Russia-Eastern Europe: Paradox of Relations

The paradox of relations between Russia and the countries of Eastern Europe is that despite the recent presence of developed political, economic, and cultural ties, their real value is small and continues to decline on the whole.

Energy flows are bypassing the region, cargo transportation through the Baltic ports is being stopped, and humanitarian projects are closing. More than a decade ago, the countries of the region were gradually integrated into NATO and the EU. Therefore, from their own perspective, they turned from limitrophe states into a European frontier, but little has changed in the awareness of their position and regional uniqueness. However, the concept of “Eastern Europe” is, these days, a completely superfluous construction and refers to little more than the countries’ geographical location, their position in the EU (they are full members but are often considered marginal) and their relative proximity to Russia. The direct distance from Moscow to Budapest is 1,569 km, and from Budapest to Paris 1,244 km; at a distance of 1,449 km, even London is closer to Romania’s capital than Moscow. Initiatives such as the Visegrad Group, the Three Seas and the like should bring the countries of the region together, but in practice fail to work well.

The former Eastern Bloc countries of the EU rarely appear in the Russian information agenda. The exception is Poland, the largest country in question, which has the most profound historical ties with Russia and bears more similarities to it than the others. The statements of Polish politicians, for an unclear reason, are carefully listened to in Moscow, and until recently, Polish experts appeared on Russian TV shows, where they maintained a laid-back appearance, and occasionally bickered with their interlocutors.

At the end of last year, the author of these lines commented on the statement by President Andrzej Duda that Russia is not an enemy of Poland, which was distributed by several of the country’s media outlets. This in itself is not bad, and obviously wasn’t enough to spark the hype that these words generated. Normally, it would even have been strange, in terms of basic diplomacy, if the head of state had said the opposite. Next, we observed a series of emotional speeches and reactions that followed Russian President Putin’s denunciation of Jozef Lipski, who served as Poland’s ambassador to Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Also recently, Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz stated the importance of improving relations with Russia, expressing hope that the countries would be able to find a common language, and also recognised the obvious fact that the Soviet Union had played a leading role in the victory over fascism. In Moscow the Polish minister was immediately acknowledged and Russian pundits began to muse about the Polish leadership having chosen to pursue pragmatism, balanced decisions, normalisation, and other nice things.

However, the speech Czaputowicz delivered in Vilnius following the meeting of the foreign ministers of the countries of the Bucharest Nine was absolutely different. “Russia remains the most important challenge and threat. We must fight the threat from Russia,” he said. “It poses a threat to its neighbours, including in terms of non-compliance with disarmament provisions.”
According to the Polish foreign minister, NATO will soon “begin a process of reflection on the future.” “Poland believes that this process should confirm the main task of the Alliance, which is to curb the military threat from the East.” The meeting, according to Czaputowicz, was successful. “We made sure that the assessment of threats among these countries was similar.”
Among other things the countries of the Bucharest Nine discussed in Vilnius was the issue of invitations to Moscow to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany. Since President Duda is not likely to be invited, it is easy to assume that on the sidelines, it was a question of the need for his fellow Eastern European leaders to show solidarity with the Polish president.

The mention of the “positive” role of Russia was, generally speaking, a minor passage, which was given excessive significance in Russia. “We would like to carry out a general analysis of documents, to come to a common understanding of historical facts and our relationships,” Czaputowicz said. This does not mean the search for a “common” understanding at all; the Polish authorities are ready for dialogue, and do not exclude the possibility of Warsaw reconsidering its position on certain issues.

Meanwhile, the Polish government’s desire to impose such a dialogue is obvious; it has sometimes been coupled with exceptionally harsh assertions that are doubtful from the point of view of historical reliability. From Poland’s standpoint, in such a discussion Warsaw should be the winner. In the framework of the discussion, the topics and rules of which were set in Warsaw, it is very difficult to defend the USSR’s decision to sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. For example, the USSR sought to strategically avoid war with Germany; the inevitable transformation of the rest of the region's countries into German satellites on the model of Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania was an undeniable factor. Soviet diplomacy was obliged to acknowledge this factor, but in a clash between logic and the emotional “narrative of the victim” there can be neither victory nor consensus. Of course, there are rational motives on the Polish side, why it raises the same questions year after year, but they lie outside the scope of the proposed discussion. According to Polish politicians, this discourse is one which unifies Poland, Romania and the Baltic countries.

Of course, given the fact that Eastern Europe is a group of countries with very different interests and approaches, it should be noted that relations between Russia and each of these countries has developed individually: in a constructive and positive manner with Hungary (which, of course, also remembers the suppression of the Hungarian uprising in the 19th century and the events of 1956), in a pragmatic benevolent way with Slovakia, it is ambiguous, but rather positive way with the Czech Republic, and in an atmosphere of artificial tension with Lithuania etc. Relations with the countries of Eastern Europe are almost exclusively developed through economic contacts and the dialogue is practically devoid of a political component. For example, the last meeting between the Czech and Russian foreign ministers took place back in 2005. At the same time, even amid conditions of reduced cooperation, which is largely due to the Eastern European countries lacking genuine political independence, there may be some positive dynamics. From 2016 to 2019 mutual trade turnover between Russia and all countries of the region grew. Direct deliveries of Russian hydrocarbon to a number of these countries only last year.

France, Germany, Italy and other leading EU countries have not lost much from mutual trade and financial restrictions and continue to develop relations with Russia. However, for small European countries, many opportunities are not available, not because of the impossibility of consent, but because of the lack of opportunities for export through third countries, the lack of influence in international institutions, etc.

Politics and economics interact in a peculiar way – political decisions are unlikely to positively affect economic cooperation on a serious, long-term basis, but they can easily contribute to its reduction. This happened in relations with Poland, which decided to completely abandon the import of Russian gas after 2022. And vice versa – at the bilateral level, political means can improve relations only to a certain extent, and the limit of opportunities is quite small, especially for countries whose relations are linked with many obligations, and the need for coordination extends to most issues.

In any case, the verbal statements are clearly not enough, although they may be necessary in the future to start a dialogue. Moreover, the dialogue is not about the past, but about the future, and not bilateral, but much broader. Eastern Europe, if we continue to use this term, should change the political logic, de-securitise the agenda and set new tasks.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.