Poland’s Triangular Russia Policy
Poland’s complex relationship with Russia is deeply intertwined with Germany and Ukraine, Janusz Reiter writes.
Polish-Russian relations can hardly be understood without taking into account two other states: Germany and Ukraine. Both have, each in a different way, helped shape the relationship between Poland and its large eastern neighbour Russia. They are all asymmetrical relations. For Poland, Germany and Russia have always been two defining factors — two enemies for a long time. For Germany, only Russia has been a “defining partner”. Poland did not have this status. The Ukrainians historically define their geopolitical position by looking to Russia and to Poland, having shown affection to Germany several times – but without reciprocation. Russia, meanwhile, keeps pinning hopes on Germany, cannot get along with Poland and refuses to accept Ukraine as a state and nation.
Poland’s Russian experience is important for the European debate
The complexity of Polish-Russian relations is the result of geography and history. In the Polish perception, this makes for a unique and special relationship. But this is only partly true. Poland’s Russia experience is an important part of the wider European relationship with Russia. In Western Europe, especially in Germany, Poland’ stance was often seen as a kind of psychological deficiency or excessively sensitive and dismissed as politically useless. This in turn created a lack of trust in Polish-German relations that could only be amended today.
Poland’s Russia experience has also contributed to the fact that the idea of a Poland-Russia-Germany triangle is predominantly a topic for historians. But in current Polish politics, there is a tendency to present such a triangle as a contemporary geopolitical format.
Since the late 18th century, Poland was caught in a fatal situation, losing its independence for 123 years. There were always conflicts of interest between Germany and Russia, but the rejection of Poland as a sovereign state united these two great powers, even as late as September 1939. It was not until 1989/90 that Poland was able to redefine its geopolitical situation. Since then, it is no longer a country between Russia and Germany but a member of the Western community, even if some in the right-wing spectrum of Polish politics portray Germany as a threat rather than a partner.
The self-liberation from Soviet rule happened peacefully, so that the strategic Polish-Russian antagonism lost some of its drama. Both countries tried to influence the West’s decision on opening NATO to the East. Poland won the upper hand, benefiting of course from Russia’s political weakness, but without provoking it. Moscow, after all, seemed to distance itself from its imperial tradition, even showing sympathy for the concept of liberal democracy. Some in the new Polish elite began to hope that reconciliation was possible between Poland and Russia, as had happened between Poland and Germany. However, even the greatest optimists agreed that only a Poland firmly anchored in the West could achieve a settlement with Russia. A neutral Poland would sooner or later provoke Russia to re-establish its regional dominance. German policymakers also feared that an unaligned Poland could become subject to power rivalries.
Russia’s presence in Poland declined drastically in the 1990s. The traumatic memories of Russian rule did not fade away, but they largely lost their emotional impact. Even Vladimir Putin’s accession to power in 1999 was not an immediate “game changer”. Poland was preoccupied with EU membership negotiations, for which Moscow in turn showed relatively little interest. 1 May 2004, the day of Poland’s EU accession, seemed to be the symbolic end of the chapter of Polish history that had begun in the 18th century. The reconstruction of Polish geopolitics seemed complete.
Poland did not share Germany’s skepticism over Ukraine
But as it turned out, the reality was much more complicated. Under Putin, Russia became an increasingly aggressive revisionist power. While Warsaw and Berlin basically agreed over this, they often disagreed over the political consequences. Unlike Warsaw, Berlin believed it could pursue a “transformative” Russia policy. The other big open question was about the future of the countries that lie between NATO/EU and Russia. Here, too, there were differences between Poland and Germany and Western Europe, although initially without much influence on actual policy.
The new Polish elite was anti-Soviet but not anti-Russian. However, it also followed the political tradition to support the independence aspirations of its eastern neighbours — especially Ukraine. The rationale was both moral and, above all, strategic: the forces that emerged from the Solidarity movement could not deny their neighbours the rights they had previously claimed for their own country. Strategically, it was also clear that it was in Poland’s interest not to become the Western community’s eastern borderland. The democratic development of these countries would be a contribution to Poland’s security. Warsaw endorsed the thesis formulated by the Polish-born eminent US security expert Zbigniew Brzezinski, that Ukrainian independence would have decisive influence on Russia’s political identity. Only an independent Ukraine could prevent Russia from returning to its imperial traditions.
How much he was right can be seen in all clarity today.
