Sun, 22 Sep 2019

WASHINGTON -- Polish President Andrzej Duda will be making his second visit to the White House in less than a year as he seeks a permanent U.S. military base and advanced fighters to counter what his government sees as a growing Russian threat.

The leader of the largest economy in the eastern part of the European Union will also aim to strike more energy deals to reduce dependence on Russian gas when he travels to Houston as part of a six-day trip around the United States that starts on June 12.

U.S.-Polish relations have intensified under President Donald Trump, who has voiced interest in boosting U.S. military-equipment and energy sales abroad and seems to share positions held by leaders of Poland's ruling Law and Justice party on some issues. Trump is expected to make his second trip to Poland as president in September.

Duda's visit will be closely watched by the Kremlin, which last week used an annual economic conference hosted by President Vladimir Putin as a platform to lash out at the United States, accusing it of using energy exports as a geopolitical weapon -- a charge Western governments level against Russia.

Poland has been angling for a permanent U.S. military base ever since Russia seized Crimea in 2014 -- the first land grab in Europe since the end of World War II -- and supported separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine. Moscow's moves raised concerns about its intentions regarding other countries in the region.

Duda, who flew to Brussels last week to update NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on negotiations with the Pentagon, said he hopes to see the 'conclusion of talks' on a permanent presence during his meeting with Trump, set for June 12.

Dan Kochis, a European security analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, said that the United States and Poland may need more time to agree on the specifics of a deal.

'There are still details being worked out but, eventually, we are going to get there where the U.S. has a permanent presence stationed in Poland," he said, adding a deal would likely be finalized by the end of this year.

Duda said last year that his country is willing to spend $2 billion to help finance a permanent U.S. military base -- a potential selling point for Trump, who has repeatedly accused many NATO allies of spending too little on defense.

Poland is one of the few NATO members that spends at least 2 percent of GDP on defense, meeting a target set by the alliance in 2014.

Analysts said that Russia could respond to any agreement on a permanent presence -- regardless of how big -- by seeking to enhance its capabilities in its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad or in Belarus, both of which border Poland.

"Both Russia and Belarus have made it clear that a beefed-up U.S. military presence -- whether it be concentrated in the form of an entirely new base in Poland or spread out across the country's existing bases -- will leave the two Eastern allies little choice but to respond with even greater military buildups of their own," U.S.-based geopolitical analysis group Stratfor said in a report on June 7.

NATO added more than 4,000 troops on a rotating basis to Poland and the three Baltic nations in 2017.

A permanent base would almost certainly be described by Moscow as a violation of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, in which NATO pledged to 'carry out its collective defense' without the 'additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.' But the alliance could counter that the pledge only applied to the 'current and foreseeable security environment' at the time, and repeat its argument that Russia has broken its own commitments under the agreement.

Poland has also requested to buy 32 F-35 jet fighters from U.S. company Lockheed Martin to replace its fleet of Soviet-designed MiG and Sukhoi jets, Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said on May 28. The deal would be worth about $2.5 billion.

Neither the Pentagon, Lockheed Martin, nor Duda's office responded to RFE/RL about whether the jet deal will be signed this week.

Polish President Andrzej Duda (left) and U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry in Warsaw in November

Following the meeting with Trump, Duda will travel to Houston with Energy Secretary Rick Perry to meet executives of the largest U.S. oil and gas companies.

Poland has begun importing liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States to help reduce dependence on Russian energy.

The country cut its gas imports from Gazprom by 6 percent last year, but the Russian state-owned company still accounts for two-thirds of its imported gas.

Poland's long-term import contract with Gazprom ends in 2022, opening the opportunity to replace more Russian energy with U.S.-produced LNG. The country is now looking to build another import terminal to handle greater volumes.

U.S. energy companies have been ramping up natural gas production and are looking to export more.

Warsaw has joined Washington in seeking to block Gazprom from building a new $11 billion gas export pipeline under the Baltic Sea to Germany. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline would tighten the Kremlin's hold on European gas markets, critics say.

Gazprom said last week that it expects to complete the project by the end of the year. The United States has warned firms helping Gazprom build the pipeline that they could face sanctions.

Igor Sechin, the head of Russia's largest oil company, accused the United States of using sanctions in order to find export markets for its growing output of oil and gas.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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