Poland's former prime minister Donald Tusk talks with former foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski at the parliament in Warsaw on August 27, 2014
Courtesy Reuters

Radoslaw Sikorski, who was replaced recently as Poland’s foreign minister, has never shied from confrontation. That was apparent in his farewell speech at Poland’s foreign ministry on September 22, in which he quoted former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill: “You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

It’s not hard to guess which enemy he had in mind. In his seven years as foreign minister, Sikorski took a firm stand against Russian ambitions in eastern Europe. In 2009, he and Carl Bildt, then Sweden’s foreign minister, created the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program to promote engagement with Ukraine and five other former Soviet countries. In February, at the height of the protests on Kiev’s Independence Square, he helped broker an EU-backed deal between the opposition and then President Viktor Yanukovych. (Yanukovych fled the following day.) As hostility between Moscow and Kiev escalated into military confrontation, Sikorski confirmed his standing as one of Europe’s most prominent defenders of Ukraine’s right to build closer ties with the West. Under his leadership, Poland played an important role in organizing European sanctions against Russia. All of this raises a critical question: Does Sikorski’s departure from the foreign ministry signal that Poland is planning to abandon its distinctively hawkish voice in European foreign policy?

Sikorski’s departure is part of a government reshuffle after Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk (also a strong advocate for Ukraine) was appointed president of the European Council, where he will be responsible for chairing meetings of EU heads of state. Ewa Kopacz, a long-standing Tusk ally and former minister of health, took over as prime minister in September. Sikorski became Poland’s speaker of parliament, and was replaced as foreign minister by Grzegorz Schetyna, who lacks international experience.

For European leaders who prefer a softer stance toward Russia -- and for the Kremlin itself -- these changes might seem reassuring. The new Polish government is placing a stronger emphasis on domestic policy than on the crisis in Ukraine, especially in the run-up to next year’s parliamentary elections. Both Kopacz and Schetyna have already hinted that they are not inclined to match the previous government's active support for Ukraine. Asked on September 19 whether Poland would send weapons to Ukraine, Kopacz said, “Poland should act like a reasonable Polish woman,” by putting its own security first. “You know, I’m a woman,” she said. “I can imagine what I would do if I saw a person waving a sharp tool or holding a gun. My first thought would be: Right behind me, there is my house and my children. So I’d rush back and protect my children.” The dubious reference to her gender aside, Kopacz’s comments prompted doubts in Poland and abroad about the message they send to Kiev, and Moscow, at this uncertain time.

Schetyna, the new foreign minister, poses an especially stark contrast with his predecessor. A member of Poland’s ruling Civic Platform party since it was founded in 2001, Schetyna has been, among other roles, the interior minister and the speaker of parliament. But, despite having chaired the Polish parliament’s foreign affairs committee since 2011, he is a foreign policy lightweight. He lacks the high profile and international contacts of his predecessor. Sikorski was educated at Oxford; it is unclear how well Schetyna speaks English. Sikorski is prolific on Twitter; Schetyna does not have an account. (The foreign ministry confirmed that existing Schetyna accounts are fakes.)

These differences in international experience and character are significant, but the choice of Schetyna needs to be seen within the context of Polish politics and intraparty rivalries. The leaders of Poland's ruling Civic Platform are trying to soothe divisions within the party, which looks like it could start to fracture after seven years in power. Schetyna was Tusk’s biggest rival in the party, and he had been marginalized in recent years. There were concerns within the party that he and his supporters might soon split from Civic Platform and found their own group. Giving him a prominent perch as foreign minister is an attempt to placate him ahead of the 2015 parliamentary elections. Kopacz has alluded to these motivations when discussing her new cabinet, saying that it was a case of “all hands are on deck.”

The stakes are high. Civic Platform is struggling to keep ahead of its bitter rival, the conservative Law and Justice party, which has been in opposition since 2007. In terms of Poland’s standing in Europe, it would be a disaster if Law and Justice were to win the elections. When Law and Justice was in government from 2005 to 2007, party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his late twin brother, Lech Kaczynski, who was president at the time, quickly became pariahs on the international stage, acquiring a reputation for Russophobia and embarrassing anti-German rhetoric. This was a marked contrast to Sikorski’s measured toughness toward Russia, as he worked to improve relations between Warsaw and Moscow after Law and Justice’s stint in power. In an op-ed published in the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita on September 23, Sikorski expressed his regret that Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine had undermined his efforts to fix Polish-Russian relations. But if Russia stops using violence against its neighbors, Sikorski wrote, cooperation with it is both “possible and necessary.”

Warsaw’s emphasis on security policy this year reflects concerns in Polish society. According to a CBOS poll conducted in mid-September, 78 percent of Poles think that the situation in Ukraine poses a threat to their country’s security. Asked about how the international community should respond, the top responses included putting pressure on Russia (79 percent of respondents) and imposing tougher economic sanctions on it (69 percent). But although more than half of the respondents thought that the UN, the EU, NATO, and the United States should play a more active role in trying to solve the conflict in Ukraine, just 20 percent said that Poland isn’t doing enough. In that sense, Poland’s new leaders’ emphasis on modesty is in tune with the will of the broader Polish public.

All the same, Civic Platform's foreign policy will likely stay on the same track, even if the government's priorities shift somewhat in the months ahead. “I will try and introduce corrections, perhaps my own symbolic gestures, but I intend to continue Radoslaw Sikorski’s policy,” Schetyna said in a recent interview with Polish television.

Presenting her priorities as prime minister in the Polish parliament on October 1, Kopacz announced a “pragmatic policy” toward events in Ukraine, emphasizing cooperation with the EU and NATO, rather than pushing forward alone. “We will be safe if we have the appropriate alliances, rather than waving our sword around on our own,” she emphasized in an interview this week with Gazeta Wyborcza. This indicates that Poland will continue to support Ukraine as part of broader Western efforts but play less of a leading role in shaping the international response.

One official who will likely play a more prominent role -- especially given the emphasis on cooperation with NATO -- is Tomasz Siemoniak, the 47-year-old defense minister. His elevation to deputy prime minister last month highlights the emphasis placed on national security in Poland in the context of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. He has the backing of both Tusk and Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, which is significant for the defense portfolio because, according to Poland’s constitution, the president is the commander in chief of the Armed Forces. He has already tried to undo some of the damage done by Kopacz’s unfortunate statement comparing Poland to a “reasonable Polish woman” last week. “In my opinion, it’s a very good statement about how Poland’s interest is the most important in all this,” he told a Polish radio station shortly afterward, adding that he was surprised that the prime minister’s words had caused such a stir.

Moreover, it would be a mistake to assume that Sikorski has receded from the front lines of Polish politics. As speaker of parliament, he will be second in line as Poland's head of state; if the president is incapacitated, the speaker becomes interim president. He also remains popular -- in a recent poll, 49 percent of respondents said that they trust him. (Only Komorowski scored better.) And Sikorski has never hidden his ambitions; it's likely only a matter of time until he again seeks out a higher-profile position in politics, whether in Poland or on the international scene.

For now, President Komorowski has urged Poles to give the new government 100 days of calm, linking his request to national security. “Poland in the chaos of continuous battle will be a weaker country,” he said. The new faces in the Polish government have been warned by the country's president to keep their political ambitions in check. Whether they will, and what this means for Poland’s support for Ukraine and its standing in Europe, is another matter.

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