The German view was different. The majority of the German public and also the elites lacked above all an understanding for the largest country in the region, Ukraine. Many denied it national identity and thus also any statehood. Germany was not alone in this position, but the political consequences of German skepticism were particularly relevant.
As early as the 1990s, Poland was committed, with varying degrees of success, to the democratic and market-economy development of Ukraine. However, this commitment did not dominate Polish politics, whose clear preference were NATO and EU accession, which absorbed almost all political energy.
Relations with Russia turned sour over Ukraine
Moscow could hardly influence Poland’s political course, but it had an indirect instrument of pressure at its disposal: refusal of dialogue. Russian diplomacy spared no effort to discredit Poland in Western Europe as a “Russophobic” country. That was a clever tactic. Simply because of its geography, Poland, as a NATO and EU member, wanted to participate in shaping Western relations with its eastern neighbours, including Russia. Moscow’s refusal to talk painfully weakened Warsaw’s foreign policy instruments in this area. Moscow wanted to label Poland as a mere recipient of American orders and deny it agency over shaping European policy in Eastern Europe.
In 2002, dialogue still seemed possible. Vladimir Putin visited Poland and expressed confidence about the future. As a sign of goodwill, Putin and his Polish host Aleksander Kwasniewski announced the formation of a “Polish-Russian group on difficult issues”. Its main purpose was to contribute to a better understanding of the complicated Polish-Russian history, which it partly succeeded in doing, but without having the envisaged political consequences.
In 2004, Ukraine, whose image had hitherto been dominated by post-Soviet, corrupt elites, first formulated its democratic and European claims. This made it clear, even if not yet to everyone in the West, that Europe’s transformation that had begun in 1989 was unfinished work. Polish President Kwasniewski used his authority to exert a moderating influence on the tense situation in Ukraine. Moscow never forgave him for this, although Kwasniewski was anything but an anti-Russian zealot – and actually played an important mediating role in Ukraine’s coming crises.
Ukraine’s rulers hardly fulfilled the hopes of the 2004 Orange Revolution. Poland found itself in a highly uncomfortable situation. While Germany benefited economically and politically from its “change through trade” strategy towards Russia, Poland was left pretty much alone with the then thankless role of Ukraine’s advocate. Without channels of communication to Moscow, Warsaw was at a strategic disadvantage. The Tusk government tried to initiate a factual, pragmatic dialogue with Russia.
In 2009, after intensive diplomatic efforts, Putin visited Poland again. On the Westerplatte in Gdansk, where the Second World War began on 1 September 1939, he gave a short but powerful speech. Putin even recalled the Treaty of Versailles and the “humiliation” of Germany that contributed to the Second World War. He also praised Russian-German relations “based on cooperation and partnership and not on historical settlements” as a model for Polish-Russian relations. His speech was both a provocation and a lure. He must have known that the Treaty of Versailles, which he condemned, had opened the way for Poland to regain independence. He also knew that the model of rapprochement from above, as between Russia and Germany, was met with skepticism in Poland. Warsaw preferred reconciliation from below, as with Germany. Putin praised the “reasonable” Germany and suggested that Poland could also follow this example. He did not elaborate on what Poland should do, but there was little doubt, that he had Ukraine in his mind, which he considered a Russian zone of influence and where he did not want Polish involvement.
The US “Reset” with Russia was short-lived
These messages were coded, but understandable. No one in Warsaw had any illusions about Putin. But could Poland nevertheless open a channel of communication with Moscow, as all the larger European states had long done? Washington had just declared a “reset” in relations with Russia, which was met with skepticism in Warsaw, but was an undeniable reality. Couldn’t the geopolitical dispute over the future of Ukraine, in which no quick solution could be expected at the time, be separated from limited, pragmatic cooperation?
That experiment was short-lived. The separation of the geopolitical conflict over Ukraine and pragmatic cooperation with Russia proved unrealistic. The domestic political situation in Ukraine was coming to a head. The pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych came under increasing pressure from the pro-Western public, which was waiting hopefully for an agreement with the EU. When Yanukovych refused to sign the agreement, popular anger erupted in mass demonstrations. Poland had to step back into its mediating role, but it was not alone. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski travelled to Ukraine with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and their French colleague Laurent Fabius joined in, not without hesitation. The message was that Warsaw was no longer alone, but moving in the mainstream of European politics.
