Litvinov’s Glasses and Polish soft power – on the crisis in the East (at the start of 2015)

Jarosław Kuisz · 28 May 2015

Litvinov’s Glasses

On the 6th of October 1944, a secret meeting between Maxim Litvinov (1876-1951), the Soviet Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, and a certain American journalist took place. One to one, they spoke about the complexities of international politics at the end of World War II, the future of Poland among them. The Soviet diplomat claimed that the Polish government in exile, based in London, aspired to return to the ideals of imperialism taken straight from the 16th and 17th centuries. Their meeting coincided with the total collapse of the Warsaw uprising, which ended with Soviet soldiers staring across the Vistula as German forces turned the Polish capital into a sea of rubble. Under the circumstances, Litvinov’s claims sounded not just cynical, but totally absurd.

And yet the underrated international politics expert Juliusz Mieroszewski (1906–1976), writing for the seminal Polish journal Paryska Kultura, warned us not to take the above exchange of opinions too seriously. At first, it seems nothing more than geopolitical nonsense. After the failure of the Warsaw uprising, Poles could dream about a great many things, but certainly not about rebuilding their great Jagiellonian empire to the East. Mieroszewski did however stress that “Litvinov saw Poland the way all Russians see it – from a historically conditioned perspective.” [1] We mustn’t therefore interpret Litvinov’s statement as either cynicism or ridicule, but to try to understand that it contained a deep belief in a certain wisdom gained through history.

1612 versus 2015

 While Ukraine has been the scene of armed conflicts for many months now, the nations of Eastern Europe, and certainly Russia and Poland, are keen to see each other through “Litvinov’s glasses”.

Poland, a mid-sized nation – possessing no nuclear weapons and a small army – has for a long time been high on the list of Russia’s symbolic enemies. Russia’s historically conditioned internal politics are perfectly exemplified by their The Day of National Unity (День Народного Единства), which celebrates the expulsion of Poles from the Kremlin in 1612. The recent declaration of this national day of celebration by – let us not forget – Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin himself stunned not only many Russians, who previously had little inkling of such distant historical events, but also surprised a number of politicians in Poland. He has not only resurrected a date distant in time, but also one far from the “spirit of our times”. To celebrate Poles being chased away from the Kremlin, hundreds of years ago, is to go directly against Western trends of promoting inter-national unity.

Meanwhile, in Warsaw, the building of the Polish captial’s second subway line was an excellent excuse to get rid of a Soviet era statue, dedicated to Polish-Russian Union of Arms. This monument, once known by the ridiculing nickname “four sleepy heads”, built to commemorate the dramatic beginnings of Communist Poland, is unlikely to ever return to its previous pride of place. The recent squabbles over the 2010 air disaster involving the Russian-made Tu-154 presidential plane, which killed the then president Lech Kaczynski, have also of late been affected by historical conditioning.

Of greater importance to Poland’s future, however, with regards to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, is that Polish international politics is completely constructed from the “perspective of historical conditioning”. That which is claimed to be an objective review of the situation in the East has in fact nothing to do with a calm and clear evaluation of international dynamics. It represents, in fact, emotions in their purest possible state. It is true to say that these emerge out of a tangible trauma which has affected previous generations of Poles. Yet, they certainly do not help us promote more effective international relations, such as a more successful intervention in Ukraine. “So many years have gone by, and yet Russian propaganda has so easily returned to its 1950s and 60s roots. This is very surprising to me” stated Grzegorz Schetyna, the then boss of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MSZ). Instead of being presented with in-depth analyses of the current international landscape, we are offered snapshot summaries of “the essential truth”. And so Schetyna proclaims something many Poles would automatically agree with: “This is another example of how certain behaviours are, unfortunately, a permanent part of the political game.”

A dark eternity

When presented in this way, historical events appear to be quite clear. A long time ago, white tsarist rule was replaced by red tsarist rule [2], and now – after a short messy episode with Boris Yeltsin, a momentary lapse from this epoch of “great sorrow” – we have arrived at a time of a new autocracy. One doesn’t need to know the key figures in the Kremlin, or their opinions about things, to know what is going on. There is no need to waste time studying the complex power structures in a globalised world or to go recalling the noble list of Russian dissidents. With such an attitude towards its neighbours, Russia’s history remains “static”. We can only deal in vast numbers, and every moment of international tension in the West ought to be described in categories of “clash of civilisations” from a book by Samuel Huntington. Individual faces begin to fade from the picture – there is no room here for subtle shades or nuances.


