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A 180-Degree Shift

In December 2013, improvements in Polish-Russian relations seemed to be undeniable, culminating in the signing of a “2020” cooperation programme by both ministers of foreign affairs. After only half a year, bilateral relations made a 180-degree shift. Russia was unanimously judged by the Polish elite as the number one threat to Poland’s security.

This essay is from the current issue of New Eastern Europe – Our (R)evolutions.

August 18, 2014 - Marcin Kaczmarski - Articles and Commentary

shutterstock Wawprotest

Photo: Shutterstock/Tomasz Bidermann WARSAW, POLAND - July 27: The pro-Ukrainian protest against policy of the president of Russia Vladimir Putin, on July 27, 2014 in Warsaw, Poland.

Photo by Shutterstock 

The Polish reaction to the annexation of Crimea and the crawling civil war in the eastern regions of Ukraine was unequivocal. Both the Polish authorities and the opposition condemned the annexation of Crimea, the pseudo-referendum and openly accused Russia of aggression in south-east Ukraine. A symbolic confirmation of this position was seen with the awarding of the Solidarity Award, established on the 25th anniversary of Poland regaining its sovereignty, to Mustafa Dzhemilev, the leader of the Crimean Tatars. Russia has been refusing to allow Dzhemilev entry into the territory of Crimea.

While for now it seems that relations between Russia and Poland (and other western countries) have been all but suspended, no one should expect that this sharp phase, observed since February and March 2014, will turn into a permanent one. The worsening of relations between the United States and Russia may last several years. There are, however, indicators that the greatest tensions between the European Union and Russia will not endure long.

Return of the cold war warrior?

Europe, despite bombastic declarations, is not ready for a perennial confrontation with Russia. Moscow, in turn, has already demonstrated how determined it is to gain full control over Ukraine and to prevent close ties with the EU. It has also shown tactical flexibility in this regard, which, as a rule, calms Europe down. The political confrontation against Ukraine will end sooner rather than later, even if this time the return to “business as usual”, as took place after the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, has been ruled out. Practically, it means that questions will shortly arise concerning the shape of future Polish and Russian relations.

After the Georgian conflict, Warsaw was the first EU capital city to be visited by Sergey Lavrov, the minister of foreign affairs of Russia. We should not count on this happening again and Polish-Russian relations will be very difficult to put back on track. Overall, three factors will shape these bilateral relations in the upcoming years: Poland returning to the front line of EU-Russia relations, a limited space for political manoeuvring inside Poland, as well as a shift in the importance of Poland from the Kremlin’s point of view.

Since Donald Tusk came to power, an unspoken goal of Polish policy towards Russia has been to withdraw Poland from the front lines of EU-Russia relations. No matter how the particular aspects of this policy are perceived, it must be admitted that the government succeeded in achieving this essential objective. After the Ukrainian conflict, a similar strategy will no longer be possible. This time, Warsaw will have no choice, no matter what party takes over governance after the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2015. This time it will be geography rather than politics that will decide and it shall limit the Polish space to a much greater extent than previously.

Poland, years ago described as “the cold war warrior”, will once again be forced to take this role in relations between the West and Moscow. Poland, with the other Baltic states, will conduct policy towards Russia in the shadow of a constant potential threat. Promptness, determination, and the level of organising activities undertaken by the Kremlin both in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine have made Russia an unpredictable country. Even in the case of normalisation of relations between the West and East, fears of another Russian aggression will remain a permanent element of policy by Russia’s neighbours. For the same reason, Poland will not be able to follow the path chosen by the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who is focusing on increasing economic ties with Russia.

How much influence these concerns will have on practical policy will be to a great extent derived from NATO’s reaction and the strengthening of the allies’ credibility. A permanent presence of American troops in Poland would undoubtedly allow Polish politicians to go beyond the platform of “hard” security in relations with Russia. However, if the alliance’s mobilisation around Article 5 turns out to be short-lived, Polish and Russian relations will be shaped exclusively on the issue of security and potential threats from the East. What is more, Poland’s inevitable comeback to the role of “the cold war warrior” would result in deteriorating relations with Russia regardless of both parties’ intentions. Warsaw will once again be perceived as a country blocking pragmatic relations between the European Union and Russia, especially if a high number of EU states support normalisation. The promotion of Ukraine by Poland, putting forward the notion of an energy union and decreasing energy dependence on Russian, as well as attempts to increase American military presence in Central Europe will drive the conflict in interactions with Russia. The mentality of the “front line” state would once again influence Polish policy, whose results will be difficult to reverse both in relations with Russia and internally.

Internal changes

Polish-Russian relations have practically formed one of the basic division lines in Polish policy since the moment of regaining sovereignty. The dispute over Warsaw’s approach towards Moscow became extremely sharp after 2007 with the coalition of Civic Platform and the Polish People’s Party. The governing coalition presented itself as a force able to undertake pragmatic conversations with Russia and, at the same time, not give up on defending Polish national interests. The opposition (especially its right-wing part) consistently accused the government of weakness towards the Kremlin. The war in Georgia in 2008 and the Smolensk catastrophe in 2010 only deepened these divisions. Steps taken by Russia, such as the failure to return the plane wreckage from the 2010 crash, exacerbated these accusations.

