Russian-Polish Relations

11 m.   |  2020-07-23

One of the most problematic areas of Russia’s foreign policy is relations with Poland. Historically, the complicated relations between the two countries continue until now, becoming tenser day by day. The official Moscow notes that the current relations between Russia and Poland are at the lowest level, which is due to both Russia’s anti-Ukrainian policy and the tragic events of history, particularly the tragedy of Katyn, which has long been a problematic issue in the Russian-Polish relations. 

Katyn Massacre

T he Katyn Massacre is the most painful page of Russian-Polish relations. According to the former President of Poland, it will always remain in the national memory of Poles. The massacre happened during the World War II. In 1939, when the Nazi Germany invaded Poland, the Russian Red Army entered Poland, declaring that it can no longer stay neutral, as the issue concerns the security of Belarusians and Ukrainians living in Eastern Poland. During the operation, the Russian Army took more than 130 thousand Poles captive, but released most of them very quickly. Remained only the Polish officers and officials concentrated in the Starobelsky, Ostashkovsky and Kozelsky camps, whose fate was decided by Beria’s letter to Stalin. He proposes to execute the Poles in the camp. On March 5, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union accepted the proposal. The shooting took place in the Katyn forest, not far from the camps. In a letter wrote to the head of the KGB, Alexander Shelepin, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev mentions that 21,857 Poles were killed.

However, the real culprits of the crime were revealed only in 1190. Earlier, the Soviet Union announced that the execution was carried out by Nazi Germany. On April 13, 1990, during the meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and the President of Poland Wojciech Jaruzelski in Moscow, Gorbachev handed him documents indirectly confirming the participation of the NKVD of the USSR in the Katyn Massacre. Immediately after the meeting, TASS agency reported that the Soviet side, expressing a deep regret, stated that it was one of the Stalinism’s grave crimes committed. Later, the President of Russia Putin also linked the crime to Stalin’s name, stressing, that Stalin might have taken revenge on Poland, for the death of the Soviet prisoners of war captured in the Polish-Russian War in 1920.

In 1992, Polish President Lech Walesa receives copies of archival documents on the fate of Polish officers killed in the USSR, as well as the copies of Beria’s letter to Stalin. In 1993, Boris Yeltsin publicly apologized to the Polish people in Warsaw.

The Katyn case remained on the table of Russian-Polish relations for a long time. Poland was trying to find a legal solution to the issue. In 1990, a criminal case was opened in connection with the discovery of the Polish soldiers’ graves and was sent to the Prosecutor General’s Office and terminated in 2004. In 2009, the Polish side demanded from Moscow all the materials related to the criminal case, which were all transferred in 2010.

The Katyn case also appeared in the ECHR. 15 relatives of the 12 killed prisoners of war filed a lawsuit against Russia for ineffective investigation and for ignoring the demands of the relatives of the victims, in response to which the ECHR recognized Katyn’s shooting as a war crime. However, the court didn’t start an investigation, as the European Convention on Human Rights entered into force in 1998, in Russia, when “the death of Polish prisoners of war was already an established historical fact and there was no ambiguity about their fate”.

Russian-Polish Relations Until 2014

A fter the collapse of the USSR Russia and Poland signed a treaty on “Cooperation and Neighborness”, however Warsaw took the West road from the very beginning. Already in 1999, Poland became a member of the North Atlantic Alliance. Despite its pro-Western policy, Poland was in active trade relations with Russia, especially in the field of energy. In 1993, the two countries signed a natural gas supply contract and in 1994, agreed on the construction of “Yamal-Europe” gas pipeline, which should deliver natural gas to Germany through the territory of Poland. Currently, it doesn’t act because of the expiration of the contract on the use of the Polish sector.

Conflicts in bilateral relations arose in 2004, when Poland agreed on installing the US missile defense system on its territory, which the Russian side considered a threat to its security. President Putin stated that “it disturbs the balance of the powers”, for the restoration of which Russia would have to develop new weapons. Despite warnings from Moscow, the USA and Poland didn’t abandon the project. On August 14, 2008, Washington and Warsaw signed an agreement on deploying a US missile defense system in Poland, the construction of which was envisaged to finish in 2022. Despite this problem, the best years of Russian-Polish relations can be considered between 2007- 2010, when Donald Tusk became the Prime Minister of Poland, who adopted a new policy with Russia. He tried to improve Russia-EU relations. Tusk even expressed readiness to discuss the conditions for the deployment of elements of the US missile defense system with Russia. In 2008, Tusk arrived in Moscow, where a group for the solution of complicated issues on Russian-Polish relations was formed, the work of which has been interrupted to this day.

