This weekend, recordings of Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski’s private conversations with former finance minister Jacek Rostowski surfaced in Wprost, a Polish weekly. The big bomb for Sikorski, who has been heralded as one of the brokers of what little stability exists in Ukraine, was that he questioned the Polish-American alliance, comparing Polish kowtowing to the US’s every whim to oral sex.
Enter an explosion of racy clickbait on Twitter and a couple of fierce arguments about the journalistic integrity of publishing such recordings and whether politicians should be judged for their private statements, all of which is very interesting, but besides the point. Because Sikorski is right.
Poland was also one of the first countries to commit troops to the Iraq War. Politics aside, you have to appreciate this gesture. Poland cared enough about relations with the United States to send its army into harm’s way in a war based on spurious reasoning. And they did a damn good job of it. Of the four zones of control in the country post-invasion, two were under US control, one British, and one Polish.
What has Poland gotten in return for its commitment to the Atlantic alliance and the United States? Very little. The ballistic missile shield that was planned (and cancelled, and reinstated) since the Bush administration might eventually come to fruition, particularly if Russia continues raising its hackles. Poles can’t easily work in or visit the US, since it is still waiting for admission to the visa waiver program (it’s the only member of the Schengen Zone without visa free entry to the US).
Given this background, it’s understandable why Sikorski might have expressed his frustration with the US when he saw the writing on the wall and we refused to take decisive action against Russia prior to the annexation of Crimea. His words aren’t the shocking part. How they came to light–almost certainly thanks to a certain neighbor hellbent on keeping Sikorski from succeeding Catherine Ashton as EU foreign policy chief–is another story.
This post is part of my series on Polish-Russian relations. Read the introduction here.
In my last post, I discussed how “Georgia shock” in the wake of the 2008 Russia-Georgia War led Poland to finally establish the Eastern Partnership Program by capitalizing on Europe’s sudden realization that Russia maybe, just maybe, could one day pose a threat to the continent.
Feeling threatened by Russia was nothing new for Poland; even after it brought down the communist system in 1989, defending itself against its eastern neighbor was high on its priority list, and rightly so. If you lived in a country that had been partitioned, attacked, and occupied by a neighboring state all in the span of two hundred years, you’d probably feel threatened too. Poland responded to Russia’s aggressive tendencies through a more active use of Western security apparatuses, a decision which has solidified Poland’s position as a major central European power and continually aggravates Polish-Russian relations.
Since 2002, American plans to establish a NATO Missile Defense system in northern Poland have been on the books in some form or another. The Bush Administration announced its deal to place missile interceptors in Poland (in exchange for some fighter jets and America’s thanks) in 2002. Obama quickly rolled back the Bush plan–which had solicited the criticism of most Western European capitals and the ire of Moscow–in 2009, during the age of the short-lived US-Russia Reset. (Unfortunately for his administration, the move was announced on the anniversary of the Soviet WWII invasion of Poland. Oops.) Instead, Obama favored a “phased adaptive approach,” which would deploy interceptors to Poland much later. In March, this plan was further delayed, but Russia continues to demand that the NATO shield in Poland will never be used against it. Unsurprisingly, NATO has refused to give this assurance.
Poland has–understandably–been a little peeved with the US for not delivering on a decade’s worth of promises. As Ian Brzezinski of the Atlantic Council writes, the American track record has caused Poland to think that, for the US, “security relations with Central Europe [are]…a trade-off in the effort to build a partnership with Russia.”
The United States is not only making light of the important Polish-American relationship (Poland was a longtime supporter of American efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan), but missing the important role it could play in either reconciling Poland and Russia (at least in terms of missile defense) or asserting American defense dominance over Putin’s playground.
Rather than attempting to placate Russia by changing plans for the shield and subsequently offending Poland (again), the United States–and NATO–need to make a choice. NATO may have been born in an answer to Cold War-era defense, but the organization has long been searching for its post-Cold War identity. Perhaps this new identity should include regionally-based cooperation on issues like missile defense. It’s a wild and slightly naive notion, particularly since the US and Russia have such a hard time cooperating on less contentious issues (civil society, for instance). The US has floated the idea before, and was met with much feather ruffling in both Warsaw and Moscow. Unfortunately, we haven’t pushed the envelope since then.
If we aren’t willing to take the high road, at the very least we should be willing to publicly admit that a missile defense system in Poland might one day be used in defense of our allies against not just Iran, not just Russia, but any potential aggressor.
This post is a part of my series on Polish-Russian relations. Read the introduction here.
