Much of NATO’s response to recent Russian behavior has a military flavor. To defend its northeastern members and to augment its interoperability, NATO has expanded the NATO Response Force and stepped up joint military exercises. NATO has provided military assistance to Ukraine, arguably signaling its support of Kiev and underscoring its commitment to contain Russian aggression in the Donbas region.
NATO members threatened by Russian aggression have also demanded troop commitments from their stronger counterparts. Many, like Poland and the Baltic states, have increased their defense spending and will even receive pre-positioned heavy weaponry from the United States. The logic behind these moves is straightforward. By strengthening individual and collective military capabilities, NATO members can improve deterrence and decrease the likelihood of Russia finding operational success on the battlefield.
NATO is correct to address the capability gaps Russia could potentially exploit. However, as much as Russia could start an arms race, it would likely lose one against an already superior NATO. As such, Russia might find subversion to be a more effective weapon against NATO. Subversion would help sow discord between NATO countries, thereby complicating their efforts to present a unified front against Russia. In this regard, many observers point to Russia’s use of oil and gas supplies to play NATO states against each other by providing access to some while bypassing others. Countries that rely on Russian energy could become more accommodating to the Kremlin than those that are not.
Another potential, but overlooked form of subversion the Kremlin might use involves manipulating deeply rooted latent or actual ethnic grievances that exist in East Central Europe. In particular, there are two sets of ethnic grievances that the Kremlin could leverage to create conflict among East Central European security partners.
The first involves the status of the Polish minority population in Lithuania, who represent over 6 percent of the total population. These ethnic Poles comprise Lithuania’s largest minority group. According to the 2011 Lithuanian census, much of the ethnic Polish population lives in the city of Vilnius and its surrounding county. This population is what is left over from before the Second World War, when Vilnius was majority Polish and one of the largest cities of Poland.
During the Second World War, the Soviet annexation of Lithuania and eastern Poland led the way for Vilnius not only to be Lithuanized, but also to become the Lithuanian capital. The violence that characterized this change in the city’s status still haunts the present. Polish nationalists underscore the fact that Lithuanian partisans sided with Nazi Germany in cleansing the city of non-Lithuanian ethnic groups. Lithuanian nationalists argue that Polish partisans committed atrocities against ethnic Lithuanians. Both grievances are legitimate. These historical controversies form the backdrop of contemporary debates regarding the Polish minority in Lithuania. Upon regaining independence in 1990, the Lithuanian government granted citizenship to all minorities, including ethnic Poles.
However, the Polish government has continued to raise concerns over whether ethnic Poles in Lithuania receive adequate protections and enjoy the freedom to exercise certain cultural rights. Just days before his death in the 2010 Smoleńsk air disaster, Polish President Lech Kaczyński visited Vilnius to endorse a proposal that would allow ethnic Poles to register their last names in Polish.
The Lithuanian parliament rejected this proposal, leading some to later describe the vote as a “disgrace.” Reflecting on this issue in 2014, former Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus (1998-2003; 2004-2009) argued that the Polish minority already enjoyed many benefits and privileges, adding, “they do not appreciate how good it is for the Polish minority to live in Lithuania.”
These latent tensions provide fodder for Russia to sow discord between these two NATO allies. Consider the following hypothetical situation: Kremlin-backed agents pose as Lithuanian or Polish nationalists and commit crimes or mount campaigns of disinformation alleging misdeeds and incendiary statements when none have occurred. This would agitate a local political dispute within Vilnius County, eventually pitting members of the minority Polish population against the majority Lithuanian population. Both communities could then undertake measures to defend themselves, only to generate greater feelings of insecurity between them.
Should a violent incident take place, both sides would launch reprisals, driving the Polish government to protest that its Lithuanian counterpart is failing to protect its Polish minority. The Lithuanian government could in turn accuse the Polish government of meddling in its internal affairs. Relations would deteriorate between the two countries, possibly preventing the two from presenting a unified front against Russia and cooperating in counterintelligence and military operations.
The scenario may seem far-fetched and conspiratorial, but it is not implausible: Facebook pages that appeared in February 2015, purportedly belonging to Polish nationalist groups, began to proclaim a People’s Republic of Vilnius. Some pin the pages on Kremlin loyalists aiming to create the conflict dynamics described above.
Kremlin efforts could also stir conflict via ethnic grievances between the Poles and Ukrainians. Ukraine is not, and is unlikely to be, a NATO member anytime soon. Kyiv relies on a strong relationship with Poland because of the latter’s advocacy on behalf of Ukraine within the European Union and NATO. Absent of Poland’s diplomatic support, Ukraine’s position with the West would be much weaker and would allow Russia to blackmail a more vulnerable Kyiv.
To create a wedge between Poland and Ukraine, Russia could manipulate historical symbols and resurface past traumas. After all, in interwar western Poland, the poorer Ukrainian population worked the land for rich Polish families. In the chaos of the Second World War and its aftermath, Polish and Ukrainian underground military organizations fought each other, inflicting atrocities on civilian populations. Such partisan warfare unfolded amid the mass population transfers that those years occasioned. With Polish and Soviet borders shifting westwards, German cities like Breslau became Polish (Wrocław) while Polish cities like Lwów became Ukrainian (Lviv). Indeed, one reason why the Kremlin denounced all Maidan protesters as Stepan Bandera-inspired fascists was to invoke those historical traumas. Kremlin-backed media outlets spread false news reports that the new Polish President Andrzej Duda had called on Ukraine to “voluntarily return Polish land.”
Having won the presidential and parliamentary elections this year in Poland, the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party would be wise not to play to the Kremlin’s cynicism. Many post-election commentaries correctly point out that the foreign policy of the PiS-controlled government will likely be marked with more continuity than change.
Still, there are concerns that the party’s brand of nationalist conservatism could reopen old wounds and create new rifts between Poland and its neighbors. President Andrzej Duda made Estonia and not Lithuania his foreign visit in August. Some Lithuanian commentators surmise that PiS will be more responsive to petitions and protests brought forth by members of the Polish minority in Lithuania.
With respect to Ukraine, Duda’s government might be more reactive. This past April, Ukraine’s parliament passed legislation labeling Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) soldiers as independence fighters – a provocation made worse because its timing coincided with a visit by then Polish President Bronisław Komorowski. The UPA, which contributed to the ethnic cleansing of Poles in Volhynia and East Galicia, was described by a PiS senator as “genocidal.” Such statements risk inflaming the situation further.
The historical controversies involving Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine highlight that an exclusively military response undertaken by NATO might be undone, should its unified front fracture. PiS leaders must be careful in handling ethnic grievances with their eastern security partners in Lithuania and Ukraine. They should also be alert to the possibility that the Kremlin may try to provoke nationalist disputes.
This is not to say that historical disagreements are best left forgotten. As a Russian proverb warns us, “forget the past and lose an eye; dwell on the past and lose both eyes.” But Polish leaders and their East Central European counterparts should keep disputes at manageable levels. If tensions do flare up, they should seek outside mediators to help mitigate the tensions. As Russia continues to threaten Lithuania, Ukraine, and Poland, the greatest loss would be in allowing the past to stand in the way of cooperation today and in the future.