reflections

Jun 9, 2009 | 01:53 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: A Russo-Polish Thaw?

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Just a month before U.S. President Barack Obama heads to Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, the United States and Russia have resumed their activities in each other's areas of interest — something commonly seen ahead of any U.S.-Russian meeting. Monday was a particularly active day. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Phillip Gordon visited all three Caucasus states — Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia — with his boss, Hillary Clinton, saying that the United States (rather than Turkey or Russia) can negotiate a compromise between Yerevan and Baku over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Russia hosted meetings with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan late last week, but Moscow could not resolve the dispute. Also on Monday, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev said Kyrgyzstan and the United States were in negotiations that could mean U.S. aid in exchange for agreement on a transit route for goods bound for Afghanistan. Soon after Sarbayev's comments, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov into a last-minute meeting in Moscow to discuss Russo-Kyrgyz relations. It looks as if the U.S.-Russian contest for influence in the former Soviet sphere is heating up again, just as it did before the Obama-Medvedev meeting in April. But an interesting move by one of the players indicates that something else is in motion. Russian media on Monday circulated an interview with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in which he made statements that were uncharacteristically (for a Polish leader) friendly to Moscow. The interview, which was given to European news outlets and Russia's Interfax, was published a week ago in Europe but is getting heavy rotation in the Russian media now. Tusk said Putin might attend Sept. 1 ceremonies marking the anniversary of the German-Russian invasion in 1939, which the Poles consider the beginning of World War II — a date Russia does not acknowledge. Tusk said Putin's attendance would be a "breakthrough" in relations between Warsaw and Moscow. Poland has butted heads with Russia for most of its history. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and particularly since Poland gained NATO membership in 1999, Warsaw has been pushing itself as Washington's ally in Europe. Since it is on the border of Russia's sphere of influence and beyond the United States' easternmost position in Europe, in Germany, Poland essentially was the new — and closer — territory for Washington as it sought a position near the former Soviet border. Warsaw also enjoyed this new position, since it ensured U.S. protection against a strengthening Russia (as well as Germany). Since 2001, the United States and Poland have been discussing the possible deployment of ballistic missile defense (BMD) installations in Central Europe — a topic which has become one of Warsaw's biggest levers against an increasingly aggressive Russia, and an issue that is at the forefront of all U.S.-Russian talks. The BMD deal seemed to be sewn up after the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008, when the United States quickly signed the preliminary agreements with Poland. At the Obama-Medvedev meeting in April, the Americans did not withdraw their support for BMD in Central Europe. But the situation is much more complicated now. Even though the preliminary BMD agreements have been signed, Washington has yet to finalize those agreements with Warsaw, leaving the Poles a bit nervous and wondering if they are about to be abandoned. This is because the United States is entrenched in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and still has issues with Iran to sort through — all situations that will come to a head before any real Russo-U.S. confrontation. The Americans know that Russia is not (for the most part) directly involved in Iraq, Afghanistan or Iran, but that Moscow could make any of those issues much more difficult for Washington. So, during the April summit, the Americans attempted to placate the Russians for the near term by offering concessions on other Russian concerns — like NATO expansion to Georgia and Ukraine — while standing fast on Poland and BMD. But at the same meeting, the Russians said they would not trade one set of countries for another. This created a standoff between Washington and Moscow. Poland's understandable nervousness explains why Tusk's sudden warmth toward the Russians could be a way for Poland to hedge its position. Warsaw would not lose anything in a possible "breakthrough" in Russo-Polish relations. The United States could still sign a BMD deal at any time; Tusk's interview could be meant to pressure Washington to finalize the deal, all while allowing Warsaw to play nice with Moscow in case it is abandoned by Washington. But there is another possibility in this unfolding drama: that Washington put Warsaw up to this move. What better way to assure Russia that the United States is not trying to surround it than to keep Poland open to Russian relations? The Russians see the Tusk interview as Poland's acknowledgment of the possibility that Washington could pull out of any deal or arrangement with Warsaw. But the United States might want to keep Poland looking as if it is friendly to the Russians, as a way to keep Moscow from escalating the situation while Washington ties up loose ends in other areas — and all the while, Washington and Warsaw can maintain a firm behind-the-scenes understanding. Editor's Note: In the Geopolitical Diary, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was originally misidentified as Polish President Donald Tusk. The error has been corrected.

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