Russian-Polish Relations Need A Shot In the Arm


Several years after the Polish presidential plane crash and the initial Russian-Polish rapprochement, the process of reconciliation has visibly stagnated. The Polish opposition accused the government, and the Russians, of having engineered the crash at Smolensk. Prime Minister Tusk got scared and preferred to stay passive in front of the absurd accusations. Moscow rejected even minimal responsibility of the Russian ground controllers in the affair. Apparently trying to keep the investigation suspended so as not to give more ammunition to the Polish opposition, Russia has still not returned the wreckage of the Polish presidential plane to Warsaw. True, there still have been notable achievements such as the agreement allowing for visa-free travel in the border areas, which include Kaliningrad and Gdansk, as well as regular trilateral meetings among the foreign ministers of Russia, Poland, and Germany. Yet, with the Civic Platform doing now badly in the polls, a return of PiS to government after the election two years from now is a distinct possibility. 


Some Poles fear that Russia would not mind such a development. The surviving Kaczynski brother and his colleagues may indeed make fools of themselves, and gain little support for their conspirological anti-Russia stance at home and little sympathy for their strong nationalism elsewhere in the EU. Such fears are hardly credible. The Kremlin has invested heavily in the Polish conciliation effort and would not want to see it all come to naught. However, rather than waiting for a change of government in Warsaw and bracing itself for the antics of PiS leaders, Moscow should again step forward and give the reconciliation process a new lease on life.


One thing Russia could do is to promptly return the wreckage of the plane. There is no use keeping what is, after all, Polish government property. The Russians have essentially nothing to hide in the incident, and making sure that nothing is "found" in the wreckage later that had not been there before should not be difficult.


Another thing is building on the initial success of the trilateral—German, Polish, and Russian—foreign ministers meeting: a Polish idea, by the way, and using the triangle as a key instrument of Russia's Europe policy. Germany and Poland are the two EU members who both care about Russia and have relevant expertise. Germany, of course, is now the principal EU power, and Poland is a recognized "expert" in things Russian. What they agree upon in Russia-related matters goes a long way in the European Union. Thus, Moscow should use the connection to its full potential as it seeks to redesign its approach to Europe, and make it understood by the Europeans.


A third element would need to be the economy. The Russo-Polish trade links are improving, but they need a boost. The problem is that, outside of the energy sector, many of Polish enterprises are too small to venture out into the Russian market, and there are too few Russian firms interested in Poland. However, as Aeroflot maps its development strategy, it might acquire a stake in Poland's LOT to chip away at the too powerful position that Lufthansa and its partner, Austrian Airlines, have built across Europe's east-west axis. Russian Railways, too, might consider constructing a speed rail link between Moscow and Warsaw, with an extension to Berlin and Prague.


In military strategic issues, Russia needs to watch the developments related to the U.S. plans for missile defense. The threat that was made by Russia to deploy Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad may be effective as a deterrent against hypothetical U.S. deployments, but should the Iskander missiles emerge simply as part of Russia's general military modernization effort, they will evoke precisely the dangers they seek to prevent. The Poles will be scared enough to start a rearmament effort of their own, while pushing all buttons and ringing all bells in Washington and Brussels. Russians certainly do not need them as enemies. 


The Poles have appreciated that in the scenario of the Zapad 2013 military exercises Poland did not feature as the "enemy" (aggressor). This realism, however, needs to be supported by pro-active policies aimed at creating a security community-type relationship between the two countries, in which the use of military force, or even a threat of it become inconceivable. Such a relationship may be said to exist even today between Russia, on the one hand, and Germany and Finland, on the other. It now needs to be extended to Poland. Expanding people-to-people contacts, especially among the youth, students, and professionals is key to reaching that objective. Catholic and Orthodox clerics and laymen also have much to discuss relating to the role of faith, religion, and church in the 21st century world, particularly in Europe.


Finally, as Russia is promoting its Eurasian integration project, it needs a better understanding of its policies within the European Union. Even though the integration vector for individual countries in the new Eastern Europe is the matter for those countries themselves, the region has already seen growing competition between Brussels and Moscow. This is natural, as the concepts of "Europe" and "Eurasia" overlap. As the EU and Russia compete, however, they need not to lose sight of their wider relationship and not to overreact to each other's moves. A Russo-Polish track 1 1/2-type semi-official dialogue is important for this.


Polish foreign policy is maturing. It has not only succeeded in materially improving ties with its both big neighbors, Germany and Russia, but has found a place and role in the rapidly changing geopolitical configuration of the European Union. It sits at the intersection of the German-led core, the Visegrad four of the ex-communist countries, and of the Nordic-Baltic region. Having openly supported German leadership in the EU, ambitious Poland hopes for an enhanced role on the continent, even as the French political stock is collapsing, Britain is looking for exit, and Southern Europe is in a meltdown.


Since 2007, Poland's foreign policy has been conducted by Radoslaw Sikorski. He is a rare European foreign minister with a strategic vision and a highly pragmatic approach. Sikorski is independent-minded and straight-talking, which has not endeared him to many in his own party and in the bureaucratic corridors of the EU. Staunchly anti-communist, he oversaw the beginning of the Polish-Russian reconciliation. A true and trusted friend of the United States, he has been resolute in defending the Polish national interest, bargaining hard with Warsaw's most important ally and speaking his mind on such issues as Afghanistan and Syria.


Two years before Poland may get a new cabinet is a long time. Moscow needs to use it to follow-up on Putin's initial—and successful—reconciliation effort, so that when the Polish government changes, as it will at some point, not everything that is good changes with it. It will take two to achieve any important results, however. Clearly, for its part, the Polish government needs to be more active in consolidating, defending, and furthering what promises to become one of its strategic foreign policy achievements.