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Aug 31, 2009 | 18:59 GMT

5 mins read

Russia: A Rapprochement With Poland

Junko Kimura/Getty Images
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Aug. 31 sent a letter to the Polish people in which he denounced the World War II era Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty. The Polish population, who views the pact as a symbol of Russo-German aggression, likely sees Putin's condemnation as a way to reconcile with Russia. However, it will be difficult for Warsaw to choose between accepting an accord with its traditional enemy or resuming its long-standing policy of aggression toward Moscow with the United States still undecided on the ballistic missile defense system placement in Poland.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin addressed the Polish public ahead of his visit to Gdansk on Sept. 1 in an editorial published on Aug. 31 titled "Letter to Poles" in the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza. In his article, Putin condemned the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, a nonaggression treaty between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that also included a secret provision for division of Poland between Berlin and Moscow signed on Aug. 23, 1939. Putin, along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are guests of honor at the Sept. 1 ceremony in Gdansk that will mark Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland 70 years ago. Putin's very public denunciation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty is a significant gesture of friendship toward Warsaw, where the treaty is seen as the quintessential symbol of Russo-German designs on Poland. Putin may also be sending a message to Berlin that the recently reinvigorated friendship between Russia and Germany better not end like the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which Hitler broke when he invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. As with most notable historical events in Europe, the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty has multiple interpretations, depending on one's vantage point. For most of the West and Poland, Molotov-Ribbentrop was an ultimate betrayal by Stalin. In Russia, however, it was viewed as an imposition on Moscow after the Western policy of appeasement (especially by the British and French) toward Hitler's expansionism and was therefore a necessary play of realpolitik toward an eventual adversary. Core geopolitical interests drove Russia's reversal: With the West turning a blind eye to Germany's militarization, Moscow knew it had a limited amount of time before it too would have to deal with the German threat. From the Russian point of view, it was better at that time to make nice with Berlin and buy time to build up its own defenses (which were decimated by Stalin's purges in the years prior) until it felt ready to confront the Germans head-on. For Poland, not only does the treaty represent Russia's open hostility and outright aggressiveness toward Warsaw, but also the perpetual threat that comes from a combined Russo-German alliance. Because it finds itself squeezed on the North European Plain between Moscow and Berlin, Warsaw has a near-automatic foreign policy of aggression toward Russia and distrust toward Germany. As such, Poland does not consider NATO security guarantees as sufficient, nor does it take occasional pleasantries by the Russians seriously. But Warsaw is currently in a state of panic due to Washington's noncommittal stance toward the basing of a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Poland. The BMD is considered by Warsaw the only real sign of U.S. commitment for Polish security, as it would put actual U.S. troops on the ground. However, with serious foreign policy challenges in the Middle East and South Asia that the Russians could make even more complicated, the United States is looking to placate Russia — at least temporarily — by not pushing the BMD in Poland. From Washington's perspective, a firm alliance with Poland can wait for extraction of U.S. forces from the Middle East, but Warsaw is concerned with the here and now. This is because, in the here and now, Russia is resurging on the geopolitical scene. And not only is Russia resurging, but Moscow is forging a close political and economic alliance with Berlin. As such, Poland again is staring at a potential situation where it is trapped between two powerhouses. Therefore, Putin's denunciation of the German-Russian World War II pact is likely to throw Poland into a dilemma: whether to accept Putin's offer of friendship or continue to have an aggressive stance toward Russia. Warsaw could continue to push against Moscow on its own by continuing with the EU's Eastern Partnership, a Stockholm-Warsaw project to push back on the Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union. The alternative to an aggressive foreign policy toward Russia is to seek an accommodation with Moscow, one to which Putin seems to be gesturing. This debate is currently raging very publicly in Warsaw, particularly with Sept. 1 marking the 70-year anniversary of the Nazi German invasion of Poland. Some in Poland are particularly upset that there is no sign of their supposed key ally the United States at the ceremonies, despite the fact that the German and Russian leaders will attend. Meanwhile, Putin's remarks about the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty could have another audience: Berlin. The 1939 nonaggression pact was the last formal security arrangement between Russia and Germany, countries that have had a number of such agreements in their past (the 1873 Dreikaiserbund and the 1922 Treaty of Rapallo being two other notable examples). However, the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty ended with Hitler's betrayal and invasion of the Soviet Union with Operation Barbarossa in June 1941. With the recent significant improvement in relations between Berlin and Moscow, particularly on the economic front, Putin may be reminding Berlin that it should be wary of again turning its back on Russia. Last time, that strategy did not work out well for Germany.

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