WARSAW, Poland – They live in a historically battered region between West and East, the Rhine and the Volga, Berlin and Moscow. Now, as Russian tanks rumble in Georgia, the states of “new Europe” are urging the West to rethink its relationship with Russia and are pushing for new security and strong measures against an aggressive Moscow they say they know all too well.
From Poland to Ukraine, the Czech Republic to Bulgaria, Russia’s invasion of Georgia with tanks, troops, and planes is described as a test of Western resolve. The former Soviet states are vowing to thwart Russian aims – in deals with the European Union, in a missile-defense pact with the US, and in trade and diplomacy.
Polish and Baltic officials, most of whom grew up under Soviet occupation, have long chafed at being described in Western Europe as too “Russia-phobic” in their oft-repeated warnings about Moscow’s intentions. But now in this gritty capital, the refrain is, “We told you so.”
The strength of Polish feeling against Russia is measured by the quick completion of a US missile defense pact last week, after 18 months of wrangling in Warsaw and Washington. While the US has stoutly argued that the missiles were meant as a shield against rogue attacks from Iran, their strategic value here has apparently shifted. Polish opposition to hosting 10 proposed missile silos dropped by 30 percent in the week after Russia’s military move in Georgia, according to polls in Warsaw.
“The events in the Caucasus show clearly that such security guarantees are indispensable,” said Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
Ukrainian officials now say they encourage talks with the US on a similar shield. The suggestion over the weekend came despite Russian deputy military chief Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn’s warning that Poland’s missile shield would expose it to a Russian attack. “Poland, by deploying … is exposing itself to a strike – 100 percent,” said General Nogovitsyn.
In recent years “new” Europe has tussled with “old,” with Germany in particular, over NATO expansion for Georgia – most recently in April at the alliance summit in Bucharest, Romania, where Berlin opposed it. Former Soviet states now in NATO argue that Western ideas about liberal reform in Russia were naive at best and self-serving at worst: They see Vladimir Putin’s Russia as disparaging civil society, reverting to brute strength with small nations, seeking empire, and exploiting divisions inside Europe, and between Europe and the US. Russia is not a ‘status quo’ power under Mr. Putin, they say, but rather willing to change principles in pursuit of greatness.
Most Poles will agree that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili made a serious mistake in trying to enter South Ossetia with force. But they feel it was an error that Russia seized upon in a planned operation to annex Ossetia and Abkhazia, where they say a new millionaire class in Moscow is rapidly buying up coastal property.
“When we woke up and saw Russian tanks in Georgia, we knew very well what this meant,” says Bartosz Weglarczyk, foreign editor of Gazeta Wyborcza. “The Russian talk about helping others and bringing peace to Georgia…. We don’t buy it. When did Moscow ever enter a country without ‘bringing peace?’
“Now it is back to basics,” he adds. “For us, it is all about staying out of the Russian sphere. We forgot about Russia for a decade. Now as Frankenstein is being reassembled under a former KGB chief, we remember it again.”
But few Poles believe Moscow is ready to use military force as far east as Poland, lacking the discipline required by the grand ideas of Marxism and shown in Soviet days. “The Russians want to keep their money, their property in Monaco and Palm Beach, and have a good life,” says one official. Moscow will, however, seek to exploit weakness and divisions in the West, say Polish diplomats, officials, and citizens, in a new type of energy and economic war of which Georgia is an example.
Five presidents from East Europe traveled to Georgia last week to show solidarity and to challenge Russia. East European states are reexamining their policy of allowing dual passports that can be used by Russia as a reason for entering their country, as was done in South Ossetia. Ukraine wants to limit the Russian Navy’s use of its ports. EU members from the East vow to block new Russian efforts for a liberal trade deal. Polish President Lech Kaczynski criticized Germany and France for mollifying Russia in order to protect commercial interests. Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves argues vociferously that Georgia should still be admitted to NATO.
E. Europeans saw Georgia coming
The question of NATO membership remains sensitive in East Europe. Many Poles say they understand the aspirations of Georgians to join, and feel sympathy that those aspirations have been dashed. The question for small states in Russia’s backyard is not a neutral one – for a small country being eyed by a powerful Russia seeking to expand its influence.
“The Eastern Europeans totally saw this [Russian resurgence] coming,” says former US ambassador to Romania, James Rosapepe. “In Romania the attitude was, we have to get into NATO before Russian power returns.”
German officials and many European NATO officials argue that it is simply unrealistic to provoke Russia by allowing its immediate neighbors into the alliance. They say Russia’s actions in Georgia vindicates this point. Berlin takes a very careful and consistent position on the importance of understanding Moscow, one Western diplomat points out.
Yet Polish officials are quick to point out that Germany was the most powerful and insistent voice throughout the 1990s for getting Poland into NATO – as a way to create a buffer zone between Germany and Russia. Now that Poland is in NATO, Germany has changed its tune, they say, showing indifference to Poland’s own interests in a similar buffer zone. They argue it is in Germany’s commercial interest to advocate balanced restraint and sensitivity to Moscow.
Poland’s view: ‘While America slept’
In the immediate years after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided to release Eastern Europe from the Soviet bloc, US efforts to expand NATO were robust. Yet as Russian power appeared to be waning, and as the US became involved in a war on terror and in Iraq, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus received less and less attention and material support from the US and Western Europe – even as it became clearer in the East that Russia under Putin was gaining strength with every rise in the cost of a barrel of oil.
So popular in Poland was the US after the cold war that Poles joked that their country was the 51st state. Yet the enthusiasm has waned somewhat during the Iraq war; Poles sent troops but has removed them. Here there’s a widespread view that Iraq was a mistake for the Americans.
“Poles look at the events transpiring in Georgia from the perspective of ‘while America slept,'” says James Hooper, a former senior US diplomat based in Warsaw. “They understand that Russia’s mainspring expansionist impulse can be deflected only by a steady US policy in managing European security affairs, and thus pin everything on American power, purpose and resolve.”