Poland’s Trian­gular Russia Policy

The foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland — Fabius, Stein­meier and Sikorski (right), during a meeting in the “Weimar Triangle” format in 2014. Photo: IMAGO

Poland’s complex rela­tion­ship with Russia is deeply inter­twined with Germany and Ukraine, Janusz Reiter writes.

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.

Download the PDF version. You can read the German original here!


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.

Portrait von Janusz Reiter

Janusz Reiter is a former Polish Ambas­sador to Germany and the US. He is the founder and chairman of the Warsaw-based Center for Inter­na­tional Relations and author of numerous articles about Polish foreign policy.

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.

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