Insight Poland

Poland’s vested interests in the Baltic sea, explained

Warsaw, Poland – February 10 marks the anniversary of the so-called “Wedding to the Sea” of February 1920, commemorating the date when General Józef Haller launched an alliance to the sea and celebrated the recovered access of Poland to the Baltic sea lost in 1793 during the second partition of the country.

Celebrations were held throughout the 20th century, indicating the importance that Poland attached to its access to the Baltic Sea. Historically, access to the sea has been a driving force for economic development and provides additional security compared to a landlocked situation.

Today, maritime areas present new challenges as well as crucial opportunities. More than one hundred years after this first “wedding to the Polish sea“, the time has come to take a closer look at the challenges surrounding Poland’s relationship with the Baltic.

The Baltic Sea, a highly strategic area

Historically, the Baltic Sea has always been a highly strategic area where a vast number of states and influences meet and confront, more or less peacefully. At the end of the Cold War, the initial goal and ambition was to make it an area of cooperation within Europe and, later, between the European Union and Russia. Today, it is still considered as an area of the utmost strategic importance for various reasons.

Firstly, there’s the obvious issue of energy resources, and in particular wind energy, a resource that can be exploited in the Baltic Sea and has caught the attention of Polish authorities: three offshore wind farm projects (Bałtyk I-III) are being developed by the Polish company Polenergia – in cooperation with the Norwegian company Equinor.

In March 2020, the Lithuanian Ignitis Group received a €60 million loan from the European Investment Bank to finance the construction of a wind farm off the Polish coast. However, in light of the current climate crisis, the expansion of renewable energy infrastructure can also prove critical to diversify energy supply sources.

Then comes the broader issue of energy infrastructure. Poland has long been heavily dependent on Russia for its gas supplies: in 2016, for instance, the Polish national company PGNiG was the most important buyer from the Russian giant conglomerate Gazprom, ahead of the likes of Engie and Uniper. That same year, 89% of Poland’s gas imports came from Russia.

Russia is perceived as an unreliable and unpredictable trading partner: the Russian-Ukrainian gas crises of winter 2005-2006 and 2009, along with their impact on gas deliveries to Central Europe have left a deep mark in the region.

Moreover, Polish authorities argue that Gazprom’s prices are unfairly higher for Poland than for other European countries. Poland’s mistrust towards Moscow has obviously been reinforced by Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the latest developments.

The diversification of energy supply sources therefore appears to be a necessity for Polish policy-makers, on top of being a goal set by Brussels for all 27 EU member states. Alternative opportunities are multiplying, highlighting the importance of the Baltic Sea as a major strategic – and potentially confrontational – area.

Poland’s imports of Russian gas, from 1990 to 2019 (in billion cubic meters). Source: The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies

Finally, the security issue is evidently omnipresent around the Baltic due to the presence of the militarised enclave of Kaliningrad – Russia’s strategic gateway to the Baltic – on the borders of Lithuania and Poland. In the minds of Polish authorities, this territory embodies the persistent and constant Russian military threat right on their doorstep.

As soon as it became part of the Soviet Union in 1946, Kaliningrad, the former Prussian Koenigsberg, was regarded as a strategic outpost for Moscow, and the Baltic Fleet Headquarters was quickly established there. It still is to this day, and the Russian fleet continues to patrol the Baltic Sea, in particular to monitor its gas infrastructure. During the Cold War, its raison d’être within the USSR was purely military.

Today, even though the number of troops is ten times smaller than it was in 1991 (between 15,000 and 25,000), the militarisation of the territory continues to be a grave cause for concern: Iskander missiles were installed there in 2016, as well as a battery of missiles whose range covers an area including all or parts of Poland.

All of this accentuates the feeling of existential threat in an already tense political climate. Let us recall the words – which some describe as prophetic – of former Polish President Lech Kaczyński, spoken in Tbilisi in 2008 in the wake of the Russian invasion of South Ossetia: “Today Georgia, tomorrow Ukraine, the day after tomorrow the Baltic States and, later on, perhaps it will be the turn of my country, Poland”.

Like the other countries bordering the Baltic Sea, Poland lives with a constant feeling of vulnerability towards the Kaliningrad enclave. This fear is reinforced by the existence of the Suwałki gap, a corridor some 100 kilometres long on the Polish-Lithuanian border, which is the only land link between the Baltic States and their EU and NATO allies.

Polish diplomacy at work in the Baltic Sea region

Poland’s relationship with the Baltic Sea countries have always had a strong security component, whether we’re talking about energy or military cooperation.

This can obviously be explained in part by historical and geographical considerations, but also by the likeness of their strategic thinking and common outlooks on military cooperation. At the end of 2019, the Polish Ministry of Defence published on its website the article “Together with the Baltic States, we care about security in the region”.

While this quadrilateral format is the most visible, with regular high-level meetings in recent years, Polish authorities have also developed a strong bilateral relationship with each one of the Baltic countries. The Polish army regularly takes part in military exercises with their respective armies.

At the initiative of Poland, the idea of a tripartite Poland-Lithuania-Ukraine brigade was born in 2009 before taking shape the following year, with the installation of the LITPOLUKRBRIG brigade headquarters in Szczecin in 2014. However, Poland’s bilateral cooperation in the Baltic region does not stop with the Baltic states: in 2011, Poland’s Foreign Minister signed a declaration on political cooperation in areas of strategic importance with Sweden, a starting point for “deeper cooperation in terms of foreign, security and defence policy”.

