Polish-Russian Relations and the 2004 Ukrainian Presidential Elections

Article excerpt

Polish Russian relations in the Putin era have become severely strained as Polish ties to Europe have expanded. In the past several years tension between the two countries have developed even as Polish leaders, in particular recently elected Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, insisted that Warsaw remains committed to good working ties with the Kremlin. One recent source of this tension was the Polish effort to influence the outcome of the November 2004 Ukrainian presidential elections. This Polish behavior risked provoking Russia. But, the outcome of the Ukrainian presidential contest was important for Poland for several reasons, not least security on its eastern border. So, despite the risk Poland became deeply involved in Ukrainian domestic politics during the election, openly supporting one candidate and opposing another. This Polish behavior and the consequences for Polish-Russian relations reverberate to this day.

POLAND'S STAKE IN THE 2004 UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

Poland had a large stake in the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election that primarily concerned Polish security and regional strategy in the east. But, there were other reasons for Poland's interest in the outcome of the election that included Russian influence-building ambitions in Ukraine under President Vladimir Putin, the future development of Ukraine's fragile democracy, the well being of a Polish speaking minority living in Ukraine near its border with Poland; and a concern about, perhaps even an alarm over likely domestic and foreign policies of the leading presidential candidate during the campaign, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich who had the support of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and Russian President Putin.

Security and Strategy

Of utmost importance to Poland is the Polish-Ukrainian "Strategic Partnership" built by Poland's post-communist leaders from the early 1990's onward. It is a policy both sides had worked hard to cultivate. (1) In fact, the Ukrainian government in the 1990's, embraced the partnership at the risk straining relations with Russia. The partnership is based on three principles: first, reconciliation of past differences between the two countries; second cooperation to safeguard the newly won post-Soviet era independence of both partners; and third, avoidance of conflict of any kind between the two states that would increase their strategic vulnerability to an outside threat, say from Russia. (2)

The Polish-Ukrainian partnership is important for maintaining Polish security in the east vis-a-vis Russia in the post-communist era. It is part of a comprehensive Polish strategy in the post-communist era of linking countries along Russia's western flank particularly the Baltic Republics and Belarus to the West, which form a sort of European front line with Russia. Poland and the Baltic Republics are in NATO and the European Union (EU) They can present a strong counterweight to Russia's influence on Ukraine. (3)

The Polish Ukrainian partnership annoyed the Kremlin because it encouraged Ukraine's recent leaders, Presidents Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, despite their close ties to Russia, to strengthen ties with the West. The Polish Partnership with Ukraine bothered the Kremlin because it rivaled and threatened to undercut Russian influence in Kiev which has a long history of closeness to Russia. Indeed, the Kremlin has tried to push the leadership in Ukraine from time to time to limit ties to the West and expand cooperation with Russia, especially in the military area.

The Polish-Ukrainian partnership stood to be weakened or strengthened depending on who won the 2004 Ukrainian presidential elections. It stood to be weakened, but by no means abandoned, by the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovic. It stood to be continued and strengthened by the pro-West Viktor Yushchenko who was serving as Prime Minister in 2004. Were Yanukovich to win the election, the Kremlin would expect Ukraine to strengthen ties with Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). …