr Laura Chappell, Dr Michael Martin Richter |


On 13 December 2023 the new Polish coalition government, formally known as the ‘Coalition of October 15’, composed of Civic Coalition, The Third Way and New Left, was sworn in. Led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk, and with Radosław Sikorski as the Foreign Minister, the current government has some distinct similarities with the last time Civic Platform (now Civic Coalition) was in power, particularly in the area of foreign policy. Nick Witney, the first Chief Executive of the European Defence Agency, described Poland as  a ‘“go to” player’, due to the country’s pro-activeness in European defence, whether this was related to operations or defence collaborations within either the EU or NATO, with a ‘determination to achieve front-rank status’. Some adjustments to this stance occurred during the previous Tusk led government, particularly regarding focusing more on the modernisation of the Polish armed forces rather than ‘eagerly sending Polish forces to the world’s antipodes’ as the then Polish President Komorowski framed it.


Undoubtedly the previous Law and Justice (PiS) government, which was in power for the past 8 years, made significant changes towards Warsaw’s key security partnerships. This saw a deterioration of  Poland’s relations with the EU, and Germany, and a strengthening of Polish Atlanticism through a desire to augment the Polish-US partnership. Nonetheless, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has resulted in the significant deterioration of  the European security environment. With Poland as a crucial player regarding support for Ukraine, it is important to ascertain where Polish security and defence policy is likely to be headed under the new government.


Security First

As outlined in the coalition agreement, the main focus is on security. This is of no surprise considering the current situation in Ukraine. It is important to note that there are fundamental mainstays of Polish defence policy which transcend party politics and form the foundation of Poland’s approach to security, including Atlanticism, a focus on regional security and territorial defence, founded on a Russian threat perception, the desire to be a reliable ally and the positioning of Poland as a bridge between east and west.


Evidently, the new government will continue to centre Russia as a direct existential military threat to Poland and the wider region. This links into Polish Atlanticism, with the new government calling for a strengthening in Poland’s relations with NATO. The type of Polish Atlanticism saw a shift under Law and Justice, from a pragmatic to its current fortified variant, which manifested itself in an attempt to further intensify Poland’s partnership with the US. The Tusk government, however, seeks to provide leadership, and in this sense working with like-minded countries in central and eastern Europe, including the Baltic states, along with northern European states will be of importance.


Finally the new coalition government will prioritise the modernisation of the Polish armed forces over any form of out of area operations, the former of which has been a key component of Poland’s approach to defence since 2013. PiS had sought to strengthen this position, including a significant increase in defence spending following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 to 3.9% GDP. This level of spending looks set to remain, with Tusk committing to honouring current defence contracts.


Poland and EU Security and Defence: Leading the Way?

Donald Tusk was the previous President of the European Council and head of the European People’s Party. Therefore, Poland will have a more pro-EU focus, which marks a change from deep euroscepticism under PiS. Poland has previously actively participated in and led aspects of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). However, Warsaw’s voice and activism in CSDP disappeared under PiS, with the policy continuing to evolve without Polish enthusiastic support or leadership.


The rhetoric towards the EU has already changed, as underscored in Tusk’s exposé in the Sejm, in which he called for Poland to ‘regain’ its leading position. Although Tusk seeks a pro-active, leadership role in the EU, the fundamentals of the current security environment make it unlikely that Poland will be focused on CSDP including participating extensively in CSDP operations, PESCO or the newly announced rapid deployment capacity for example. This is particularly the case in the context of NATO’s new force model of over 300,000 troops, which will replace NATO’s current response force and is of direct applicability to the regional security environment. Even though the coalition agreement seeks to strengthen partnerships in both organisations, Poland only has a single set of forces.


Poland and Germany: Friends once more?

Likely the sharpest change in rhetoric, and possibly deeds, is expected between Warsaw and Berlin. Whereas PiS exhibited a confrontational tone towards its German partners, calling repeatedly for war reparations, Tusk and most of his entourage exhibit a generally positive stance towards Poland’s western neighbour. Tellingly, and in sharp contrast to the PiS rhetoric of past years, the old and new foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski, famously said in 2011 that he “fear(s) German power less than (…Germany’s…)  inactivity”.