The Ukrainian crisis has led to a rather unexpected turn. Politicians of the ruling coalition, when describing Russian actions, began using language that was used, until then, only by the opposition. The opposition in turn began, although for a short period of time, supporting the government’s approach towards Russia. The consensus that has emerged seems to be rather superficial in nature and is first of all connected with uncertainty about the future behaviour of the Kremlin. Together with the gradual fading of the conflict in Ukraine, policy towards Russia will once again become a source of division on the Polish political scene.

A common language that is being applied to illustrate Russian actions both by the governing party, Civic Platform (PO), and the opposition party Law and Justice (PiS), is not enough for achieving a permanent agreement when it comes to policy towards Russia. On the one hand, neither party shares a common vision concerning this policy structure. PO is in favour of restraint and co-ordination of its activities with the EU while PiS prefers unilateral steps and reliance on the United States. On the other hand, a consensus is inconvenient for both parties since the issue of policy towards Moscow cannot be played politically in the same way it has been so far. Paradoxically, even this limited agreement concerning the nature of current Russian policy may obstruct improvement in Polish and Russian relations since neither party will wish to be regarded as the one ignoring the fundamental interests of Polish security.

It might be expected that in time, the left-wing parties (the Democratic Left Alliance, Your Movement – Twój Ruch) will formulate an alternative approach towards the Russian question. Both in politicians’ and left-wing commentators’ statements, there have already appeared suggestions of a need to recognise “legitimate” interests of Russia in Ukraine and an actual Polish resignation of supporting Kyiv in return for “normalisation” of relations with Moscow, particularly in the economic sphere. Playing on the Polish reluctance to be the “frontline” state in relations between the West and Russia, these political forces may appeal for a new agreement with Moscow. Even though Polish society does not seem to perceive Russia as a direct threat, the parliamentary and presidential election campaigns for 2015 are bound to favour fuelling the political conflict over policy towards Russia.

Seen from the Kremlin

The third factor that is going to complicate Polish and Russian relations is a change of importance of Poland in the eyes of the Russian elite. Recently, a source of improvement in bilateral relations has been the Kremlin’s belief that Poland is effective in creating EU policy towards Russia. This was especially the case during the period of modernisation promoted by Dmitry Medvedev. Taming Poland’s anti-Russian approach mattered to Moscow. Dialogue with Poland was considered essential for promoting Russian interests in Europe. In the new situation that is emerging in relations between Russian and the West, the position of Poland in the eyes of the Russian elite will certainly diminish.

After the Ukrainian crisis, there is no doubt about the nature of Russian foreign policy in Europe. At the same time, the EU cannot agree on how to prepare a response. The outcome of European sanctions will demonstrate to what extent Moscow will have to reckon with Poland. The level of solidarity which can be achieved within the EU will be a key for the image of Poland in the eyes of the Russian elite. The more that member states will be (cynically and deliberately) promoting parochial interests, economic and political ties with Russia, the less significant Poland will be from the Kremlin’s point of view. Therefore, the existing imbalance between Moscow and Warsaw that has decreased in recent years will once again become a key feature of bilateral relations.  

A return to the past

Since the start of the new Russia, as the Russian Federation, Poland has been testing several options in its eastern policy. It first started with an enthusiastic approach towards Russia as a similar state to Poland, undergoing a transformation on the way towards a free market and liberal democracy. As a response to the issue of NATO enlargement, which dominated bilateral relations in the 1990s, there was an attempt to put emphasis on building lasting economic ties to guarantee good relations, regardless of the political climate. The attempts to normalise the situation undertaken in the 2000s (which paralleled a period of good relations between Russia and the West) collapsed after Poland participated in the Orange Revolution. Under both the Democratic Left Alliance and the PiS governments, Poland faced consistent Russian pressure. The last phase, the Polish-Russian “reset”, began with the current coalition. It survived the war between Russia and Georgia and the Smolensk disaster. But it did not survive the Crimean annexation and the moment Russia initiated civil unrest in Ukraine.

The choice of a “reset” was a strategic decision driven by the logic of EU internal policy. Poland managed to play a key role in developing European policy towards its eastern neighbours. Putting forward the Eastern Partnership and its development became possible only after Poland tamed its own Russophobia. The positive results of this “reset” were seen in the opening local border traffic with the Kaliningrad Oblast; a proposal to organise a “Year of Poland” in Russia and a “Year of Russia” in Poland in 2015; and finally the above-mentioned co-operation programme until 2020. It should be remembered that even during the period of the Polish-Russian “reset”, policy was not explicit. In the economic sphere, Poland consistently shielded itself against Russian influence and in fact blocked Russian investments. 

Nevertheless, a high number of disputes in Polish-Russian relations were kept under control. Conflicts of interests with respect to the interpretation of history, European security, or energy relations were expertly “managed” by both parties. The bilateral relations collapsed when a lack of agreement concerning the fate of a “common neighbourhood” became a priority. The “new” Eastern Europe is only new from the Polish point of view; for the Russian elite, it remains a traditional part of its sphere of influence and privileged interests.

At first, the government of Donald Tusk attempted to keep Polish policy towards Moscow separate from its policy towards Kyiv. The Polish refusal, however, to accept Ukraine subordination towards Russia and the fact that Poland has been supporting the new Ukrainian authorities in Kyiv against the Russian narrative has now created a barrier which will be very difficult to overcome.

Translated by Justyna Chada

Marcin Kaczmarski is an adjunct professor at the Institute of International Relations at the University of Warsaw. He maintains a blog dedicated to Russian-Chinese relations at www.russiachinarelations.blogspot.co.uk.  

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