Unfortunately, this sort of summary of “the essential truth” doesn’t allow us to really comprehend where Poland stands within the current world order and what power it really wields. As long as current disputes over who liberated Auschwitz – was it the Russians or the Ukrainians? – are perceived in terms of a “real victory” over the Kremlin, we can be sure that our national sense of security will not improve.

“The current situation undoubtedly changes the way Western Europe sees Russia – but I also have no doubt that the temptation to return to the status quo is huge. This is how it has been for centuries, after all. The West’s attitudes towards Russia […] developed as far back as the 18th and 19th centuries”, is how the boss of MSZ describes the crisis in Ukraine [3]. Should we be at all surprised by Putin’s decision to wrap his Day of National Unity around the events of 1612? What are the consequences of such intense desire to find links between our past and our present?

 The state as actor

“Foreign policy begins at home”, according to diplomatic expert Richard N. Haass. It is stereotypical presentations of the past which make it harder for us to effectively analyse our position in relation to the fighting in Ukraine or our ability to effectively function in the 21st century. It is hard to say how much of our attitude is shaped by a feeling of being “satiated”, as a result of Poland’s evident economic successes over the past 25 years [4].

Nevertheless, it is “popular” perceptions of the situation in the East which are paralysing public opinion and national diplomacy in Poland. We do not, for example, ask whether our desire to impose the harshest possible sanctions against Russia will not, in the long term, simply strengthen Putin’s regime. The Kremlin has, for a long time, been promoting a politics of “deglobalisation” and the loosening of ties between their cosmopolitan elites with the West. Hence, from a certain point of view – the weakening of influence wielded by Russian sympathisers with the Western world – sanctions could end up being useful to Putin’s internal politics [5]. In our debate, there is no room for a Polish perspective on contemporary, independent actors on the international stage (for example, financial markets or investigative bloggers, who reveal the lies behind Kremlin’s propaganda), who do have a very real, “buffering” influence on that which happens in the spheres of communication, in spheres of economics and society [6].

Meanwhile, the traditionally perceived powers of the Polish state are severely limited. Of course, Poland is modernising its armed forces. As much as we are able to afford them, we are purchasing American F-16 jets and German Leopard tanks. The Ministry of Defence (MON) is looking for better attack helicopters and submarines with guided missile systems, however there is no reason to overestimate one’s own capabilities. In the case of a real military conflict, these new purchases will certainly not be enough. Poland’s membership of NATO and international organisations is much more important.

And yet, at a time when America refuses to set up permanent military bases in Poland, in spite of Russia’s military expansion in Ukraine, it seems, for the first time ever since the transformation of 1989, politicians are once again asking questions about the validity of our alliances. All the more so since the anti-missile shield, which has been talked about for years, remains unbuilt – with Poland not being the only country to blame for the sorry state of affairs. Theoretically, the construction of a new military base near Słupsk should begin in 2016. However, it is unclear whether work will go ahead, seeing as Polish investments, even those key to national security, go on remaining firmly in the sphere of virtual ideas, or else drag on unfinished for years on end [7].

In addition, hopes for Poland’s increased independence based on raw resources, specifically shale gas, vanished after international companies pulled out of proposed investments (Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Total and Marathon Oil). Yet, once again, this is no time or place for Poles to nurse perceived wounds or bruised egos. In a globalised world, cheap oil has an influence on the low prices charged for gas, hence the financial viability of certain investments. Besides, it seems the size of Poland’s shale gas reserves turned out to be far smaller than certain patriots predicted.


Does this mean that our situation in relation to the crisis in Ukraine is hopeless? Not at all.

It is worth constantly keeping in mind that the keys to solving this crisis are held by the West, not Poland. Russia will keep pushing westwards as much as the EU states and the US will allow. Moscow has already grabbed Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk. There is no reason, in theory, as months go by and Kiev grows weaker, why the limits of their expansion should not move beyond Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk. Zbigniew Brzeziński recently warned that Russia could invade and conquer Baltic states in a single day. Today, we have two key points of reference for our diplomacy – finding ourselves between disaster and a sizeable victory.


