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Russia and Poland: a friendship that must not fail

Since 2008 Russia and Poland have engaged with each other in a way that would previously have been inconceivable. Some issues remain to be confronted, but they are not insurmountable. Other Russian neighbours would do well to take note, maintains Dmitri Trenin

Dmitri Trenin
2 December 2010

President Dmitri Medvedev’s visit to Poland on December 6 is not going to be a breakthrough. Rather, it will seek to expand and deepen the positive changes in the Polish-Russian relationship. If the momentum which has been building over the past two years can be sustained, that relationship can be transformed into one of the key pillars of stability and security in Europe. If so, it will stand next to Franco-German, Polish-German or indeed Russo-German reconciliation as a foundation of a continent-wide security community.

What has been happening between Warsaw and Moscow since the fall of 2008 has been nothing short of astounding. First, in the wake of the Georgia war, the two countries engaged in diplomatic consultations, with the Russian side sending a signal to the Poles: we respect you and value your thoughts. Then, Prime Minister Putin came to Poland in 2009 to attend the solemn ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II. Before he came, he had authored a conciliatory article in a major Polish newspaper. While in Poland, he not only weathered the criticism directed at Soviet foreign policy, but also had a useful conversation with Prime Minister Tusk while walking with him alone along a Gdansk pier.

Putin Westerplatte

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin came to Poland in 2009 to attend the solemn ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II.

In the next act of reconciliation, again driven by the Russian side, Putin invited Tusk to come to Katyn in April 2010 for a joint ceremony to honour the slain Polish officers, 70 years after their deaths. Putin even kneeled, briefly, while laying a wreath to the memorial. Putin even kneeled, briefly, while laying a wreath to the memorial. It wasn't a grand "Brandt at the Warsaw Ghetto" moment, but that seemingly natural, even though unexpected, gesture was much appreciated. It was probably there and then that the ice was broken. It was probably there and then that the ice was broken.

The budding relationship was put to the severest of tests three days later, as the Polish presidential plane carrying the first couple and scores of dignitaries crashed at Smolensk. The Russians, shaken as much as the Poles, literally went out of their way to cooperate with Warsaw. For the first time in living memory, they declared a national day of mourning to honour the foreign dead. Medvedev went to the funeral and clearly named Stalin and his henchmen as responsible for the murderous crime at Katyn. 

"Thus, it is clear that the engagement initiative was initiated by Moscow and that it was coming from the head, rather than the heart. This is not necessarily a bad thing. National interests are more solid grounds for relations than leaders’ feelings of empathy or remorse."

Dmitri Trenin

In the months that followed, Moscow was satisfied with the outcome of the recent Polish presidential election and did not react at all to the accusations by some Poles that it – alongside with members of the Polish government – might have had a hand in the air crash at Smolensk. The accusations, of course, were preposterous, and evidently a reflection on Polish domestic politics, but Moscow was careful not to unleash anti-Polish sentiments in Russia. Instead, the Kremlin leaned on the Duma, usually a fount of Russian patriotism, to issue, ahead of Medevdev’s visit, an official statement recognizing, beyond any reasonable doubt, Stalin’s responsibility for the 1940 deaths. The stakes remain too high to let anyone spoil Russia’s Poland strategy.

The strategy Moscow has been pursuing with Warsaw had a lot do with Poland, but even more so with Europe. Especially under the Kaczynski Brothers’ tandem leadership, Warsaw made its dispute with Moscow into an obstacle for the wider EU-Russia relationship, blocking, among other things, the negotiation of a new partnership agreement. Russian attempts to lean on the Poles with a little help from its friends in Berlin and Paris were futile: such a breach of EU solidarity in favour of Moscow was never on the cards. In the end, the Kremlin realized there was no way around Warsaw.

However, the Russians needed a pragmatic Polish partner for a productive dialogue, and they saw an opening in the new government led by Donald Tusk, as they later would see one in Barack Obama. They also discovered that Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski was a modern Polish nationalist and not, as they had feared, an American stooge. Having found suitable partners, the Russians began to act to engage them.

Since 2008-9, the importance of the engagement has only grown. The global economic crisis, which hit Russia hard, pushed Moscow to look for ways to modernize its economy in order to remain a great power. Russian foreign policy was redesigned to furnish external resources for the country’s technological modernization. Since those resources were mainly to be found in the West, and predominantly in Europe, the importance of the EU relationship shot up. Warsaw, as the EU’s gatekeeper, had to be managed even more carefully.

Thus, it is clear that the engagement initiative was initiated by Moscow and that it was coming from the head, rather than the heart. This is not necessarily a bad thing. National interests are more solid grounds for relations than leaders’ feelings of empathy or remorse. Yet, it would be wrong to conclude that Russia’s present leaders cannot be moved at all when having to deal with the hideous crimes of Stalinism. Even a cynical value-less attitude stops in awe before them.

So, the issue is, where next? What kind of a relationship between Russia and Poland after the reconciliation? First of all, “difficult issues” from the two countries’ checkered history, as they are known to Polish and Russian diplomats, are not all done. They need to be brought to the surface, examined and honestly assessed. Second of all, the relationship needs to be made forward-looking. Polish and Russian youth should be allowed to rediscover each other. Thirdly, Russo-Polish political consultations should become even closer and cover a broad range of issues: Warsaw needs to feel Moscow treats it as a valued and even privileged partner in Europe.

Medvedev in Cracow

President Medvedev in Cracow, at the funeral of Lech Kaczynski: "In view of these heavy losses I believe we can make serious efforts to draw our nations closer together, to develop economic relations and find solutions to the most difficult problems, including Katyn."

At some point, Moscow will need to expand its policies of reconciliation to other difficult neighbours, starting with the Baltic States. Having recognized that Europe starts much closer than they had thought, Russian leaders need to pay some attention to Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. Each Baltic country is different, and each will require a tailor-made approach. The experience of reconciliation with Poland can not be simply copied, but it can inspire. The most important thing that the Russian leaders are learning is that it is impossible to have good relations with the European Union as a whole while neglecting the immediate neighborhood.

There is something for the Balts to learn here, too. Exiting from an empire is a parallel effort for the former metropolis and its former subjects. It is a long process, not easy for either party. Russia may have reached out to Poland first, but not before Poland had matured as a new democracy and felt confident enough to engage its ex-hegemon. For a partnership to emerge, there must be partners – people with a strategic insight and some courage to ride ahead of their compatriots. This is also known as leadership.

Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center; Counsellor of the Commission on Euro-Atlantic Security  

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