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How not to be a useful idiot in relations with Russia

Russia is a state of mind. This applies not only to Russian citizens, but it also manifests itself in its foreign policy. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014 many have understood that Russia is a revisionist power, one that is seeking to regain its position in the world.

January 28, 2020 - Agnieszka Legucka - Hot TopicsIssue 1-2 2020Magazine

Photo: PISM

Russia’s goal is to secure and control its sphere of influence in the post-Soviet area by limiting the sovereignty of its neighbours. At the same time, its assertive foreign policy helps to safeguard the interests of the current power elite within the Kremlin, using very often anti-western propaganda, disinformation and meddling in political processes. But discussion about policy towards Russia depends on the strategic culture of each state. Poland’s historical experience, as well as Russia’s activity in the neighbourhood, has led the Poles to talk about Russian aggression and/or a different interpretation of common history. In fact, security and identity issues dominate Polish-Russian relations. Generally speaking, it is a challenge to talk about Russia and find the balance between security (including energy independence) and the box of useful idiots, spies, traitors or a Kremlin fifth column. To make matters worse, attitudes towards Russia in Poland have become an expression of support for one or another political option.

But we, Poles, do have to talk about Russia. First, it is important for us to really know our neighbour as much as possible and to see and understand the “other Russia” – the people in Russia who disagree with the regime. Second, if we do not talk about Russia, then others will decide on the policy towards it without us. Third, we have no plan or strategy in the situation where Russia regains its international position after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. In this scenario, Russia is welcomed back into the group of countries deciding on global affairs without any concessions on its part. In this case, Poland would call for respect of international law, but may be alone in this call. That is why we should learn how to convince others who have different strategic culture towards Russia. Poles need to have persuasive instruments which go beyond complaining. Since foreign policy is an art of persuading the national interest outside of the country, the ability to defend it externally is even more important than the interest itself.

Attempts at a new deal between western countries and Russia have been visible for some time. Five years after the annexation of Crimea, the question is raised, again, not if but how to conduct a dialogue with Russia? One can hear voices in the European Union and the United States saying “We need to talk to Russia”, “be pragmatic” because without “dialogue with Russia we are unable to solve many contemporary international problems”.

In Poland, where there is a social consensus about the necessity of freezing relations with Russia, the question should be asked – what next? How to prevent a scenario of returning to business as usual with Russia? We are in a crucial moment in which it may be too difficult to maintain a coherent EU policy towards Russia. Although this consistency has always been obscure, since 2014 it has been based on the need to introduce sanctions as part of the EU’s foreign policy, in which security has been a priority.

The most surprising fact for Poland is that a change in the West’s mood did not come from any transformation in Russia’s behaviour, or a reduction of a threat in Ukraine and elsewhere. Instead of offering co-operation with the EU, the Kremlin has employed a strategy of coerced negotiations. As a result of frozen contact with the EU, Russia increased the range and methods of influence in the world through its intervention in Syria, its disinformation and interference in the political processes of western states (including the 2016 presidential election in the US), but also increased activity in Africa and South America. Russia’s goal has been to emphasise that the world should be divided into zones of influence by larger powers.

However, the real change in western attitudes towards Russia came from an even broader context. The unpredictable policy of Donald Trump causing tension in transatlantic relations, as well as the increased role of China, and a weakening of the European Union due to Brexit and internal crises were decisive. This was a favourable situation for the Russian authorities who understood that the West is undergoing internal erosion and that Russia could benefit from a US-EU-China rivalry, while acting through disinformation impacting many social processes in those countries.

Russia is trying to marginalise Poland’s voice on the international arena and is not interested in any dialogue with Warsaw. For example it promotes a Soviet version of history, full of lies and misleading information. Recently, Vladimir Putin brought up the subject of Poland’s responsibility for the outbreak of the Second World War. By using false arguments the Russian authorities want to negatively affect Polish-Israeli and Polish-German relations. The Kremlin argues also that Poles are consumed by an anti-Russian approach and that is why they are not worth being listened to. Pro-Kremlin media argue that the Poles would reject any proposals concerning Russia which do not lead to the overthrow of the current authorities. Sometimes those myths or lies are heard in political circles in Western Europe where Polish arguments are reduced to irrational phobias. Another myth concerns power games in which, according to Russian media, the Americans use Poland to increase their military and economic position in Europe, and Poland acts as an intermediary, or even a “puppet”. This, in turn, facilitates Russia’s talks with France and Germany, in which they do not trust Trump any more than Vladimir Putin.

Yet Poles are not anti-Russian and there are many aspects that connect us. However, Poles are suspicious of the Russian authorities and the imperial ambitions of the Kremlin, which they have experienced in the past. Today, Poland is closer to the concept of a double approach to Russia: deterrence and dialogue to reduce international tension. However, separating negotiations from deterrence for dialogue for dialogue’s sake is seen in Poland as a long-term threat to European stability. From Poland’s perspective, a split between transatlantic allies is extremely unfavourable as it limits the possibility of playing on several pianos in diplomacy. There is a belief that we can talk to Russia, but from a position of strength. We do not have this power alone and we need the support of the EU and NATO. However this is not just hard power, because social and cultural contacts are no less important in building a positive Polish image in Russia and the West (to defend our interests). That is why there is so much public support in Poland for European integration and NATO. Clearly this multilateral power works on the imagination of the Russian power elite. At the same time, Poland is committed to close relations with the United States, because, as the leading NATO member, it can guarantee the maintenance of transatlantic co-operation in security matters.

Improving relations with Russia without preconditions is perceived in Poland as naïve, short-sighted and dangerous. It is naïve because the authorities have manipulated the Russian public with propaganda in its confrontation with the West. Thanks to this, they can justify the difficult economic situation and maintain support for its assertive foreign policy. The power elite in Russia fears, first and foremost, a colour revolution and the rebellion of those who can negate the existing political system. When voices in the West claim that we should forget about any democratic agenda in Russia, that means business even better than usual for the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin and his cronies, to be sure, are suffering the most from the sanctions imposed by the US and EU.

Restarting relations with Russia is short-sighted. The Kremlin is counting on deepening economic co-operation with the largest EU member states in order to change the EU’s position on sanctions. This would mean reducing the principle of selective engagement in favour of principles selected by Russia, encouraging the Russian authorities to continue aggressive policies that are incompatible with international law. Finally, an unconditional re-start of co-operation with Russia is dangerous because it will strengthen the Russian authorities’ conviction that the annexation of Crimea and support for separatism in Europe do not limit those actions in the long run. The fact that the West will not set up preconditions does not prevent Russia from setting them. At first, Russia will ask for a lifting of sanctions, and then will wait for a silent (and, with time, de facto) recognition of Crimea as Russian territory. It would limit the effectiveness of the EU’s policy towards the Eastern Partnership countries who count on support but with difficult conditions of progress on internal reforms. Meanwhile, Russia will reward its partners in the EU who help break the deadlock (for example, it will repay Germany with cheap gas from Nord Stream 2). And once the German economy becomes more dependent on cheap Russian gas, Russia will gain a significant influence on the entire EU. The geographic distance will then be less important, and it could completely change the ways western states view Russia.

Agnieszka Legucka is a professor at Vistula University in Warsaw and an analyst with the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM). In her work she focuses on the foreign policy of the Russian Federation.



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