Brothers in Distress: Poland and Ukraine


Brothers in Distress: Poland and Ukraine

Recently, Poland`s public debate revolved around the issue of the country’s long-term politics towards Ukraine and therefore current reactions on what is officially branded by Kiev`s authorities: the Ukrainian crisis. The incentive was simple – the step down of former Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr Radosław Sikorski, who has held the longest term in office since 1989. Let`s try to answer a few questions here: why does Poland care about Ukraine more than other Eastern European countries? Secondly, why is the mainstream policy towards Russia labeled hawkish by the Western public, yet considered unsatisfactory by the Poles?

The history of what may be called Polish-Ukrainian relations is as old as these countries. Throughout the years, one nation tried to subjugate the other following plain logic of medieval politics, with luck alternating on both sides. When the Union of Lublin was sealed in 1569 and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was established, Ukraine was once and for all firmly bounded to Poland`s fate. Time-lapsing to the 20th century, since the imperialistic threat from tsarist or communist Russia never perished, reborn II Republic of Poland under Józef Piłsudski’s rule adapted a modified concept of Jagiellonian eastern policy, considering Ukraine a buffer state from Russia. Later on, during communist enslavement of half of the continent, the Polish intelligentsia gathered around Jerzy Giedroyć postulated that the strong and independent state of Ukraine is vital for securing the independence of post-communist Poland. It comes as a surprise that amongst the chaotic and obscure politics of post-1989 Poland, this paradigm has never been abandoned. As qualifications, views and abilities of political elites have changed, one remained always very clear – strong Ukraine secures strong Poland. Why? The Poles, more than anyone else, know that unless democracy triumphs in Moscow (which is more of a pipe dream than a reality), Russia will never cease its expansionism towards the West. Most Russians wish to see their country strong, and geopolitical dominance complies with that desire. From this perspective, Ukraine is a wall separating Poland from her vast, unpredictable neighbour.

So why aren`t countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania as bothered by the Russian threat as Poland is? Sergey Lavrov`s diplomacy and the continuation of Soviet traditions in the state-of-the-art craftily play out regional nationalisms and particular interests, whilst mixing the latter with Pan-Slavic rhetoric. Hope of historical retaliations is offered to those embedded in past wounds and a mirage of power to those who crave it. Similar tricks are impossible to perform on Poland because of its historically deep-rooted skepticism towards Russia. What might be considered a xenophobic prejudice in times of peace becomes a reality in times of political turmoil.

How does this impact today’s policy? Poland`s raison d’État is to support, advocate, and sustain current changes in Ukraine. Arguably Kiev is now the residence of the most pro-Polish government of all times. Phrases of consolation and financial sanctions against Russia’s banking sector are flung by Western politicians, but form no real assistance for Ukrainians. This leaves a bitter taste in Polish society. There is much sympathy expressed for Mr. Putin’s actions in parts of German, Italian, or French societies, as depictions of the president show Putin as the defender of oppressed Russian minorities. Others argue that Putin’s decisions are none of their concern and one needs to stop worrying. In this tangled and fragile situation, Polish authorities will not take the risk of openly proceeding with tangible help for Kiev, whilst lacking a back-up from the rest of NATO. Attitude like this may be called safeguard, but it is the only one that Warsaw`s authorities can afford. With this in mind, many put trust in Germany because of its informal leadership in Europe and hitherto quite stern attitude toward the Ukrainian crisis.

Polish media recently expressed avid interest in Mr Sikorski`s words on politico.com, stating that during one of the bilateral Polish-Russian meetings, long before the Maidan revolution, Mr Putin had proposed to Mr Tusk a partition of the Ukrainian state on the basis of it being an “artificial, unnatural” entity. Putting aside current political ramifications, has this offer really taken place, it would have stroke the basis of Polish Eastern politics. Despite 123 years of non-existence and communist inferiority to the Soviet big brother, the Poles never gave up on the idea that they should be amongst the decisive parties when it comes to the policies affecting Eastern Europe. If taken to the extreme, this may even lead to historical revisionism. Mr. Putin tried to play on those archaic imperialistic residues, hitting the soft spot of many Poles. So far, his attempts could not be taken seriously. All facts considered, Poland`s consequently pursued its aim to see a strong and independent Ukraine which can look after itself without anybody`s coerced supervision. As claimed by the Polish slogan from nineteenth century Za Wolność naszą i waszą – For our Freedom and yours. Un pour tous, tous pour un.

Maciek Rafałowski


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