From the Weimar triangle to the Normandy format
But even this method had its limits. On 1 April 2014, the foreign ministers of Poland, Germany and France met in Weimar and declared that they were powerless in the face of the annexation of Crimea that had taken place shortly before. Steinmeier made it clear that he was against the admission of Ukraine to NATO, while Sikorski expressed his wish to see two heavy NATO brigades stationed in Poland soon. The “Weimar Triangle”, in which Poland, Germany and France had tried to work together since 1991, was rather helpless.
Only a few weeks later, two of the Weimar Triangle countries, France and Germany, decided to negotiate with Russia and Ukraine in the so-called Normandy format. Warsaw was surprised and disappointed, but the signal was clear: Russia did not want Poland at the negotiating table and the two Western European partners were obviously not prepared to jeopardise the new format because of Poland. The fact that the Normandy format was no more successful in the end than the Weimar Triangle became apparent later, but it no longer had any significance for Poland. Russia could fall back on the old method of refusing to talk to Poland.
The handling of the plane crash near Smolensk on 10 April 2010, which killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others, including top politicians and officials, naturally cast another shadow over Polish-Russian relations. Russia’s refusal to return the plane wreckage to Poland was, and remains to this day, a deliberate humiliation of Poland. When the PiS Law and Justice Party came to power in 2015, the Smolensk tragedy was instrumentalised for domestic political purposes. However, this could hardly harm Polish-Russian relations, because they had become almost empty anyway.
At the same time, Poland began to distance itself from its European partners. This was especially true of its Western neighbour Germany. However, the fully justified criticism of Germany’s Russia policy, and in particular of Nord Stream 2, overshot the mark. The ruling right seems to see Poland as a country between two enemies, criticizing Germany with a particularly striking emotionality.
Wide support for sanctions and disengagement from Russia
The Russian attack on Ukraine has only partially changed this picture. All political forces are united in their condemnation of Moscow. This is also the case with regard to the sanctions. Poland already advocated tough sanctions against Russia after the annexation of Crimea. This policy was not painless. For many Polish companies, Russia was an attractive market. The agricultural sector was only one of them, but the one with the strongest lobby. Nevertheless, it did not dare to openly question the sanctions regime. At the same time, Poland quite consistently pursued a policy of detachment from energy dependence on Russia. It was supported by all relevant parties, which is rather unusual, and helped the country to soften the energy shock after the Russian attack on Ukraine. The most difficult part was the renunciation of Russian coal, which complemented the more expensive and scarce Polish coal. However, this problem should be overcome relatively quickly because coal is a globally traded commodity.
The perception of the Russian threat became more intense than ever since 1989. At the same time, Ukraine was newly discovered. It had been present in Poland for several years through hundreds of thousands or even more workers, but little noticed. This changed with the wave of refugees, which triggered great sympathy and solidarity. Ukraine’s defence also shaped the country’s image. Not only the courage but also the intelligence and efficiency of the Ukrainians were met with respect and admiration. In the long history of Polish-Ukrainian relations, this is undoubtedly a high point.
Self-isolation weakens Warsaw as Kyiv’s ally
Whether this also marks the beginning of a new partnership will only become clear after the war is over. The experience of solidarity in adversity will play a role. Above all, however, Ukraine will need effective political and economic support. The extent to which Poland can provide this will largely depend on whether it can win partners in the EU and NATO for this purpose. The policy of self-isolation now being pursued will considerably weaken Poland’s position as an ally of Ukraine. The more the country distances itself from the West — especially from its Western European partners — the less attractive it will be to Ukraine.
Critics accuse the Polish government of steering eastwards. The ruling right’s anti-Western cultural criticism can give this impression. Fortunately, it does not translate into real politics. Even an opportunistic Russia policy a la Viktor Orban is hard to imagine in Poland. Historical experience protects Poland from this. They faded after 1989 but were revived by Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
Should Ukraine assert itself as a sovereign, successful state, while Russia loses the power to threaten its neighbours, this could mean a historic turning point in Polish geopolitics. For this to happen, however, two important conditions would have to be met: Europe and the transatlantic community emerge stronger from the current conflict and Poland contributes to this because it sees its future in this community. Poland has often been isolated in Europe with its policies versus Russia. This can change now if Poland itself contributes to strengthening the West.
This paper is part of the project International Expert Network Russia, which is supported by the German Foreign Ministry. The views expressed in the paper are the author’s own.