So the biggest problem Kaczynski was for Russia was that they were worried he was going to go and get himself killed? For sure it was that, yes. And it was not just a problem for Russia, it was also a problem for NATO.
We discussed relations between Poland and Russia between 2007 and 2010, when Poland’s executive branch was divided between Law and Justice President Lech Kaczynski and Civic Platform Prime Minister Donald Tusk, the domestic and foreign policy context of the Smolensk catastrophe, and the Kremlin’s view of Poland’s present Law and Justice government, including the possibility of future co-operation.
‘The Ghosts of Smolensk’, an article I wrote for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab about President Kaczynski’s contested legacy , can be found here.
Christian Davies (CD): The conventional wisdom is that after Civic Platform came into power in 2007, and established much better relations with Berlin than Law and Justice had before, that this forced Moscow to re-evaluate its relationship with Warsaw, because both Berlin and Brussels made it clear that Moscow could not go over Warsaw’s head in the same way it might have done when Berlin and Warsaw’s relations were poor – that the gestures at Westerplatte in 2009 [the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War] and at Katyn in 2010 [the 70th anniversary of the massacres of thousands of Polish officers by the Soviet NKVD] were a recognition of Poland’s growing authority in the EU and with Germany, and that these ceremonies were significant things for Putin to have done, to have gone and given some acknowledgement of the Soviet role in the beginning of the war which went further than before. Is that something with which you concur?
Maxim Samorukov (MS): Yes, more or less. Both sides [Poland and Russia] were ready for a dialogue [in 2007], because the Kremlin finally realised that having Poland as an enemy causes too much trouble. After the [Viktor] Yuschenko –[Lech] Kaczynski alliance, with all their projects and strong orientation towards the Bush administration, when there was a transfer of power in Poland they decided to take advantage of it to normalise relations with Poland, the most influential country in central and eastern Europe.
It was easier to have strong relations with Poland in order to avoid any complications than they had during the Yuschenko-Kaczynski rapprochement. On the Polish side, I believe the main contributing factor of this opening to the east was internal politics, the rivalry between President Kaczynski and Premier [Donald] Tusk. [Civic Platform] used this foreign policy to show Poles that they can ‘do’ foreign policy, and [Law and Justice] cannot. Tusk was ready to make many concessions to show Poles that he is speaking with Putin on equal terms and Putin is ready to speak with him on equal terms, and say ‘Look – we are ready to do diplomacy, and Kaczynski can only feel offended, can only insult our neighbours and we can do business with them, we can contribute to the development of Poland, co-operating with our neighbours, even with Putin.’ Putin has a special image in CEE, he is considered to be one of the leading and most influential people in the world, so it is still perceived as a great achievement if the leader of your country is treated as an equal by Putin.
So there was a competition between Kaczynski and Tusk, and Kaczynski was losing, obviously, especially on the occasion of the Katyn ceremony [in 2010] because Kaczynski was not even invited. Putin was Prime Minister, Tusk was Prime Minister, and they decided to organise in a way that two Prime Ministers meet at the Katyn memorial and recognise a crime of the Stalinist regime. They paid their respects to the victims of this repression, and Kaczynski was left behind – just left outside of this deal, isolated, so he decided to go there himself without invitation.
CD: And the fact that all of these incredibly important officials were on his plane was in some sense an assertion of his status as the President, to make his visit as official as possible.
MS: Yes. He had been there before in the past on the Katyn anniversary, but Putin and Tusk took from him the opportunity to capitalise on it.
What happened during this airplane crash is still not that clear, but probably there was some mistake by the pilots, and the accusations and theories of a terrorist act, some plot organised by Tusk and Putin to kill Kaczynski – it is impossible to convince anybody that this has anything to do with reality.
CD: I think something like only 25% of Poles believe it, so it’s actually not even a majority view – we’ll go on to Smolensk but before we do, just to get the foreign policy background, from the Russian perspective what were the concrete issues that Russia wanted to improve relations on? Was it gas, missile defence, strategic issues?
MS: Many issues, and a general understanding that ‘maybe if we speak with Poland on equal terms and make some concessions on historical issues like Katyn and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, they’ll be glad and be more accommodating on issues important for us. Gas, missiles, NATO-expansion, they’ll be less hostile to Russian interests.’
CD: So that is your understanding of Putin’s rationale in going to Westerplatte and Katyn –
MS: – he is quite a pragmatic person, he was ready to condemn the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact or Stalin’s brutality, for the sake of a gas contract or some advantages in missile negotiations. ‘We can sacrifice Stalin’s good image for the sake of the current interests of Russia’.
CD: And was it regarded as a significant moment in Russia, when he went to Westerplatte?
MS: Yes, in Russia it was on state TV, given vast coverage, and the Katyn anniversary as well – in fact for many Russians it was revealed for the first time that something had happened at Katyn, and that some Soviet NKVD officers had murdered several thousand Poles there. It was told so clearly for the first time, without doubts, without hesitations, without dodging.
