Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich arrived in Poland on Tuesday to meet with his Polish counterpart Bronislaw Komorowski. The two leaders centered their discussion around Ukraine's ongoing negotiations toward an association and free trade agreement with the European Union and ways that Poland can help facilitate this process. With Poland currently holding the six-month rotating EU presidency, Warsaw has taken the leading role in helping Ukraine with the agreement, pledging to make its completion before the end of the year a top priority of a Polish presidency.
While the association and free trade agreement is certainly a priority for Poland right now, Warsaw's interest in Ukraine goes far beyond trade, and it certainly runs deeper than a six-month time frame. In fact, Ukraine's importance to Poland has deep geopolitical roots, ultimately connected to one factor: location.
Poland's location in the middle of the Northern European Plain has made for a troubled history. With little in the way of physical barriers to protect the flatlands that Poland calls home, the country has been subjected to numerous invasions and long periods of subjugation, by powers from both its west and east. From its west came the Nazi war machine, which was then replaced from the east by the Red Army and half a century of status as a Soviet satellite. These are just the most recent imperialist entities to have ruled Poland.
Hitler and Stalin are obviously long gone. Poland is now an independent state with Germany and the Russian Federation as neighbors. The former is Poland's partner in the European Union and the latter has retreated hundreds of miles from its former Soviet borders and is no longer competing with the United States for global hegemony. Nonetheless, a country like Poland cannot easily forget centuries of subjugation. The country continues to sit astride the Northern European Plain, as do Russia and Germany. Moreover, a strengthening relationship between Moscow and Berlin has struck panic into the heart of Warsaw.
Thus, Poland is searching for strategic depth, something it has most often lacked. While threats on both sides will always pressure Poland, establishing some space and room to maneuver against these threats is the best defense Warsaw can hope for in the absence of natural boundaries. And this plan is where Ukraine - one of Poland's eastern neighbors - comes in. Ukraine is used to being a part of the same Russian state that came to dominate Poland at many points. However, like Poland, Ukraine is now an independent state, and Poland needs to ensure that Ukraine does not play a key role in reviving Russian domination.
Bringing Ukraine closer to Europe and out of the grip of Russia is therefore key to Poland's strategy. It is not a matter of bringing Ukraine into the European Union (even Warsaw knows that is not likely in the near- to midterm), but rather trying to make Ukraine neutral. The idea being that Kiev is the one playing the role of buffer to Russia, instead of Poland itself. Pursuing an association and free trade agreement to bring Ukraine politically and economically closer to the European Union is just one such opportunity for Warsaw to work toward this goal.
However, Poland cannot carry out this objective alone. After all, the association and free trade agreement is with the whole European Union, not just Poland. As with many EU matters, seeing this move through requires managing a large bureaucracy. In this bureaucracy, any one of the 27 member states can ultimately keep the Ukrainian deal from happening. The problem for Poland is that not all of the Europeans are interested. Most of the Europeans are wary of inciting the ire of Russia, the supplier of nearly a quarter of Europe's natural gas - a share that is yet increasing. It is particularly difficult to persuade countries on Poland's western front, particularly Germany and France, who are moving increasingly closer to Russia and do not share Poland's pressing desire to bring Ukraine closer to Europe as swiftly as possible.
Despite this, Poland will continue to do what it can to establish a space in which to maneuver, on the Ukrainian issue and many others. However, Poland will continue to be limited by the forces around it - trapped between east and west. Such is the fundamental Polish dilemma.