Russian and Polish Relations: A New Era

Article excerpt

Russia and Poland have shared a long and often troubled historical relationship. This has involved wars, rebellions, repressions, and partitions. Momentous changes in Europe during the late 1980s and early 1990s, including the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union, as well as ongoing Euro-Atlantic integration via North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union (E.U.) enlargement, have provided new opportunities and new challenges for Russian and Polish relations. The international impact of September 11, 2001 and globalization have also played a role in forging new prospects for improved relations between these two historical rivals and adversaries.

America has had very good relations with Poland since the demise of communism. Washington admired the Poles' courage in challenging the communist system and strongly supported their aspirations to gain NATO and E.U. membership. Pope John Paul II's Polish background and the large Polish-American community in the United States also enhanced America's positive perception of Poland. Multiple high-level visits by Presidents Bush and Kwasniewski also underscore the view of Poland as a valued and reliable strategic partner of the United States. Poland's joining the coalition of the willing to oust Saddam Hussein and its deployment of military troops to Iraq, as well as its being asked to command an international sector of peacekeepers in Iraq, further highlights Poland's elevated international profile and close relationship with Washington.

For its part, Russia has been an important state for the United States since the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. After an initial honeymoon period, U.S.-Russian relations gave rise to mutual disappointment and conflicts over NATO enlargement, the Kosovo War, Iraq, Iran, and Chechnya among other issues. Nevertheless, Russia was a state with whom Washington wanted better relations given its status as a nuclear superpower and its permanent and veto-wielding membership on the United Nations Security Council. The need for an international coalition to fight terrorism and the good personal chemistry between Presidents Bush and Putin helped forge improved U.S. and Russian relations after September 11, 2001. Although U.S. and Russian ties suffered a short-term setback over the Iraq war, overall bilateral relations have not been seriously damaged.

Given the United States' close relationship with Poland and growing relationship with Russia and their importance for U.S. national security, in combating terrorism, limiting weapons of mass destruction, and ensuring stability and security in Europe, understanding the evolution and prospects for Russian-Polish relations is vital for American national security. Thus, this article will examine and analyze various aspects of recent Russian and Polish relations since 2000, when Vladimir Putin became President of Russia. Bilateral relations between these two Slavic neighbors had been cold during much of the 1990s and this continued into early 2000. During the ensuing three years, however, there has emerged a new era of good relations in Russian-Polish ties. What explains the new era in Russian-Polish relations and what are the prospects for the future?

Spy Scandal and Chechen Protests

January 20, 2000 Poland expelled nine Russian diplomats for spying. This represented the largest spy scandal since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service's Warsaw station was said to have been utterly decimated by the expulsions. The Russian government and media described the spy scandal as a "political provocation" to damage Russian and Polish relations, prior to a presidential election in Poland. But as one Russian commentator acknowledged:

"Our bilateral relations are already in deep crisis and could hardly get much worse ..." (1)

From the Russian perspective, incidents involving spying should be handled quietly and thus in Izvestia reporter shifted the blame for the crisis onto the Poles' animosity towards Russia:

"Historical grievances and prejudices are tenacious things. …