(1) Ill-fated Mažeikiai. In 2009, the president Lech Kaczyński rightly predicted: “Russia will now have many successes in her international politics: ‘regaining’ Ukraine, ‘suppressing’ Georgia. The only chance we have is that these suddenly increasing successes could […] awaken the opposition and interrupt her imperial plans”. One of the elements of our new eastern politics, apart from building a bloc of ally-states, was meant to be economic expansion. Theoretically – nothing left to add or take away. In practical terms – the proponents of such politics have experienced some nasty shocks several times this year. At the start of 2014, Jacek Krawiec announced that the Orlen refinery, which belongs to PKN, is today operating at the limits of profitability. ORLEN Lietuva is generating massive losses (over $94 million in 2013), with many reasons being given for their failings, while the Lithuanian press has published articles speculating about a possible bankruptcy. The moral outrage experienced by our diplomats can further be amplified by certain practical aspects. If, in order to cover the cost of losses in Lithuania – in the name of some fantasy about energy security – PKN Orlen is to pump serious amounts of cash from Poland, then the idea of expansion should quickly be terminated. The situation in Mažeikiai, since 2006, along with the context of political dreams based around transactions, should be a painful lesson for all concerned.

(2) The Kiev Summit. Poland suffers from the unheeded “Cassandra Complex”, according to the poet Czesław Miłosz. This is to say that very few in the West are interested in what Poles might have to say about Russia. In the winter of 2014, the then head of EU diplomatic core Catherin Ashton asked Radosław Sikorski to organise a diplomatic trip to the Ukrainian capital. This summit turned out to be the most important moment of Polish diplomacy in the West – when the Polish minister, along with his French and German counterparts, jointly represented the EU and tried to find a peaceful end to the crisis, alongside Viktor Yanukovych. Radosław Sikorski, Frank Walter Steinmeier and Laurent Fabius, working side by side was the pinnacle of Polish diplomatic potential. It was important to get to know one’s allies: to use the vanity of the French president, who, due to waning popularity at home, had to try his hand at international politics. He was helped in this by pressure being put upon Paris by Berlin and Warsaw, until the French foreign office agreed to change plans and cancel a business trip to China. Of course, being removed from any further discussions on the future of the Ukrainian crisis is a clear failure on the part of the Polish foreign office. What must be noted, however, is that we have learnt how important and useful it can be to revisit, in reference to Ukrainian politics, the idea of the Weimar Triangle [8], so frequently derided in the days since 1991.

Polish soft power?

Politicians and journalists have spent days conducting ridiculous debates about the sending of armed forces to support Ukrainian independence, while no one has yet come up with any meaningful solutions. For example: how to support the presentation of the Kiev position – not only for politicians, but before all public opinion in the West? Making use of the subtle ways of “soft power”, while avoiding bombastic statements about its opposite (which Poland lacks anyway), we could triumph over the Kremlin in terms of effective information war.

Though it is hard to believe, Russians seem to know the West better than us in terms of propaganda. The Kremlin is conducting a full-on assault on mass media, if not to achieve a perfect, then at least an acceptable public image. The ambassadors of foreign affairs for Moscow are businesspeople, artists and scientists. There is nothing surprising, therefore, in that regardless of how the death toll rises on the eastern front, various authoritative voices continue to support the Kremlin in the West [9]. The breaching of new agreements following another Minsk summit meeting change nothing. In many Western states Ukraine is simply losing the information and public image war.

This is the only perspective worth adapting when talking about “eternal” diplomatic regulations. “If we want our political wisdoms to have any sort of impact on the global stage, we have to present them in a more universal format”, according to Adolf Bocheński (1909–1944), a diplomat from the Parisian École des Sciences Politiques, supporter of the idea of an independent Ukraine since before 1939. “The interests of the Polish nation is for our own sake incredibly important and valuable, though this is not true for other nations to whom we often turn for help. For them, the first question is always going to be whether the postulates of the Polish nation are in line with their interests, not what is best for us.” [10]

Hence, it is now time to adapt an appropriate tactic in order to ensure national security. And since 2014 has presented us with the template of the Kiev summit, then Polish diplomatic core should be focused on that in the coming years. Diplomacy in terms of conducting effective foreign policy in East cannot keep forgetting how important public image in the West continues to be.