CD: Obviously there’s a significance in the dates. As you know, in Russia and the former Soviet Union the date is always ‘1941 to 1945’, with an implication that 1939 and 1940 were years where things were happening elsewhere, and then the war came to the Soviet Union. At other times, Putin has said ‘Molotov-Ribbentrop was just a defence pact, what’s wrong with that?’ The idea is that the war starts in 1941, not 1939 or 1940.
MS: Putin’s position on this point is always adaptable to the situation. The rapprochement with Poland was covered as a big foreign policy achievement, that we have finally re-established good relations with one of our important neighbours, with whom we have many historical problems, but now we have decided to overcome them and establish beneficial co-operation. As far as I remember, it was one of the main topics in the news, vastly covered, a big victory in Russian foreign policy.
CD: Are you talking about Westerplatte now, or Katyn?
MS: The whole period, it was like a seven-month love affair with Poland, when Poland became one of the main strategic partners of Russia.
The Russian side perceived that ‘We have made concessions to the Poles, recognising Katyn, recognising the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, so for our concessions, we expect something in exchange’.
CD: And what did they get?
MS: Not that much. That’s the main point of why this love affair ended so abruptly, that the Kremlin realised that Poles recognise the historical concessions, but they are not ready to give too much in an economic or security sense for these concessions.
CD: This brings us to the question of how different it might have been if the Smolensk catastrophe had not happened: in a sense you have a three-day rapprochement, and it is very difficult to say how that relationship might have developed.
MS: I believe it would have been the same as now, but the competition between Tusk and Kaczynski would have continued for some time, until the next presidential election, and this competition probably would have forced Russia to make some other symbolic gestures to continue Poland’s rapprochement with Russia, in Tusk’s side or on Kaczynski’s side.
Remember, during the [Polish] Presidential elections in 2010, even Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who was a presidential candidate, he made a special appeal to Russians – a very friendly one – because he also felt that friendship with Russia had become very fashionable in Poland, and people support this concept that we have to make friends with Russia, so even Jaroslaw Kaczynski was ready to make some gestures of friendship towards Russia.
But ultimately, I don’t believe that the result could have been different, because inevitably both sides would have understood that they have not correctly perceived the intentions of the other – they both expected too much from each other, and neither were ready to give so much.
CD: So do you think that actually although in Poland when you have this relationship between Kaczynski as the President and Tusk as the Prime Minister, this caused a lot of difficulties internally because you did not have a coherent position, in a sense vis-à-vis relations with Russia it could have been fruitful? On the one hand you had this hostile force in Kaczynski, and then you had this more conciliatory force in Tusk. Do you think that dynamic may have been in Poland’s interest, because Kaczynski’s hostility may have made the Russians think they should do some business with Tusk so as to offset that?
MS: You mean similar to the Putin-Medvedev tandem, where Medvedev played the good cop. But Medvedev and Putin were co-ordinating their approach, and Kaczynski and Tusk were not, and that’s the problem. I believe it could have been very fruitful for Russian interests to play the contradictions between Tusk and Kaczynski, and to play their readiness to have meetings with Putin and show supporters who was the friend of Putin. This would have been fruitful for Russian interests, but I have serious doubts that this would have been so for Poland – it was not co-ordinated, and one was spoiling the achievements of the other.
CD: So if Tusk and Kaczynski had been co-ordinated that might have been good for Poland, but because they were not, it was potentially better for –
MS: – for Russia, yes.
CD: And what was the Russian view on Lech Kaczynski? Because in Poland there is this idea encouraged by Jaroslaw Kaczynski and others that Lech was leading some kind of great front between Poland, Georgia, and Ukraine and so on – was he taken seriously in Russia? Was he a nuisance, was he exerting real pressure with his rhetoric or actions?
MS: He was causing serious trouble, especially with his unpredictability. When for example he as the president of a NATO country went to the border of South Ossetia with [then Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvilli, and there was some firing. If he was killed at the border by Russian peacekeepers – the president of a NATO country – what would have happened? Or for example during the five days’ war in Georgia, and he was flying a plane… [reference to Kaczynski’s attempt to land in Georgia on way to Azerbaijan in 2008].
He was also a member of this anti-Russian bloc – Yuschenko, Saakashvilli, Kaczynski, some Baltic leaders – it was also perceived in Russia as some kind of threat. But it fell apart even before the Russian-Polish rapprochement, because in the same year  there were elections in Ukraine where Yuschenko was replaced by [Viktor] Yanukovych, Russia won the Five Days’ [Georgian] War– there were several events which made this eastern European, anti-Russian bloc fall apart. There were historical problems between Poland and Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania.