Getting in and getting to work
I’ve spent a good portion of the last six years battling the “three Ps” of Poland: pierogi, piwo (beer), and polka. Those who specialize in Polish studies lament the fact that most Westerners are familiar with only these three facets of Polish culture, and not Poland’s major accomplishments in the past twenty years, including the first democratic elections in the former Communist bloc and a successful capitalist economic policy that has left its economy (nearly) untouched, even in the face of the global economic crisis.
Over the past five years, Poland has attempted to put these experiences to good use, serving as a model and mentor for six “Eastern” countries in need of guidance via the Eastern Partnership Program (EaP).
Aiding its neighbors in their political and economic transitions was always one of Poland’s goals after it “returned to Europe,” becoming an EU member in 2004. But the EU wasn’t quite so gung ho; it was wary of taking on the financial burden of weak Eastern economies, and faced criticism for granting Romania and Bulgaria accession before they reformed fully. Its European Neighborhood Policy, the EaP’s predecessor, which vaguely sought to promote stability in Europe’s widely-defined near-abroad (including North Africa and the Middle East, along with Eastern and Southern Europe), was criticized by post-Communist countries for lacking incentive–in particular, the distant promise of accession–for neighboring countries to reform. It seemed that enlargement fatigue had set in among “Old Europe,” and that Poland would have to wait to change the course of its neighbors’ history.
Georgia Shock gives the EaP a green light
The realization that the EU needed some sort of coherent Eastern policy hit the organization in the form of the August 2008 five-day war between Russia and Georgia. Though the cause of the war was ostensibly mounting tension between the two countries over breakaway republics South Ossetia and Abkhazia, many experts view NATO’s promise of membership for Georgia and Ukraine earlier that year as the true cause of Russia’s provocation.
Regardless of the reasons for the conflict, the popular opinion of Russia in the EU plummeted after the EU-negotiated peace treaty was signed. The Union’s big brother to the East was now seen as belligerent. Speaking in support of Georgia, Polish President Lech Kaczynski worried about Russia’s next move: “Today Georgia, tomorrow Ukraine, the day after tomorrow the Baltic states, and then, perhaps, the time will come for my country, Poland.”*
“Georgia Shock” allowed Poland to gain support for the Eastern Partnership Program, pioneered by Polish Prime Minister Radek Sikorski and his Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt, a longtime critic of Russia. When attempting to ascertain exactly what the EaP’s goals are, the curious soul is generally sent into a tailspin of bureaucratic jargon. Put simply: the EU gives monetary and moral support to its six “Eastern Partners” (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia) to aid them on the path to EU accession. More reforms and more “harmonization” with EU policies and standards leads to more monetary support, and somewhere down the road, the signing of Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTAs) and Association Agreements with the EU, two steps that are precursors to membership itself.
While none of Russia’s attacks were directed at Poland specifically, the Kremlin was well-aware that Poland acted as the EaP’s champion in Euro politics and, along with Sweden, contributed the lionshare of the $560 million in aid the program doled out. And Russia was not soon to forget Poland’s support of Ukraine’s 2004 anti-Russian Orange Revolution. A Russian acquaintance of mine summed the situation up nicely: “if not for Poland’s meddling, Russia would be prepared to engage in normal, peaceful relations with Poland, as it does with the other countries in the former socialist camp.”
Vilnius Summit 2013 and Beyond Luckily for Russia, the Eastern Partnership hasn’t been extremely successful. Poorly funded from the beginning ($560 million from the entire EU is really a paltry amount for countries as troubled as these six), the global economic crisis forced the EaP to the bottom of the EU’s priorities. Faced with economic problems of their own and wavering EU support, countries like Belarus and Ukraine courted further support from Russia. Frozen conflicts in the South Caucasus remain unresolved, while highly corrupt, anti-reform regimes retain their firm grip on national politics. Only little Moldova seems to exude a glimmer of hope for ever achieving EU accession.
This month, Lithuania assumed the EU presidency. As one of the main supporters of the Eastern Partnership with its own transitional experiences to share, Lithuania and other EaP supporters have big plans for this fall’s EaP summit in Vilnius. Poland in particular sees the summit as a defining moment for its flagship program, for the future of Ukraine, and for the future of Polish-Russian relations.
In Foreign Minister Sikorski’s yearly address to the Polish congress this past March, he discussed Ukraine’s “fundamental dilemma…a choice between modernity and democracy on the one hand and a different civilizational model on the other. If Ukraine creates the conditions for the signing of an Association Agreement, Poland will provide the country with a ‘European perspective’ at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius.”
