WARSAW, Poland — After hours of tense overnight negotiations last month in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv between then-President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition leaders demanding his ouster, one of the European officials mediating the talks briefly stole the spotlight.
“If you don't support this [deal] you'll have martial law, the army. You will all be dead,” he told the opposition about an agreement to hold elections in December. Caught on camera by Britain's ITV News, the tough talk was heard around the world.
That exhortation didn’t come from a foreign minister from the traditional European powers Germany or France, who were taking part, but their Polish counterpart Radoslaw Sikorski.
Yanukovych soon fled to Russia before Moscow prompted a new crisis by invading the Ukrainian peninsula Crimea, and the implications of the deal are still being debated.
But one matter is certain: Sikorski’s role was important not only for Ukraine, but his own country, which is emerging as an increasingly powerful player in European affairs.
“This could not only strengthen the image of Poland as actively involved in the EU's eastern policy but also contribute to Poland taking a more active role in foreign policy in general,” says Ryszarda Formuszewicz of the Polish Institute of International Affairs.
When European Union leaders met on Thursday to discuss imposing sanctions against Russia, Poland — which neighbors Ukraine — was among the mostly Eastern European countries pushing for harder measures, as well as warnings to prevent Russia from making similar moves in Georgia and Moldova.
The EU decided to suspend talks with Russia on visa and investment liberalization and called for Russia to withdraw its troops from Crimea and open negotiations with Kyiv. The leaders said they would impose more sanctions unless negotiations produced results in the next few days.
That was stronger than many expected. Polish President Donald Tusk called the measures “significant.”
Experts say Poland’s increasing political role reflects its rapidly growing economic ties with Germany — Europe’s largest political and economic power — as well as Tusk's relatively deft handling of the global financial crisis, when his country avoided recession.
With some 80 billion euros in bilateral trade last year, Poland eclipsed Russia to become Germany's tenth largest trading partner. Their political partnership has deepened in tandem.
Some believe German Chancellor’s Angela Merkel's calls for dialogue during the ongoing Ukraine crisis together with Tusk's Cold War-style request for assurances of protection from the United States and an emergency NATO meeting this week can be seen as a “good cop, bad cop” dynamic.
The Polish Defense Ministry said Thursday that Washington will send 12 F-16 fighter jets and 300 military personnel to Poland next week for a training exercise that was expanded in response to the crisis in Ukraine.
Whatever decisions are made in the coming days over Crimea, Cornelius Ochmann, director of the Warsaw-based Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation, the Polish influence will remain key for pushing for tougher measures.
“Today,” he says, “we are really important partners for creating the new eastern European policy.”