In the centre, on the left wing, on the right wing, and everywhere else, a wall of mistrust rises immediately. Try it, in Poland – I have just been doing so, for three days – try to evoke the idea of a search for a modus vivendi between the European Union and the Russian Federation, and all the rifts in this divided country will instantly give way to a common front against the major European powers.
From the outset, everyone says that France and Germany want to negotiate with the Russian ogre behind the Poles’ backs, sell Ukraine for a barrel of oil and, at the same time, betray those few Russians who are still trying to fight for democracy. “But no…”, you protest, but before you can say anything more, history is shutting your mouth: the division of Poland, 1939, the past two centuries, this Western mania of abandoning the Poles to their misfortune, which would plague us, the French in particular, like a hereditary disease.
So, above all, do not let the Poles get the century wrong. Remind them without delay that there is a European Union which they are a part of, that they count heavily in it, and that no other European state could negotiate their fate with anyone without them learning about it in two days. Tell the Poles: “Stop acting as if you didn’t count!”, and you can assure them that everyone wants them on their side because their economy, their demography and the political prestige of the country that brought down Sovietism cannot be ignored and the conversation can now begin, around the real issues.
For the vast majority of Poles, it would be impossible to negotiate with Vladimir Putin, not only because he never keeps his word, and violates international law, but also because he would not be a willing party and we should have to make increasing concessions to him and would soon have to accept the reconstitution of the Russian empire and its areas of influence in order to vainly hope that his hunger will subside.
Do nothing? Standing by idly, opposite a man who would request more and more, and not attempting the slightest discussion?
The contradiction is so obvious that one quickly understands that what the Polish unconscious wants would be the return of an American superpower to Europe, one strong enough and determined enough to show its muscles to hold the Kremlin in respect. Yes… There is some logic in that, but are we in full agreement, dear Polish friends, on the fact that the America of your dreams was already absent when the Russian troops entered Georgia and that we do not exactly see it ready to die for Kiev?
Shh! Silence! We must not say it too loud for fear that it will accelerate the American disengagement. But yes, the Poles are so aware of this that their Foreign Minister is speaking today, in his ministry, about a “European Defence” and deplores the fact that the Germans and the French have not yet involved them in their project about a European tank. Things have changed considerably in Poland, but not to the point of envisaging negotiations with Vladimir Putin because, in that case, you are told, the solicitor would be the European Union, which would thus place itself in a position of weakness.
In Poland, the intelligence services and researchers from specialised institutes describe Russian ruling elites concerned about the situation of their economy, about the weight of China and the industrial backwardness of their country, but political circles and ordinary citizens, even the most well-informed do not share this view. Apart from their russologists, Poles see Russia as a re-emerging power, on the offensive on all continents and to which, as a result, nothing must be conceded in Europe, on their borders.
If that were the case, they would be right, but it is not the case.
Although still strong, Vladimir Putin’s popularity is receding. Social discontent is growing, as Western sanctions and lack of investment hamper living standards. The Middle East can quickly become Russia’s Vietnam because the Iranian regime is weakening and because the situation in the region is changing so rapidly that the Kremlin might soon not know what to do there, with whom and against whom.
Russia can rely on China, but in a dialogue between an elephant and a mouse it is easy to see the balance of power. The Sino-Russian front is not a promising prospect for the Kremlin and regarding Ukraine, Russia has lost the war. Well, Crimea has been annexed and eastern Ukraine occupied, but Vladimir Putin has somehow managed to forge a Ukrainian identity against Russia but he did not destabilise this country, whose growth and institutions are, on the contrary, strengthening.
In Ukraine, Russia must find a way out. It needs the European Union to balance its relationship with China. It is a political demand just as well as it is a demand in the economic and industrial spheres. The Poles end up agreeing on all this, at least implicitly.
Maybe, they say, but… if Russia has so many weaknesses and needs us so much, why not rather leave it alone with its difficulties?
The question is not unfounded because cynicism is not necessarily illegitimate in politics, but we, Europeans, including Poland, need Russia to relinquish its huge capacity to cause damage, to give up its electoral interference, to cease its support for right-wing extremists, to stop creating unrest in Europe and to abandon all its shadowy manipulations. Not only do we need to lead Russia to renounce its preference for harming us, but we also need to ensure the stability of our common continent at a time of global warming, the population explosion in Africa and the migratory challenges that will follow.
Just as at in the time of the Helsinki Accords, we need to stabilise Europe’s borders and lay the foundations for mutually beneficial economic cooperation. As in the 1970s, we need to contain Russia by being able to propose mutual interests to her. We achieved this with the Brezhnev USSR. Why could we not at least try it with Mr Putin’s Russia?