Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 73

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk won the parliamentary elections last November, promising to improve radically relations with Russia, which went sour under the previous administration of the Kacziynski brothers. Lech Kacziynski continues to be Polish President but has little influence on actual decision making. Tusk and his ministers have traveled to Moscow and held talks to improve ties, but serious problems continue to mar relations.

Last week in an interview in Warsaw, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslav Sikorski told me, “Our government has a different attitude. We do not believe that the more Russia is annoyed, the better it is for Poland. Russian annoyance is also not an argument to support basing the U.S. MD [missile defense] system in Poland. We have recovered the ability to talk to each other. Russia has lifted the meat embargo; we are ready to lift our veto on Russia starting negotiations with the EU on a new partnership agreement. We have noticed a different tone among Russian officials.”

Sikorski was clearly doing his best to emphasize positive trends in Russo-Polish relations. Indeed, Russia has recently scaled down its hostile rhetoric over US plans to base a MD radar system in the Czech Republic and an interceptor base in Poland. The meat embargo that was imposed in 2006 has indeed been lifted, and contracts on the import of Polish meat are being signed. The recent steep rise in world food prices has made Russia more interested in buying Polish agricultural products. Polish-Russian trade last year was $17 billion, but this was mostly Russian oil and gas imports and transit to Europe.

There has recently been an overall change in tone in Russia’s dealings with the West and a scaling down of criticism of U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense system in Europe (see EDM, April 10). Warsaw is negotiating with Washington on the conditions of the possible MD interceptor base and with Moscow on transparency arrangements that may alleviate Russian concerns. For Poland it is a matter of principle that an agreement is not negotiated over its head between the Russians and Americans. According to Sikorski, “We are having regular consultations with Russia on the deputy foreign minister level on confidence building measures to do with the proposed MD base. Russia wants permanent access to the MD base. We agree, if that means the right to inspect at short notice plus technical monitoring.” Permanent presence of Russian military personnel at the MD base, however, “would be difficult to accept.”

The US, Poland and the Czech Republic have also required reciprocal access to Russian military installations, which has infuriated the military, which considers the A-135 MD system covering Moscow a top secret installation. Sikorski told me that the Polish position on reciprocity is flexible. “We are not hung up on getting access to Russian MD facilities. It could [just as well] be reciprocal access to other general Russian military facilities.” Last December Russia discontinued its commitment to allow inspections of its conventional forces under the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. Poland wants to regain some capability to inspect conventional Russian forces through possible future MD transparency arrangements. For the Russian military, such a “compromise” might be an unpleasant surprise. The United States is seeking access to Russia’s MD bases and the Poles at the same time and under the same guise are attempting to restart CFE.

Poland has requested billions of dollars of additional U.S. military assistance to modernize its armed forces in exchange for allowing the deployment of U.S. MD interceptors. Poland has also demanded that the U.S. MD base will not have an exterritorial status, making it legally a Polish installation. Poland, according to Sikorski, wants the United States to take legal responsibility for any damage that may be caused by possible falling debris or launch mistakes. Sikorski insisted, “We are a valuable ally, we have been involved in different peacekeeping operations, in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are worth investing in, so we have asked the US to participate in our modernizing efforts. This does not necessarily have to do with the MD base.” Still, Polish requests for military aid are seen in Washington as lavish and have caused annoyance.

There are other serious issues, not connected directly to MD or NATO. In 2006 Russia shut the Soviet-built outlet of the “Druzba” pipe that supplied crude to Lithuania’s Mazeikiu refinery. The official reason for the shutoff was leaks in the old pipe. Analysts have linked the oil stoppage, however, to Lithuania’s decision to allow the Polish company PKN Orlen to buy the refinery, which several Russian firms were interested in (Reuters, February 11). According to Sikorski, “We are ready to pay for repairs, build a new pipeline to Mazeikiu if needed. Vladimir Putin said he would look into it.”

If Russia indeed allows the resumption of crude pipeline supplies to Mazeikiu, there will be a price attached, say, concessions on MD reciprocal requirements or less Polish support for future NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. There may be commercial conditions, say, some Kremlin-connected oil company taking over part of Mazeikiu or other Polish-controlled gas and oil infrastructures. Tusk may have hoped that a “pragmatic” approach to Russia would help speed up cooperation, but pragmatic deals with Moscow are often as difficult as any other.