* * * 

Satiated Poles looking towards Ukraine?

It will soon be two years since 21st of November 2013, the point at which demonstrations started challenging the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to not sign the EU treaty. Euromaidan is behind us, along with the brief explosion of political enthusiasm which followed. Today, Ukraine has become the poorest nation in Europe, its eastern borders the scene of continual fighting. That which is happening to the east of Poland has definitely ended the Central European dream about “the end of history”. The reaction to this, however, should not only be discussions about an unprecedented strengthening of Poland’s armed forces, but also a period of intense self-reflection regarding Polish solidarity. Is our alliance with Kiev motivated by anything other than shared fear of the power of the Kremlin? Can we then, regardless of political declarations, talk about light and dark aspects of our co-operation?

It is with the intention of attempting to answer the above questions that we have prepared the following set of texts. The most important article produced by the authors of Liberal Culture – Łukasz Jasina, Kacper Szulecki and Karolina Wigura – entitled “Satiated Poles looking towards Ukraine” addressed the question of attitudes to our Eastern neighbours, from the perspective of Poland’s successful recent past. The article met with a very lively response and was heavily commented upon. Some of these responses are published in this volume. Conflict, it seems, doesn’t only encourage young people to ask who we, Poles and Ukrainians, are as nations. For example, former members of Poland’s democratic opposition have been forced to review their biographies from before 1989, and to reconsider the value of their works, previously heavily criticised in the fallout of the “squandered legacy of the Solidarity movement”. We also turn to various experts for opinions, asking about the weight of history in relation to Poland and Ukraine in the 21st century, about the importance of nationalism in this conflict, and finally about the chaos which seems to have been introduced by the methodologies of modern information warfare. We hope that this collection of texts will help bring some order to the debate around the events of the past two years.



Translated by Marek Kazmierczak




[1] J. Mieroszewski, „Rosyjski «kompleks polski» i obszar ULB”, Kultura Magazine no. 9, published in 1974.

[2] J. Kucharzewski, „Od białego caratu do czerwonego”, Warszawa 1923–1935.

[3] „Prawda bywa przykra”, discussion between A. Koziński and the minister G. Schetyna, published in Polska The Times, 6-8th of February 2015.

[4] K. Wigura, K. Szulecki, Ł. Jasina, „Syci Polacy patrzą na Ukrainę?”, Liberal Culture no. 268 (9/2014), 25th of February 2014.

[5] S. Holmes, I. Krastev, „Russia’s Aggressive Isolationism”, Foreign Affairs Magazine, Vol. X, no. 3, January-February 2015.

[6] „Musimy się cofnąć do przodu”, discussion between J. Zielonka and J. Kuisz, published in Liberal Culture, no. 295 (36/2014), 2nd of August 2014.

[7] “Even with the building of a neuralgic terminal for the collecting of liquid gas in Świnoujście the date of completion keeps being postponed”, A. Kublik, „Ślimaczy się budowa gazoportu w Świnoujściu”, published in Gazeta Wyborcza, 19th of November 2014.

[8] Fragments from: J. Kuisz, „Dwie lekcje na Wschodzie”, Nowa Europa Wschodnia magazine, no. 6 November-December 2014.

[9] Report from heavy fighting in Ukraine: Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, „L’Ukraine est la frontière européenne de la Russie”, „Le Point”, no. 2214, 12th of February 2015 r.

[10] A. Bocheński, „Między Niemcami a Rosją”, OMP, Kraków 2009, page 249.

[11] J. Kuisz, K. Wigura, „Helle und dunkle Solidarität – Polens Blick auf die Ukraine”, [w:] „Gefährdete Nachbarschaften – Ukraine, Russland, Europäische Union”, [red.] K. Raabe. Wallstein-Verlag, Göttingen 2015 („Valerio. Das Magazin der Deutschen Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung”, Bd. 17/2015).