Russia’s repeated response has been to present Ukraine with an ultimatum: either Ukraine chooses the European path, or reaps the benefits of open borders and increased trade with Russia and its Customs Union, an argument that President Putin made most recently during a joint Russian-Ukranian celebration of the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of the ancient state of Kievan Rus. Based on cultural and historical similarities, Putin maintained that Ukraine belongs with Russia, not Europe.
While Ukraine and the other five Eastern partners continue to play the field and reap the benefits of two major powers attempting to maintain their influence and relevance, the Eastern Partnership will remain a bilateral sticking point between Poland and Russia no matter the choices made by EaP countries. The goals of Russian and Polish foreign policy are diametric opposites, and that won’t be reconciled any time soon.
Commit or Quit However, if the EU made the Eastern Partnership a policy priority, positive changes could occur in regards to both Polish-Russian relations and the EU’s influence in the East. The EU should fund the EaP as seriously as any aid program within its own borders. By adequately funding the Eastern Partnership, the EU would ensure that Russia did not view the EaP as “a partnership structured against Russia,” funded and coordinated by its number one critics. This support would, in turn, reduce the risk of dangerous political and economic developments, troublesome not only for Eastern partners but the EU members with which they share borders and the Union as a whole. Lastly, increased support would send a positive message to Eastern partners, ensuring them that the EU’s promises are not empty, while informing Russia that the EU means business, whether that business is palatable to Russia or not.
The plight of the Eastern partners isn’t only Poland and its post-Communist neighbors’ cross to bear. The EU strives for a Europe “whole, free, and at peace.” If that’s truly the case, it should reaffirm its commitment to the Eastern Partnership at the Vilnius Summit, and perhaps the EaP and Poland’s “meddling” will cease to be a bilateral issue between Poland and Russia. Then they’ll only have history, energy, defense, and conspiracy theories to worry about…
*Lukasz Kulesa, “Poland’s Policy Regarding the Georgian Conflict.” Yearbook of Polish Foreign Policy 01 (2009): 207-22.
Polish-Russian relations. The very connotation of the phrase is packed with a millenium of history. It causes journalists to slough off their descriptions of the problem as “complicated,” and has inspired no dearth of poor quips from academics such as “you could write a book or two about that.”
As is the case with most stereotypes, those describing the “unique” Polish-Russian relationship exist because they are rooted in truth. I’ve lived and breathed Polish-Russian relations for the past six years, and I don’t see the topic getting any less interesting or important as Russia maintains its pseudo-imperialist rhetoric and Poland’s influence in Europe continues to grow…though sometimes I suspect I’m the only one that feels that way.
My interest in Poland and its troubled ties with its Eastern neighbor are embedded in my very person. I am a Polish-American; my grandfather found himself in the United States in 1952 after being deported from Eastern Poland (now Ukraine) by the Soviets at the start of the Second World War, living several years in a work camp in northern Russia, traveling the Former Soviet Union and Middle East with the Anders Army, and finally, marrying in England before emigrating to the US. Understandably, my first childhood associations with Russia were none too kind. As a college student, I decided to pursue a Slavic language and since Polish wasn’t offered at my university, I took up Russian, falling in love with the language, culture, and people.
A few years later, as a student in Russia, I was surprised that my Polishness often helped me connect with native Russians. They referred to me as their “Slavic sister,” or even “svoi chelovek”–one of ours. I was both honored and befuddled. Where was the animosity I expected?
Oddly enough, the Smolensk plane crash, in which Polish President Kaczynski and nearly 100 other Polish dignitaries were killed on their way to a Katyn Massacre commemoration ceremony, furthered my sense that there might yet be hope for Polish-Russian reconciliation. In Saint Petersburg, my teachers and friends offered me their condolences after the tragedy. At the leadership level, the two nations seemed to be acting diplomatically or even civilly toward each other for the first time in recent memory. And this progress was squandered to feed the propaganda monster that still rages in both post-communist countries today.
As I see it, the antagonism between the two nations is fueled by four categories of disagreement: Poland’s attempts to bring countries like Ukraine and Belarus into the European fold through the EU’s Eastern Partnership program, Poland’s plans to allow a NATO missile shield on its soil, economic disagreements, particularly as related to energy politics in region, and lastly, the years of history and bad blood propagandized by both countries whenever a new disagreement flares up.
On Wednesdays over the next few weeks, Wiczipedia will be offering a primer on current Polish-Russian relations. Unlike the Russian and Polish media, which rarely offer unbiased accounts of relations, and the American media, which oversimplifies the issues surrounding them, I will provide the unique understanding of a Polish-American student of Russia and its environs. I hope you’ll join me for the ride!