BRUSSELS — A bitter political and diplomatic rift between Germany and Poland, both important members of the European Union and NATO, has worsened as Russia’s war in Ukraine has ground on, undermining cohesion and solidarity in both organizations.
The toxic nature of the relationship was underscored recently by a German offer to provide two batteries of scarce and expensive Patriot air defense missiles to Poland, after a Ukrainian missile strayed off course and killed two Poles last month in the little town of Przewodow.
Poland initially accepted the offer of the Patriots, then rejected it. They then insisted that the batteries be put in Ukraine, a nonstarter for NATO, since the missile systems would be operated by NATO personnel. After considerable allied concern and public criticism, the Poles now seem to have accepted the missiles again.
“This whole story is like an X-ray of miserable Polish-German relations,” said Michal Baranowski, the regional managing director of the German Marshall Fund in Warsaw. “It’s worse than I thought, and I’ve watched it a long time.”
Poland has long been wary of Germany; Hitler’s invasion in 1939 was the start of World War II. It was also critical of Germany’s policy of Ostpolitik, the Cold War effort at rapprochement with Moscow and the countries of Eastern and Central Europe occupied by the Soviet Union.
Democratic Poland consistently criticized German dependency on Russian energy and the two Nord Stream pipelines that were designed to take cheap Russian gas directly to Germany and bypass Poland and Ukraine. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has only intensified the view in Poland that Germany’s close relations with Russia and President Vladimir V. Putin were not just naïve but selfish and, possibly, just on hold rather than permanently sundered.
Both sides have made mistakes in the current dispute, said Jana Puglierin, the Berlin director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The relationship has been deteriorating for years, but it’s peaking now and doing real damage,” she said. “There is a gap emerging between Europe’s east and west, old Europe and new Europe, and that’s beneficial only for Vladimir Putin.”
Germany thought this gesture of military help would be “an offer that was too good to be refused,” and would help convince Poles that Germany is a reliable ally, said a senior German diplomat, who would speak only anonymously in accordance with diplomatic practice. After all, he said, the Poles themselves are trying to buy Patriots, a surface-to-air, antimissile system, “so we wanted to make this government’s caricature of Germany more hollow.”
But after the Polish defense minister and president quickly accepted the offer, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the powerful 73-year-old leader of Poland’s governing Law and Justice party, rejected it just two days later.
Not only did he insist that the Patriots go to Ukraine, but he suggested that Germany, which he regularly attacks as siding with Russia over Poland, and whose soldiers would be operating the Patriots, would not dare to confront Russia. “Germany’s attitude so far gives no reason to believe that they will decide to shoot at Russian missiles,” Mr. Kaczynski said.
Mr. Kaczynski has no formal role in the Polish government, but the defense minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, fell into line within hours. Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, from the same party, and who is also Poland’s commander in chief, was embarrassed by the painfully obvious display of his powerlessness.
NATO allies were quietly furious, precisely because the Patriots would be operated by German soldiers and the defense bloc has made it clear that it will not deploy troops to Ukraine and risk a NATO-Russian war. Any decision to send Patriots to Ukraine, Germany said, would have to be a NATO decision, not a bilateral one.
“Kaczynski knew this and was being totally cynical,” said Piotr Buras, the Warsaw director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Everyone knew the Germans would not and could not send Patriots to Ukraine. And, of course, there are no Polish soldiers in Ukraine, either.”
The only explanation for Mr. Kaczynski’s response is political, Mr. Baranowski of the German Marshall fund said, since Poland is in an electoral campaign and the party’s support has been slipping. With elections scheduled for next autumn, Law and Justice is reinforcing its base, and “criticism of Germany is a constant party line,” he said.
Some analysts detected a political motive on the German side as well. The offer by Berlin, so soon after the deaths of the Poles, was “clearly a German effort to have a win in the bitter, toxic Polish-German diplomatic war,” said Wojciech Przybylski, chief editor of Visegrad Insight and president of the Warsaw-based Res Publica Foundation, a research institution. “And it also harms Kaczynski’s electoral strategy.”
Even so, “for Poland’s leading politician, and head of the ruling coalition, to say that he has no trust in Germany as an ally was shocking,” Mr. Baranowski said. “If mismanaged this can hurt alliance unity, beyond the two countries — I’ve never seen security instrumentalized in this way, in this toxic mixture.”
But Germany decided to keep the offer open, the German diplomat said, and opinion polls showed that a large percentage of Poles thought that having German Patriots in Poland was a good idea.
On Tuesday night, the Polish government shifted its position again. Mr. Blaszczak, the defense minister, announced that after further talks with Berlin, he “disappointedly” accepted that the missiles would not go to Ukraine, adding, “We are beginning working arrangements on deploying the launchers in Poland and making them part of our command system.”
But the bitterness will persist, and few expect Mr. Kaczynski and his party to stop questioning German sincerity. Only in October, for instance, Warsaw suddenly demanded Germany pay reparations for World War II, calculating $1.3 trillion in wartime losses, an issue that Berlin said had been settled in 1990.
But the criticism of German hesitancy toward helping Ukraine, and of France’s early willingness to push for peace talks at Ukraine’s expense, is not limited to Poland but is also prevalent in central, eastern and northern Europe, although less charged.
“There is a lot of talk about Western and E.U. unity and cooperation on Ukraine, but at the same time this war has triggered a significant wave of criticism of Western Europe in Poland and the Baltics,” said Mr. Buras of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It deepened the skepticism and criticism, especially of Germany and France, and fed a sense of moral superiority toward them, that we’re on the right side and they were on the wrong side,” he said. “And it has deepened mistrust about security cooperation with them, that we can’t rely on them, but only on the U.S. and the U.K.”
The Polish debate mixes two things, he said. First, there is a “ruthless political instrumentalization of Germany by Law and Justice — it’s incredible how they portray Germany as an enemy and Berlin as dangerous to Poland as Moscow, that Berlin wants Russia to win and is not really helping Ukraine at all.”
But beyond the crude propaganda, Mr. Buras said, there is a failure in Poland to recognize that there is a post-invasion realization in Berlin that war has come back to Europe, that Germany needs to rearm and has become far too dependent on Russian energy and Chinese trade.
Poland may not be the only country criticizing Germany over Ukraine, Ms. Puglierin said, but on another level, “it’s the political layer in Poland, toxic and nasty.” Law and Justice “jump on this German hesitation and use it for domestic political reasons, and I think it will only get worse before the elections, at the very time when unity is useful.”
There is one brighter spot of cooperation. Earlier this month, the two countries signed an agreement to work to ensure the future of the giant Schwedt refinery, a German facility that had processed Russian oil, now under sanctions.
Sophia Besch, a German analyst with the Carnegie Endowment, insisted that Germany had changed since the Russian invasion. She pointed to the sharp change in policy toward a stronger military and more economic resilience, the “Zeitenwende,” or historical turning point, announced by Chancellor Olaf Scholz. “Scholz is much more committed to listening to Central European countries,” she said. “I believe our romance with Russia is over.”