The pace of the improvement of the relations between Poland and Russia has accelerated for the last several months. First signs of the changes could be noticed as early as 2008. The crucial question is how durable is this newest rapprochement on the political map of Europe and what are its limits.
The current situation is far from being unique in the post-Cold War history of Polish-Russian relations. The years 2001-2003 also witnessed their significant improvement, which at very fast pace turned into the deterioration, following Orange Revolution in Ukraine. At the same time, the cohort of problems between Warsaw and Moscow has practically remained unchanged for the last 20 years, starting from Poland’s ‘escape from the East’ begun in 1989. The problems have included different visions of European security architecture, disputes regarding the finalité of the so-called ‘common neighbourhood’, differentiated understandings of energy security and contradictory interpretations of the past.
Among all the problems, security issues have been at the top of conflicting agenda. They primary bone of contention has been the U.S. presence on the European soil. What Poland has perceived as the ultimate guarantee of peace in Europe, for Russia has been the key obstacle to the growth of its influence. Poland’s NATO membership and the scope of Warsaw’s cooperation with the Alliance have not ceased to be the object of controversies and triggered constant Russian objections. Regarding common neighbourhood, where Moscow has seen its sphere of privileged interests, Poland has seen both geopolitical barrier and potential partners “like us”. Energy issues overshadowed bilateral relationship from the very beginning of the Nord Stream project. Poland has aspired to lessen its dependence on Russian gas without the loss of its transit position. Moscow has wanted to pass Belarus and Ukraine by, and create direct linkages with its biggest customers and key political partners – from this point of view Poland has been another obstacle. Finally, the burden of history has had its meaning – defending the key role of the Soviet Union in Second World War must obviously have put Russian historic policy on the collision course with Polish, attempting to ‘teach’ the West about all the consequences of its relationship with the Soviet totalitarian regime.
Although none of these issues has been definitely solved, the changes taking place for the last months within Poland and Russia, and outside both states, have made all the disputes much less fierce. Following the victory of Victor Yanukovych in presidential elections, Russia has managed to strengthen its geopolitical position in Ukraine. The issue of NATO enlargement has been indefinitely postponed and the Black Sea Fleet extended its presence in Sevastopol till 2042. Given Poland’s distance to the new Ukrainian authorities, a crucial issue has been put off the bilateral agenda. Russian elite could take deeper breath and cease to be afraid of the loss of geopolitical barrier separating it from the West. After Obama administration, implementing its ideas of ‘reset’ with Russia, had withdrawn from the missile shield project in Poland and Czech Republic, and agreed to sit back to the arms control negotiations (which finally resulted in the new START treaty), the Kremlin felt another strategic relief. And another bone of contention in relations with Warsaw has been removed. The changes in the European gas market (oversupply as a result of the economic crisis) have cooled down Moscow’s ambition to become an energy superpower and dominate European market. They have been replaced with the idea of ‘Partnership for Modernization’, which is the concept much more neutral and far less precise. Poland on its part has seemed to accept the perspective of Nord Stream being built and focused more on its own projects (as LNG facilities), dropping the idea of political opposition towards Russian-German pipeline. Additionally, Russia has taken up the revision of its historic policy, seeing the lack of results of sometimes hysteric attempts to defend Stalin’s role, as in 2009. Moscow has distanced itself from the Stalinist heritage and started looking for a narrative that could be easier to accept by the West. The tragedy of 10 April created yet another element of atmosphere for the improvement in Polish-Russian relations.
Warsaw on its part has decided to join the European mainstream with regard to policy towards Russia. As early as 2008 Poland dropped the veto on the negotiations of the new EU-Russia partnership agreement, in return for the withdrawal of Russian embargo on Polish meat and vegetables. Warsaw has not blocked the return to ‘business as usual’ in late 2008 during the Nice summit, which normalized EU-Russia relations, strained in the consequence of Georgian war. The last exemplification of Polish attempts to stay within European mainstream has been the lack of opposition towards the issue of possible ‘Mistral’-type ship sale to Russia. At the same time one should not omit the lack of alternative towards mainstream - even long-term opponents of Russia (as Lithuania or Great Britain) have dropped the idea of confrontation in the general atmosphere of subsequent ‘resets’ between Russia and its ‘difficult’ partners from the West.
However, this Russian-Western improvement (of which Russian-Polish normalization is an element) has up till now been far from creating a new model of relationship. The primary factor is the American political scene. If Obama’s administration does not survive beyond the first term (and its position may be seriously weakened as a result of mid-term elections in November), the return of American unilateralism and all its consequences should be expected. An important part of American foreign and security establishment is not convinced by ‘reset’ and continues to look at Russia with suspicion. The current administration has gone so far to address key Russian demands – withdrawing from the MD project, refraining from criticism of domestic evolution in Russia and limiting seriously American presence in the post-Soviet area. All these ‘achievements’ are, however, still temporary and may be reversed under a different administration, which would inherently lead to subsequent round of Russian-American competition. Given its geopolitical position and potential, Poland would be the obvious field of such competition (regardless of Warsaw stressing the European direction in its foreign policy). Such circumstances make us ask, how deep the improvement in Polish-Russian relations may be, and whether it reflects anything more than temporary geopolitical changes.
The key to this question seems to be the answer to the question ‘what Poland means for Russian elite’. It seems justified to claim that Russian thinking towards Poland (and speaking more broadly, towards the whole Central Europe) has become dominated by the double-thinking. Warsaw is being perceived as on the one hand an important EU member, influencing European policy, and on the other hand, as a kind of ‘buffer zone’ between the real West and Russia itself and its post-Soviet sphere of influence.
Numerous Russian analysts, from Dmitri Trenin to Sergei Karaganov, have supported the former strand of thinking, pointing that Moscow has recalculated its attitude towards Poland and appreciated the growing weight of Poland in the process of intra-European bargaining. Polish veto (2006-2008), eventually supported by the whole European Union made the Kremlin rethink its previous neglecting policy towards Warsaw. According to their interpretations, Moscow realized that Poland may slow down the process of Russia-EU relationship development, if not approached appropriately. Thus Moscow decided to adopt more pragmatic stance towards Poland and engage in a serious dialogue.
However, ‘buffer-zone-like’ character of Central Europe has remained obvious, when analyzing Russia’s security policy. Moscow keeps on insisting on the maintenance of region’s special, in fact semi-NATO status. The Kremlin interprets the paragraphs of NATO-Russian Founding Act of 1997 in a very one-sided way, claiming that the Alliance allegedly agreed to refrain from creating new infrastructure in so-called new member states (whereas NATO declared only its willingness to be generally cautious in establishing new bases). Opposition towards any American troops’ presence in Poland is yet another exemplification of Russia’s attitude. And even looking at energy issues, Central European states are still small clients, standing in the way of Gazprom’s access to serious customers as Germany or Italy.
Such double-thinking in Russian foreign policy, coupled with the temporary character of geopolitical changes, means that Polish-Russian rapprochement may turn out to be short-lived. And the next crisis over energy or policy towards neighbours may once again degrade the relationship.
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