This am`s Western press has seen almost universal approval of Putin`s appearance at the memorial yesterday to commemorate the victims of the Katyn massacre, which has long bedevilled Soviet (later Russian)- Polish relations.
As background, the Soviet NKVD murdered well over twenty thousand officers of the Polish army in several locations (one of which was in Katyn) in 1940 and later blamed the massacre on the Nazis. This became very much "accepted" history in communist run Poland until the late 1980s when the Russians owned up to their own involvement. The then President Yeltsin provided a copy of the notorious execution order signed by Stalin and Molotov to the Poles. Since Putin`s rise to power there has been studied ambivalence about the episode and at times apparent defensiveness by the Russians to make amends for this historic wrong.
But that seems to have fallen by the wayside as Putin made, what was for him, an almost eloquent speech honouring the victims, both Polish and Russian, of the NKVD, killed either in the Mass Repressions of the 30s as well as in the 1940s at Katyn. It didn`t constitute an apology but it did represent a small positive step in the right direction to putting behind both countries some very emotionally raw history.
We can now see some positive mood music in what has been, for quite some time, a very difficult set of relations but why?
I think the answer lies in both countries wish to seek a lessening of tensions between them for their own political, strategic and economic reasons, in turn:
The Polish government is struggling to put together a "plan B" given previous governments have placed far too much reliance on a US - Polish relationship - as a Brit, given the shortcomings that have appeared in our own so called "Special Relationship", perhaps before too long the UK may need to think about its own "Plan B". It is worth retracing briefly how the US - Polish relationship has now fallen by the wayside. First of all, Poland committed itself to an unpopular involvement in Iraq (much as the UK did)and is also involved in another conflict, albeit with NATO cover, in Afghanistan. Polish governments did not (and continue not to) receive much of a political dividend for this altruistic participation.
In addition, the then Polish government was facing further unpopularity for its support for agreeing to host elements of the antiballistic missile system on its territory - a matter of immense concern to the Russian authorities. The outbreak of the Russian - Georgian war in August 2008 led to a sudden reversal of popular opinion to now being in favour of supporting the system as Poles became nervous just where Russian intentions would go - a consequence that led to the Russians in turn raising the stakes by threatening to target Poland. However, it could not have escaped Russian attention that they may just have overplayed their hand by the heightened tensions along their western borders as well as a cool response by the Chinese to the Georgian adventure - so much there for the Russian - Chinese "partnership" - famously labelled the "Axis of Convenience" by Bobo Lobo, in which Russia had vested such high hopes to counterbalance the US.
Poland may have felt somewhat secure behind its perceived US "shield" were it not for the fact that the US had started to have doubts of going thru with the antimissile system in Poland. The new Obama administration had been decidedly cool on this idea and (in)famously "pulled the rug out from under" its Polish and Czech "allies" by cancelling the idea. In one of those instances where symbolism is everything, the US announced this on 19 September - the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, as agreed to in advance under the Molotov - Ribbentrop Pact. Rarely could the US have timed its (tin eared) announcement to much greater effect. Where was Zbigniew Brzezhinski, former National Security advisor to President Carter and now leading adviser to Obama, when this happened?!
While relations appear not to have entered the deep freeze, the Polish government has taken note of its supposed ally in Washington and has decided to reach out to its longtime foe in the East...
Poland`s relations with its major EU allies also require a lessening of tensions. Given the US position on Russia - a form of benign appeasement while seeking to engage Russia on Iran, Poland also is looking to become more Eurocentric - not in terms of joining the Euro currency, but in reducing tensions with the major EU powers of France and Germany who see Russia as a vital trading partner, particularly for oil and gas supplies but also for their own exports - whether Siemens technologies or French helicopter carriers...In particular, Poland`s relations with Germany, despite tensions over postwar expulsions from western Poland and the construction of the NordStream pipeline between Russia and Germany - cutting out Ukraine and Poland in between, have warmed up recently. The German Chancellor has no illusions herself about Russia but exports and German securing its energy sources are important strategic objectives and Poland is not going to stop them happening. Given German economic strength and its role of banker to the EU - whose funds are estimated to have added circa 1 % to Polish GDP in 2009, Poland sees no purpose in being served in riling the Germans with increased tensions over Russia.
Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltics. Poland has strong interests in all these countries. In particular, there is a strong Polish interest in seeing Ukraine acting as a strong buffer against Russia. Several years ago Poland looked to become a major player in Ukraine as it assisted in a peaceful resolution of the Orange Revolution and the appointment of the proWestern President Yuschenko. Since then matters have not exactly gone to plan - Ukraine`s own endemic problems, principally political, as well as Russia`s action in Georgia has stopped any moves by the Ukraine in joining NATO and the start of its accession to the EU dead in their tracks. Both Russia and Poland now need a stable Ukraine on their respective doorsteps.
Similarly for Belarus. This country remains part of the Russian sphere of influence with the country integrated into its defence arrangements and Russians on the borders. That said, Russia does not need signiifcant Polish interference in this country given concerns over the stability of the Lukaschenko regime and Poland`s desire to see this country come within the EU sphere of influence.
PKN Orlen, one of Poland`s largest energy companies, has a stake in a major Lithuanian refinery, which has not operated due to Russia blocking supplies to it. This is causing significant losses. A lessening of tensions with Russia may remove this "blockade" and allow Orlen to generate a return.
Russia remains a major export market for Poland. It was the sixth largest export market accounting for 5.2 % of its US $ 178 billion of exports in 2008. At the same time, Russia is Poland`s second largest supplier accounting in 2008 for 9.7 % of total imports of US $ 200 biillion. A few years ago Poland managed to bring an end to a mini trade war with Russia on agricultural products - food and live animals account for 8 % of its total exports so this has been important for Poland`s current balance.
And now for Russia:
The War with Georgia
Russia was wholly successful in its military operations against Georgia but the economic and diplomatic fallout has been spectacular. With respect to the diplomatic, China`s response was notoriously cool and Russia received very little backing in the wider world, save for support from Nicaragua and Venezuela. As seen above, tensions markedly increased with the EU, notwithstanding the muted condemnations of the invasion of Georgia. Energy security has jumped up the agenda of the EU. Russia has not failed to note the increased interest by certain EU countries ie Germany and Poland, in developing shale oil, as well as Poland`s plans for a liquified national gas terminal. This has also been exacerbated by the recession and the drop in gas imports in the West. Gazprom has had to accept spot (and therefore lower) prices on a number of its longterm contracts.
Russia is notoriously reliant on oil and gas for its export earnings and its government revenues due to the taxes on oil and gas companies. Russia`s Gazprom has moved towards signing a new longterm supply agreement with PGNiG - see my last blog, to shore up its export earnings from one of its major Western customers.
Interestingly, Poland is Russia`s 7th major export market, accounting for 4.3 % of its total exports of US $ 470 bn in 2008 - just a little shy of China, its "strategic partner", with 4.5 %.
Russia is also keen to reduce tensions with the West - the Georgian war was a leading factor in causing a mass exodus of foreign investors and a crash in the Russian stock market, thereby exposing the Russian economy to the tender mercies of the wider global financial crisis. Russia`s easing of tensions with a longterm foe is part of establishing a narrative of rejoining the international community and to stave off Polish pressure in EU forums for a more "get tough with Russia" approach.
It may also signal, in my view, a serious rethink in Russia`s own relations with the EU and may yet lead to Russia revisting its own longterm political and strategic interests. It has not escaped Russia`s attention either that its "strategic partner" in countering an unipolar world, China, is positioning itself for the joint leading role in the now notorious G2 club alongside the "Main Enemy", the US. Russia will also have taken note of the US` attention switching from its previous EuroAtlantic leanings to the East, where the US sees the leading economies of China, India, Japan and others in the Pacific being the new geostrategic centre of gravity and the threat to its leading position.
Russia may now see that, rather than seeking an accomodation with China and the US, it should now seek the opportunity of anchoring itself to the EU and to remove existing obstacles to that end - one of which is the longterm antagonism with Poland. It may well therefore be that DeGaulle`s vision of a Europe from the "Atlantic to the Urals (as extended to Vladivostok)" may yet have taken a small step via Katyn yesterday and will take a major leap if a major Polish - Russian rapprochement ensues.