However, there will likely be no return to the pre-2014 partnership between Poland and Germany, in which the former was perceived to be the junior partner. This is due to three reasons. Firstly, one of the PiS party’s main elements against Tusk is his branding as a “German agent. For example, the Tusk government’s first draft bill, of somewhat questionable quality, caused some controversy when introduced to Parliament and was directly framed by PiS as being written by lobbyists and serving primarily German interests. Knowing of this, a Tusk-led government will likely try to avoid being seen as a junior partner of Berlin and instead constantly portray itself as an equal partner. This was already voiced during Tusk’s expose, in which he proclaimed that Polish interests will be secured in the interaction with every neighbour.


Secondly, today’s Berlin has changed since 2014. There were close ties between Donald Tusk and then-chancellor Merkel, which were even described as a “genuine friendship”. Yet, today, her CDU party, which is affiliated with Tusk’s KO and the PSL in the European Parliament, is in opposition and a fierce critic of Berlin’s Traffic Light Coalition. Thirdly, Berlin will have likely lost some trust in Warsaw due to an alleged pro-Russian stance in the past. Berlin will therefore have to deliver on its Zeitenwende promises rather than paying lip service. Hence, a positive change between Berlin and Warsaw will likely take place with a constructive relationship coming into force. However, there will be no return to the past as domestic and external circumstances have changed significantly in both Poland and Germany, meaning that the relationship will be more balanced and require mutually beneficial projects to generate and keep any positive momentum.


Ukraine’s New Ally in Warsaw: Boosting Kyiv’s Euroatlantic Aspirations?

A positive push can also be expected for Polish-Ukrainian relations. This becomes particularly visible considering the last developments between the previous government in Warsaw and its partners in Kyiv. Whilst being one of the most vocal supporters of Kyiv following the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a new strategy emerged in the second half of 2023, in which PiS sought to garner voters from the far-right Konferedacja. Part of this strategy was the politicization of the war in Ukraine, made visible by the issue of the grain imports.


Instead of politicizing the relations with Ukraine, Donald Tusk sees the support of Kyiv as one of Poland’s key interests. This became very clear during Donald Tusk’s expose, within which he argued that he “cannot listen to those who say they are tired of the situation in Ukraine. The task of the new government is to loudly demand that the Western community help Ukraine in this war”.


It is likely that given its proximity to Ukraine, the self-confident role that Poland seeks for itself in Europe will extend to the position Warsaw takes within the Western Alliance towards Kyiv. A fierce supporter of the EU, Donald Tusk, wrote “we made it!” following the EU’s decision to start accession negotiations with Ukraine. This shows the ownership and support for this process in the new Warsaw and is good news for Kyiv, as it will now have a partner in Warsaw that knows how to operate in the Brussels bubble.


Therefore, Warsaw has the willingness and the means to support Kyiv in its monumental quest for EU accession, something that could not be said about the PiS government without some doubt. Something similar applies to Ukraine’s NATO membership. Although the previous, PiS-led parliament passed a resolution in June 2023, supporting Kyiv’s NATO membership bid, the then-government had limited opportunities to promote these aspirations due to various conflicts with major NATO partners in Europe. Unsurprisingly, following Tusk’s official inauguration, Volodymir Zelensky called the Polish prime minister, saying that he “congratulated a friend for his inauguration as a head of government and the beginning of a new chapter of bilateral relations”. This shows that in Kyiv, the importance of this change has been clearly understood.


Conclusion: Continuity, Change and Return in Polish Security and Defence Policy

Undoubtedly the Coalition of October 15, represents “continuity”, “change” and “return” on a number of fronts. In respect to the latter, two of the key players in Polish politics have returned to government (Donald Tusk and Radosław Sikorski). This has subsequent implications for Polish foreign and security policy, including a strong emphasis on cooperation, Poland retaking its position as a central player, and leader within the EU more generally, and warmer relations with Berlin. However, as highlighted above, the deteriorating regional security environment brought about by the Russian full scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, along with domestic changes within Germany, ensures that Polish security policy will not ‘bounce back’ to the pre-2015 era. Finally,  key elements of continuity will remain particularly relating to the key tenets of Polish defence policy, an emphasis on NATO rather than CSDP, and Warsaw’s continued support for Ukrainian self-determination and fight against Russia. Overall, the new government represents the end of Poland’s antagonistic relations with its European allies, and a potential “go to” player once more.