By Max Goldberg
Current headlines about the state of political and social affairs in Poland and on its borders are not positive, to say the least. The predominant crisis at the time of writing this piece is the story of the 5,000 or so migrants, mostly of Middle Eastern origin corralled in the freezing woods on the Polish-Belarussian border. They are the subjects of international cries for help as they are exploited as pawns for political purposes by the Belarussian government. Internationally unrecognized President Alexander Lukashenko managed to fabricate a scheme which manipulated migrants into believing they had paid for a chance at European Union citizenship via transport to Belarus and then safe passage across Poland and into Germany. A tragic abuse of power, Lukashenko uses the powerless to get back at Poland and the EU for sanctions and other economic inhibitors. These were placed onto Belarus by the West after the 2020 Belarussian election scam, where Lukashenko miraculously “won” 80% of the popular vote, and the 2021 arrest of political dissident Roman Protasevich after faking a bomb threat to a civilian RyanAir flight passing over Belarussian airspace. Unfortunately, Poland’s response to this crisis has been declaring a state of emergency in the border regions, withholding access from journalists or aid organizations. Both countries are engaging in the strategy of so-called “pushbacks,” either forcing migrants back across the border, or simply denying they ever crossed the border in the first place. There have been more changes in the physical Polish-Belarussian border during the last week than there have been presidents of Belarus in the last 30 years.
Tensions are high between Belarus and the West, sure, but Belarus is a renegade state. It has accepted its position in international affairs as the annoying child at the party that keeps biting everybody. However, Lukashenko has the full support of the parent that nobody wants to mess with, that being Moscow. In the last week, Russian paratroopers have landed in the region adjacent to the Polish-Belarussian border to “conduct military exercises” with Belarussian troops. Another threat from Moscow to Warsaw, but what else is new? Russia has always been a thorn in the side of Poland, and vice versa, for nearly a thousand years, in times of kingdoms, empires, communist regimes, and nation-states. From invasions and massacres, to disputes over fruits and vegetables, the relationship between Poland and Russia remains sour. Chosen from hundreds, these are incredibly brief descriptions of several key events throughout history that have played the most significant role in the development (or rather on-and-off decay) of Polish-Russian relations…
Poland did not exist as an independent state for 123 years from 1772 till 1918, with international affairs outside of Polish lands changing dramatically during those times, including in the states who each held a piece of Poland. Russia was one such state, or empire rather, who constantly suppressed (usually successfully) Polish uprisings, with the notable exception being the battle of Racławice. Come World War 1, the 2nd republic of Poland is formed and Russia has transitioned power away from the Romanoff’s and into the calloused hands of Lenin. In the years between the great war and World War 2, the relationship remains the same: rough. Lenin would pass away in 1924, and his successor Jozef Stalin would murder some 110,000 Poles in his Polish Operation, a cleansing of Poles from Soviet territories, in what are present-day Ukraine and yes, Belarus. On September 17th, 1939, the USSR invaded Poland from the East as part of its agreement with Nazi Germany known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The Red Army would then deport and mass murder ~22,000 Polish officers in the Katyn massacre, which continues to be a massive force driving a wedge between Russia and Poland today. The Soviets hid the bodies in mass graves, until they were uncovered by Nazi forces pushing the Red Army back in 1943. It was only in 2010 when Russia formally acknowledged the USSR’s role in Katyn. That same year, a plane carrying an official Polish delegation on its way to the Katyn graves discovery site, including Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria, crashed upon landing. Within Poland today, there are conspiracies spreading about the cause of the disaster, including placing blame on the Kremlin.
During the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the USSR refused to allow allied forces access to Soviet landing strips, leaving them unable to deliver lethal and non-lethal aid to Poles revolting against the Nazi occupation. Stalin would of course later de-facto occupy Poland for three years after the war, arranged through three conferences with the United Kingdom and United States. In 1947, the communist Soviet satellite state, deemed the People’s Republic of Poland (PPR), was established even though Moscow essentially retained control over Polish soil until the collapse of the USSR from 1989-91. Poles were seldom content under PPR/Soviet rule, and many instances of abuse of power by communist forces are recorded in Polish history as times of triumph over oppression, in the 1970’s workers protests and the 1980s Solidarity movement. The USSR was split into 15 independent states, but Russia retained control over the Kaliningrad Oblast, bordering Poland’s northern regions. It was not until 1993 when Russian troops completely withdrew from Poland.
In 1996, independent Poland became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and in 2004 joined the European Union, organizations which the Russian Federation views as hostile or as economic and security competitors. Poland has since become the 2nd largest home to American troops in Europe, just after Germany, with greater NATO emphasis being placed in Poland as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, widely considered a campaign to counter recent Russian aggression. On the subject of Russian aggression, Poland’s elected officials have vehemently defended Ukrainian sovereignty, since the orange revolution in 2004, and during the 2014 invasion of Crimea and the war in Donetsk. As a result, the Russian federation prohibited the import of Polish apples, and as Poland is the third largest producer of apples in the world, this was a billion-dollar dent in the Polish economy.
Recently, the topic of energy and natural gas has been the subject of fierce debate between Poland and Russia. With the completion of the Nordstream 2 pipeline, direct from Saint Petersburg to Germany transporting 26 million households worth of gas annually, Poland has been cut off from the Russian gas export process almost entirely, leaving it susceptible to the weaponization of energy shortages. This is a strategy Russia has been willing to use in the past, in Ukraine and the former Czechoslovakia.
In Warsaw today, the largest diplomatic compound of any nation by far is the vast area of land comprising the Russian Embassy and Russian ambassador’s residence. It is impossible to miss, with the tri-color flag towering high above the neighboring Polish presidential residence. Russians are required to have a visa before entry into the EU, and several Russian diplomatic personnel have been declared persona non grata by the Polish government and forced to leave due to accusations of espionage. The Palace of Culture in downtown Warsaw, a “gift” from Stalin to the Poles, stands out among new glass skyscrapers as a cultural icon for some and a horrific reminder to others. The shadows of sore history still loom over Warsaw. As my Professor Szaynok once put it, “When we touch any subject in Polish history, emotions always appear”. This is especially true in conversations about Russia. Despite sharing Slavic roots, similar languages, cuisine, and culture, the scars of history remain and continue to fester every now and then.
- Dettmer, Jamie. “Russia Dispatches Paratroopers to Belarus as Tensions Soar.” VOA, Russia Dispatches Paratroopers to Belarus as Tensions Soar, 12 Nov. 2021, https://www.voanews.com/a/russia-dispatches-paratroopers-to-belarus-as-tensions-soar/6310853.html.
- Maria WilczekMaria Wilczek is deputy editor of Notes from Poland. She is a regular writer for The Times. “Relations with Poland ‘Worst since WW2’, Says Russian Ambassador amid Growing Tensions.” Notes From Poland, 28 Apr. 2021, https://notesfrompoland.com/2021/04/28/relations-with-poland-worst-since-ww2-says-russian-ambassador-amid-growing-tensions/.
- Samorukov, Maxim. “Can Russia and Poland Ever Overcome Their Historical Differences?” Carnegie Moscow Center, https://carnegiemoscow.org/commentary/85115.