The Smolensk Disaster

A “mess” was created in Russian-Polish relations in 2010 after the Smolensk air disaster. On the one hand, the tragedy united the two countries and on the other hand, it became the reason for blaming Russia. Tu-154 air crash was the biggest in the history, during which about 88 officials died. President of Poland Lech Kaczynski, his wife, Polish politicians, almost all the highest military command and public and religious figures were on the plane. They were on a private visit to Russia to attend the 70th anniversary of the Katyn events.

An investigation was launched after the plane crash: in the final version of the Russian Interstate Aviation Committee, the crew’s wrong actions and psychological pressure on them were considered to be the cause of the air crush. The Ministry of Interior of Poland also blamed the staff for the crash by pointing out the lack of technical assistance to the Smolensk airport dispatchers.

Tu-154 accident in Smolensk

Despite these studies, various Polish sources spread anti-Russian information about the plane crash. There were rumors about the involvement of the Russian side and Donald Tusk in the organization of the accident, about killing of everyone after the plane crash, the call of Lech Kaczynski and other rumors.

After the “Law and Justice” Party came to power in 2015, the issue of the Smolensk disaster was back on the government’s agenda. It was suggested to file a lawsuit against Donald Tusk to show insufficient consistency to the investigation.

On April 25, 2018, the technical report of the Committee for the re-investigation of the Smolensk air crush was published, where the new reason for the crush was considered the explosion in the left wing of the plane, before its crash. The official Moscow found that the report has a political context, which will further complicate Russian-Polish relations.

Ukrainian Crisis

R ussian-Polish relations finally worsened after the Ukraine’s event in 2014, as a result of which Russia appeared in the “target” of the West. Warsaw, which always had problems with Russia, immediately accused him of “seizing Crimea” and for the war against the Ukrainian people in Donbus. He most actively demanded to impose sanctions on Russia, moreover he offered to isolate the “aggressor country” internationally. He later took active steps to extend the sanctions. At the same time, Russia responded to the Poles with counter-accusations. Moscow stressed that Poland is one of the countries provoking the Ukrainian crisis through the Eastern Partnership Program and the Association Agreement with the EU, trying to separate Ukraine from Russia. Ukraine became the cause of the diplomatic war between the two countries. In 2015, the Polish authorities refused to invite the President of Russia on the liberation anniversary of Auschwitz, and the President of Poland Komorowski refused to travel to Moscow on the 70th Anniversary parade of Victory Day, considering it a threat to peace.

In 2014, about 100 monuments to the Soviet Union began to be demolished in Poland.

Picture 2. Statues of Soviet Union’s soldiers are being dismantled in Poland

In 2017, Poland adopted a law, banning the propaganda of “communism and other totalitarian systems” in the country. The law also allows the dismantling of Soviet monuments. According to the estimates of Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance, there are 450 Soviet statues. In recent years, 427 Soviet monuments were destroyed in Poland.

Despite all this, the two sides blame each other for militarization. After 2014, NATO and the USA began to equip Poland, believing that the Russian aggression could spread to this border with Russia as well. The Polish tank fleet is currently the fourth in NATO, is armed with more than a thousand artillery systems and 90 combat helicopters.

At the same time, Poland accuses Moscow of expanding its military presence in the Kaliningrad region, strengthening the combat potential of the Baltic Fleet and deploying Iskander missile system in the territory of Poland. In response, the Russian side mentions that Poland alone is not considered a threat but is a treat as a country, which is ready to cede its territory to third countries or to NATO.

Russian-Polish Economic Relations

T he cornerstone of the Russian-Polish relations is the trade, however after the Ukrainian events in 2014, the whole Europe and especially Poland began to actively impose sanctions on Russia, to which the Russian side responded in the same way.

In 2016, when the sanctions were eased, Russian-Polish trade gradually began to recover, positive trends continued throughout 2017-2018. In 2019, however, negative dynamics was again recorded in trade relations. According to the data of the Russian Customs Service, trade between Russia and Poland in 2019 amounted to $17,5 bil., reducing by 19.4% compared to 2018. In the first 4 months of 2020, bilateral trade continued to decline, decreasing by 13% compared to the same period of last year.

In 2019, Poland’s share in Russia’s foreign trade turnover is 2,6%, and Russia ranks the 3rd place in Poland’s import scale and the 7th in the export scale.

In 2010, based on the agreement signed with Gazprom, 11 bil. cubic meters of natural gas should be supplied to Poland between 2012-2022, which is 0.4 bil. cubic meters more compared to 2009. Poland already stated that would stop buying natural gas from Russia since 2022, replacing it with American liquefied natural gas.

Since 2016, the volume of Russian gas imports have declined in Poland. In 2019, it decreased to 60.2% compared to 67% in 2018. At the same time, liquefied natural gas imports reached 20% from 23%, although it’s more expensive. According to Poland, 14,85 bil. cubic meters of natural gas was imported in 2019: 8.95 bil. from Russia and 3.43 bil. liquefied gas from Qatar, Norway and the United States.