From Russia with Realism

Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minster, arrived in Warsaw on September 10th to meet his counterpart Radoslaw Sikorski and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Despite the somewhat cold relations between the two neighbours of late – stemming mainly from Russian opposition to the Polish-American missile shield, the Russian-Georgian conflict and Poland’s role in supporting Ukraine and Georgia – both sides underlined strong economic and cultural ties during the meeting. As the official website of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs informs us, the purpose of this working visit was to discuss bilateral relations, the situation surrounding the Georgian?Russian conflict and the prospects for EU?Russian relations.

“We do not see Poland itself as a source of threats to the Russian Federation,” Minister Lavrov declared. He also added that, “[even though] we don’t agree on everything, we appreciate dialogue.” One of the issues that Moscow and Warsaw keep disagreeing on is the future location of elements of the U.S. missile defence system on Polish territory. And though Poland might not pose a direct risk to Russia, the defence shield, according to the Kremlin, constitutes a threat. Similarly dangerous from the Russian standpoint is the further expansion of NATO, which, as Lavrov put it, “harms European security.” This latter remark was countered by Mr. Sikorski’s reminder that NATO is an alliance of free states, each of which enters the organisation of its own will.

Another topic discussed by Polish and Russian officials was the current situation in the Caucasus. However, it is worth noting that if some strong words were exchanged, they must have been spoken behind closed doors. During the press conference afterwards, the war in Georgia was not the central subject, as if the Polish and Russian delegations had agreed that mutual bashing in the spotlight of TV cameras would not do much good for either side. This was met with criticism from some of the right wing media and commentators. Zdzislaw Krasnodzbski, in his opinion piece for Rzeczpospolita, compared the position of the Polish government towards Georgia to the one it had taken towards Tibet: in the beginning everyone seemed to be outraged by the events, but then we got used to the new situation.

Regardless of the media hype surrounding Mr. Lavrov’s trip to Poland, this visit seemed mostly significant in terms of its symbolic meaning. Moscow’s goal was to show the rest of the world, and especially the European Union, that Russia is not such a bad force in international relations as the Georgian conflict might have indicated. According to Adam Eberhard, vice-director of the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, Lavrov’s visit was aimed at improving Russia’s image in the European Union. From the Polish government’s perspective, the fact that Warsaw was the first EU capital visited by a high ranking Russian official since the outbreak of war in Georgia sent a much needed signal abroad: that Poland is the crucial player in relations between the European Union and Moscow. The possibility to play this role has long been on the wish list of Polish policy-makers. But in order to be listened to in Brussels (or Berlin and Paris for that matter), Poland’s attitude towards Russia must be moderate. In other words, were Warsaw ever to become a spokesman for EU eastern policy, it must not present the most hawkish approach towards the Kremlin.

In an interview with Rzeczpospolita, Adam Daniel Rotfeld, Poland?s former minister of foreign affairs, said that Lavrov’s visit proved that Russia has started to treat Warsaw differently. The tone of talks has changed and is now similar to that used by the Kremlin during meetings with states such as Spain, Italy and France. This means, Rotfeld argues, that Russia has come to accept the fact that Poland is a fully independent nation, as well as an integral part of the West. Therefore, it is small wonder that Prime Minister Donald Tusk called Mr. Lavrov’s visit “a step in the right direction.” This appraisal seems to be right on the mark because it recalls an old rule of diplomacy – namely that it is difficult, or nigh on impossible to achieve a consensus with a difficult partner (not to mention a foe) if both sides refrain from talking to each other. However, at the same time, let us not forget that some Polish and Russian security interests do clash (i.e. over the future of Ukraine), and no talks can make these differences disappear.

Certainly, Mr. Lavrov’s latest visit, though not as significant as some of the commentators would like it to be, underscores the need for a deepened debate over Polish policy towards Russia. The need and readiness for understanding Russia’s position (not necessarily accepting it) and its role in international politics after the war in Georgia, appears to be an obvious initial move. In addition, Poland needs to embrace the real strength of its power in relations with Moscow, a power that lies within the EU’s framework. Acting alone, or in a very small concert of not-so-powerful states, is unlikely to reap much success – as the disproportion of power between Russia and Poland is simply too huge – and it might be read by some states as pointless sabre-rattling. Perhaps one of the most accurate assessments of the visit was given by Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, head of the European Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, who expressed his satisfaction that “communication channels remain open for both sides to explain their motives. It is important that problems substantial for Polish interests, but considered to be lesser from the entire European perspective, be resolved. Matters not marked by extreme differences should be discussed through dialogue.”

From this standpoint, one of the greatest paradoxes of Polish policy towards Russia derives from the following choice: the harder the approach Warsaw takes towards Moscow, the less likely Poland is to be able to influence the EU?s eastern policy. On the flipside, the so-called soft approach might cause two problems for policy-makers in Warsaw. Firstly, Poland?s milder rhetoric could be mistaken for weakness by some of the Kremlin’s hardliners; secondly, the argument of being “too soft on Russia” is still a powerful accusation that speaks to the historical experience of many Poles, and as such, will certainly be exploited by opposing political parties.

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