Polish-Russian Relations: History, Geography and Geopolitics

By Ozbay, Fatih; Aras, Bulent | East European Quarterly, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Polish-Russian Relations: History, Geography and Geopolitics


Ozbay, Fatih, Aras, Bulent, East European Quarterly


The history of Polish-Russian relations had been dominated by the serious problems ranging from war and occupation to regional rivalry. The relations are no better shape in the past two decades. Probably, the recent period has witnessed an escalation of a number of crises emanating from historical memory and clashing geopolitical concerns. There has been an expanding third party factor in the relations following Poland's joining NATO in 1999 and entrance to the European Union in 2004. Russian relations with the U.S. and the EU are coming under increasing stress because of the problematic Russian-Polish relations. Poland has a strategically important position in Eastern Europe. It is one of the transit countries for Russian natural gas to the EU, which makes Poland important to both Russia and the EU. The U.S.-Poland talks to place a part of a proposed U.S. missile defense system in Poland illustrates the significance of this strategic position on the Western frontier of Eurasia and the newly conceptualized Greater Middle East. The strains on Russian-Polish relations are not restricted to foreign policy and security issues. There is also a strong domestic dimension with a highly sensitive perception of historical legacy of the relations and rising societal tension toward each other. For that reason, minor problems may turn into serious debates and diplomatic scandals between the two states. In this sense, Russian-Polish relations preserve a unique mechanism of problem creation utilizing domestic and foreign policy issues.

There is a tendency to explain the Russian-Polish relations through the impact of a number of recent and short term developments. However, the roots of the problematic situation should be found in more than a thousand years of historical relations. Poland has history has left traces of pain and suffering in the collective consciousness of Polish people. There is a common sense that Russia had been behind all these negative developments. We hold the idea that the relations have structural patterns and only a comprehensive analysis which goes beyond the myopic focus on current problems may help to discover the root causes and the determinants of the relations between these two states. In this article, we will discuss the Polish-Russian relations putting emphasis on the long-lasting influences of the burden of historical relations and clashing geopolitical concerns. In this sense, first part of this article outlines the historical development of these relations. We will next analyze the role and influence of the burden of history in the problematic relations. It will be followed by a further analysis of the clashing geopolitical concerns between Russia and Poland. Finally, we will discuss what lies ahead and how future relations will be shaped.

Historical Background

Poles belong to the Western Slavic part of the Slavic peoples and their first state was established by the Piast Dynasty in 966. After the emergence of a common Russian threat, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland created a joint entity in 1386 and began to be known as the Commonwealth of Both States (Poland and Lithuania) (Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodow) or known in short as "Rzeczpospolita." Under the Jagiellon dynasty's rule, which lasted until 1572, this Commonwealth became one of the most powerful states in Eastern Europe ruling in territories from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. In today's terms, the Commonwealth consisted of Lithuania, Belarusia, Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, and Kaliningrad, parts of Russia, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia. The major challenge to the Commonwealth was endless Russian threats and subsequent attacks. Russia waged violent and severe wars against Sweden and Poland in the first half of 17th century. Poland's armies invaded first Smolensk and later Moscow in 1611. A Russian patriot, Kuzman Minin, organized a people's army in Nijniy Novgorod and freed Moscow from Polish invasion on 4 November 1612. …

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