Missile Defense in Poland a Sticking Point for Relations with Russia and U.S.

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.

Russia: A State Without Identity

Russian friends and acquaintances often tell me, “Nina, you have a Russian soul. That’s why you get along with us so well.” I’m not certain what components of my personality contribute to the Russian part of my soul, though. Does my love of the arts play a role? My interest in history or literature? What about my undying devotion to sour cream?

Russians balk at defining the elusive concept, simply branding me as “one of theirs (svoi chelovek).” Their hesitation is understandable; how can they define the Russian characteristics in me without first defining their own national identity?

The enigma of Russian identity dominated a discussion on Russian and American national identity in the modern world, sponsored by the Valdai Discussion Club and Georgetown University.

The comparison of two societies which viewed each other as the ultimate foe for the better part of a century may be unexpected, but some major similarities between the states exist.  They are both multi-ethnic (Russia boasts of over 100 different nationalities). To varying degrees, they are both multi-confessional. And they are both geographically large. Yet thanks to historical narratives, the paths to national identity in the United States and Russia have very different end points; while Russia faces a “crisis of identity,” belief in American exceptionalism persists even in the face of crisis.

Discussants described Russia as a state “without identity,” focused more on the effects of history on its identity than actively shaping its identity for the future. While the main components of Russian identity are understood as its state, territorial, ideological, and religious identities, none of these components are universally understood by the population. The lack of consistent historical narrative over the past 100 years has befuddled Russia’s place and purpose. Whether the Russian Federation a successor state to the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire, whether the RF is Orthodox or multi-confessional in practice as well as in rhetoric, and whether the country has a system of governance similar to a western-style democracy or an energy superpower has caused Russians to throw up their hands and construct no coherent identity for the Russian state in the 21st century.

Instead, Russians profess that though they understand themselves poorly, they are certain that Russia is a unique state that must define its own future without advice or influence from abroad. Russian elites view the country an independent, influential, highly developed, multinational state (in which ethnic Russians play an important and irreplaceable role), with strong central rule, rule of law, and social justice. In light of its splintered national identity, whether the Russian Federation will ever achieve this image of itself remains to be seen.

Notably lacking from Russia’s conception of its identity are views on the importance of balance of power, representation in democratic bodies, the importance of an opposition, and human rights, all of which figure prominently into the United States’ perception of its identity. According to a variety of sources, Americans understand their country’s success primarily as a result of its institutions and the freedoms they protect.

The importance of a single historical narrative cannot be underestimated in the American case. Though the United States is a young nation, its identity was conceived in 1776 and maintained and bolstered in the years to come. As discussants pointed out, simply because we often question whether government continues to uphold the principles that contribute to our identity does not make our American identity any less true.

While the American narrative has shaped and solidified our identity, a century of institutional changes, each heralding the opposite of what came before it, has left Russia asking “What is the Russian identity?” Though as participants agreed, that question is as central to Russian identity as Russia itself.

What We Can Learn from Boston

It’s been over a week since the Boston Marathon Bombings and everyone- the Post-Soviet world especially- is up in arms and glued to the news. I had my own reasoning for refreshing Twitter obsessively; as a recreational runner, the tragedy shook me to my core. As a student of Russia and its many problematic relationships, the bombers’ connection to Chechnya certainly piqued my interest.

Like many others, I was ashamed at our nation’s collective ignorance of geography and world history, not to mention our complete lack of cultural sensitivity. “I can’t believe this is how Americans think,” I found myself repeating. But I quickly retreated from those feelings. After all, you can’t lambaste someone for stereotyping when you yourself engage in it.

It’s hard to stop myself, though, particularly since everyone’s doling out their fair share of stereotyping lately. Caucasus experts are parsing the media’s every work for hints of racism and an obvious (and forgivable) lack of in-depth knowledge. Human rights activists are searching for the one tiny proverbial needle of “typical cop behavior” in the haystack of bravery and service displayed by law enforcement agencies. Anti-government crazies of all types are uncovering conspiracy theories demonstrating — you guessed it — the American government’s stereotypical behavior. And the media machine feeds it all, spinning and speculating.

Rather than reeling from these fictitious hurts which distract from the very real damage inflicted during the attack- not to mention the other tragedies that have occurred in the interim, such as explosions in West, Texas, the use of chemical warfare in Syria, and daily IED explosions in the Middle East- I suggest that we use the tragedy to learn some fairly simple lessons. They’re not lessons on the governmental scale, but they are small changes we can each make to ensure our response to the next tragic event is more informed.

1. Make it our personal mission to be better informed about geography. I’m not expecting everyone to know the details of the Chechen conflict. But in the age of the internet, the least we can do is google “Chechnya” to find that it is not, in fact, the same as Czechoslovakia (which, by the way, has not existed since 1993). Pass this information on. Inform your fellow citizens. Don’t rely on the hastily-reported facts in the news.

2. Trust in the American justice system. The information age has made us so hungry for details as soon as they become uncovered that we have more information about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev now than we might have before a trial ten or even five years ago. Investigations such as this take time, even though the investigative methods available to us have advanced. There is no need to pressure law enforcement officials to release all relevant details to the press immediately. And there is certainly no need to listen to police scanners to the degree that the public was during the hunt for Tsarnaev; how easily might the information found on the scanner have been disseminated to Tsarnaev himself as he attempted to outrun police?

3. Don’t feed the media machine. While everyone is slamming the media for inaccurate and hasty reporting, all they are really doing is feeding a demand that we created. As I’ve already admitted, I am guilty of obsessively refreshing to feed my news needs as well, but this only encourages the very behavior we have loudly protested.

These small corrections to our own individual behavior might serve us in the long run; with a responsive, accountable, and careful news media and a smarter American public, perhaps in the future a time of national mourning won’t be forfeit for embarrassment on a global scale.