Most importantly, the new Obama administration in the US was not that interested in eastern Europe and they have abandoned this [missile defence] project in Poland and the Czech Republic, it was low priority and they were not ready to support Ukrainian and Georgian membership in NATO. Without American support, this anti-Russian alliance does not look like a serious threat. There were too many internal contradictions, and the countries themselves were not influential enough to cause serious problems for Russia, but Russia learnt its lesson and decided to re-establish relations with Poland as the most influential member of this alliance.
CD: So the biggest problem he was for Russia was that they were worried he was going to go and get himself killed?
MS: For sure it was that, yes. And it was not just a problem for Russia, it was also a problem for NATO.
After the change of administration in the US, Kaczynski was just ignored. The Russian leadership is very personality oriented, he was marked as ‘enemy of Russia’, but not dangerous enough to deal with him.
CD: In terms of the Tusk delegation to Katyn, a lot happens afterwards – not just Smolensk, but the Russian parliamentary elections in 2011 after which Putin becomes a very different leader, and then later there is Ukraine. Even if Kaczynski had not died, he would not have been elected a few months later, and so the long-term consequences are not that great.
MS: That’s right, yes.
CD: What do you think is the Russian view on the present Law and Justice government?
MS: That’s really difficult, because the problem with the current Law and Justice government is that they behave now as if it is 2005 or 2006. They want to have conflict both with Russia, and with Germany – relying on the support of the US probably, but there is no support from the US. The problem is that the current American administration is not ready to act as the Bush administration acted in 2006 and 2007.
Poland has no idea what it wants to achieve with its foreign policy, they have no clear strategy, whilst on the Russian side the level of priorities has reached into space, and Poland is too small to be taken into account. Now Russia is ‘deciding the future of the whole world’ [laughs], establishing a ‘New World Order’, and thinking about Poland is too much.
The main achievement of the rapprochement of 2010 is that Poland’s position started to be co-ordinated with the EU’s position, and I believe that Russia still believes that you have to normalise relations with the EU, and relations with Poland will be normalised by default: ‘The EU is a more unified structure and Poland is more dependent on the EU, so we shouldn’t expect that they will cause us big trouble by deviating from a common EU line’.
CD: I would suspect Russia is pretty happy with the present Polish government, would you agree with that?
MS: Yes, because it is another problem for the EU to have another unpredictable Eurosceptic country which is going to harm the creation of a common EU external policy.
Besides, the advantage of central-eastern Europe for Russian foreign policy is that the attitude towards Russia in post-socialist countries wasn’t changed that much by Crimea, because Crimea was already included in the Russian reputation even before it happened. So the position of eastern Europeans, the Poles included, is ‘we always knew that Russia is ready to occupy part of a neighbouring country, we expected that from them’.
CD: The standard Russian response to, for example, the Poles raising concerns about Russia is “They are Russophobes, they have always been Russophobes”, and actually a lot of western Europeans accept this –
MS: – it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you act as if you expect Russia to occupy Crimea, ‘OK, if they expect us to do it, we’ll do it’. So Russia’s reputation in eastern Europe isn’t really harmed.
Besides, politicians in eastern Europe are more concerned with their internal positions, not the external one, and they are always ready to make u-turns in external policy if it would be useful for their popularity at home. Moreover, many value personal relations very highly, Putin is considered a very influential figure in central-eastern European countries, so I wouldn’t exclude something like this Orban-Putin friendship in the case of other central-eastern European countries, when Russia will take advantage of some CEE leader and try to create another Hungary, another friend of Russia who is ready to condemn sanctions against Russia, to criticise a common EU foreign policy, to organise separate relations with Russia not co-ordinated with Brussels.
CD: Some people in Poland fear that just as in the same way Putin made a gesture to Tusk over Katyn, Putin could somehow give a gesture to [Jaroslaw] Kaczynski over Smolensk.
MS: To Kaczynski, never – because there is a personal hostility to Kaczynski. But if [Polish Prime Minister Beata] Szydlo, or [Polish President Andrzej] Duda appear to be really in power in Poland… Putin is very keen on personal relations, and Kaczynski is already discarded. I can’t imagine any rapprochement between Kaczynski and Putin, but if anybody else from PiS appear to really be in power in Poland, I wouldn’t exclude that Putin and the Kremlin will try to arrange something like Hungarian friendship with the new Polish leadership. But not basing on the Smolensk affair. Putin will never help Kaczynski to promote a deal over Smolensk. Potentially Russian citizens would be implied – no.
The Kremlin does not trust Kaczynski, and they are not going to pursue anything with him. But if anyone pushes Kaczynski aside, they will be ready for that. If there was a PiS convention and Beata Szydlo and Duda arrange that Kaczynski is no longer head of the party and is going to retire, in this case I strongly expect an attempt of rapprochement with Russia. The Kremlin does not deal with people they do not trust, they have a history of very tense relations with him, and they won’t try it.