In addition to the military aspect, Polish diplomatic efforts in the region also focus on energy issues. Poland takes part in the Baltic Energy Market Interconnection Plan (BEMIP), which aims to desynchronise the Baltic states from the Russian and Belarusian electricity grids, a configuration inherited from the communist era, in order to connect them to the European networks instead.

This project comprising the eight European Baltic region states was launched in 2009 at the initiative of the EU Commission. Thus, Polish actions in this area are also part of wider regional formats initiated by Brussels. The same applies to the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region (EUSBSR), for which Poland is coordinating 3 of the 17 work themes.

Beyond these EU programs, regional multilateralism is an important part of Polish diplomacy in the Baltic region. Warsaw is a member of various multilateral organisations, including the Council of Baltic Sea States and Helcom, to name only a few. Through these various forms of cooperation, Polish authorities are eager to show their determination not to be left out of the regional scene and its decision-making bodies.

In 2019, Poland hosted the annual forum of the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region in the event of its tenth anniversary in Gdańsk. The following year, the Polish diplomat Grzegorz Poznański was appointed Secretary General of the Council of the Baltic Sea States.

Poland evidently has a strong diplomatic presence in the Baltic Sea region. But while cooperation, both bilateral and multilateral, is effective, tensions are bound to arise.

Competition and tensions around the energy issue

In order to diversify its sources of energy supply, Poland has set up two major bilateral projects: the Gas Interconnection Poland-Lithuania (GIPL) pipeline and the Northern Gate project designed to ship Norwegian gas to Poland via Denmark. In addition, Poland has also turned its attention to liquefied natural gas: in 2016, a major LNG terminal was inaugurated in Świnoujście (importing Qatari, Norwegian and American gas) while an additional project for an LNG terminal in Gdańsk is under consideration.

Poland is not the only country in the Baltic region seeking to import LNG: Lithuania and Finland have also set up terminals. However, these competing national quests for liquified natural gas are creating tensions between countries bordering the Baltic. The proliferation of terminals around the sea is keeping these countries from working on a unique project that could be cheaper and, above all, regional in scope.

This inability to develop coordinated initiatives can become a major strategic problem, as illustrated by Lithuania’s project in the early 2010’s to build a nuclear power plant that could supply electricity to the Baltic states and Poland. Polish authorities, hoping for a bigger stake compared to its “small” Baltic neighbours, withdrew from the project in 2011.

Addressing strategic competition within the Baltic area obviously includes the thorny issue of Nord Stream infrastructures. The Nord Stream and Nord Stream II gas pipelines between Russia and Germany are the most notorious source of tension in the region.

As soon as the project was announced in 2005, Poland and the Baltic states immediately opposed the project that threatens to bypass and isolate them, marginalize their Ukrainian partner, increase the share of Russian gas imported in Europe and strengthen the Russian fleet’s presence for surveillance and monitoring purposes.

The other countries involved, Sweden and Denmark in particular, also expressed their opposition to the Nord Stream projects. In Europe, Poland remains one of the most active in opposing the construction of Nord Stream II.


An increased role for Poland amid burgeoning rivalries in the CEE region?

In addition to the historical factor – which is decisive to understand the perception of Russia as a threat – concerns have increased dramatically since 2008 and the war in Georgia.

Beyond the installation of the Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, other developments have strengthened this fear, including the Russian cyber attacks on Estonia in 2007, the presence of a Russian submarine in the Stockholm Bay in 2014, the Nord Stream pipelines and their espionage capabilities or the Zapad (“West”) military exercises conducted by Russia and Belarus every four years around their western borders. In this context, Polish-Russian relations have quite naturally deteriorated over the past several years, however part of a more global trend of increased tensions between Moscow and Western countries.

In this general context, the United States is playing an increasingly important diplomatic and strategic role in the region. That’s how we can understand the growing American interest in the Three Seas Initiative, the main thrusts of which are energy – in particular the reduction of energy dependence on Russia – and transport infrastructure. In February 2020, at the Munich Security Conference, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced $1 billion to the countries taking part in the Three Seas Initiative.

If this originally Polish-Croatian project is attracting so much attention from the US administration, it’s also because it helps countering Chinese influence operations linked to the largest infrastructure project of the New Silk Roads. While the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative is criticized for being a dept-trap, the North-South format of the Three Seas Initiative counteracts the East-West axis of Beijing-funded infrastructure projects.

Poland is itself a co-initiator with Croatia of this project, which came into being in 2016. It’s a forum comprising 12 countries located in the Baltic-Black Sea isthmus and on the Adriatic Sea coast, a vast project for the development of Central and Eastern Europe, on a North-South axis, focusing on energy and transport issues.

In this context, Poland acts as a European leader acting for the establishment of a new dynamic centre in a region too often perceived as marginalized within the EU. Due to its dual goal, it’s catching the eye of the US, whose investments will undoubtedly play a role in its long-term sustainability, while actively contributing to strengthening Poland’s role in Central and Eastern Europe and, more broadly, in the EU.

Poland’s activism on the diplomatic scene in the Baltic Sea region show that Polish authorities want to position themselves as the key player in this strategic area. Already seen as the de-facto leader of the Visegrad Group, Poland is seeking to expand its area of influence in Central and Eastern Europe, in a way reminiscent of the borders of the former Republic of Two Nations or the ideas of Marshal Pilsudski during the inter-war period.

The establishment of the Lublin Triangle in July 2020 with Lithuania and Ukraine only reinforces this feeling. It seems that the area between the Baltic and the Black Sea is of crucial importance for Poland, both for the defence of its national interests and for the strengthening of its status and role within the European Union and the Euro-Atlantic community.

By Juliana Barazer, originally published in French by Euro Créative, an official partner of Kafkadesk.