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Russia: Unclenching its fist?

Improved Polish-Russian ties bode well for the US.

By Elizabeth Pond / March 24, 2009


The wary rapprochement between Warsaw and Moscow holds some hope for President Obama's stated goal of restarting American-Russian relations. Let's call this the Polish hypothesis.

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Poland and Russia's own reset button got pressed last fall, as events took a turn virtually unnoticed by outsiders. For the first time since the Berlin wall fell two decades ago, says Polish Undersecretary of State Przemyslaw Grudzinski, Russia is now treating Poland as a sovereign state and not just a lapsed-client state.

The serious "strategic dialogue" the two countries are currently engaged in could serve as something of a trial run for Washington and Moscow.

On the face of it, the improved Polish-Russian climate might seem puzzling coming so soon after the flare-up of East-West tension over Russia's military incursion into Georgia last August.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has hardly forgiven the Poles for agreeing at the time to host American interceptors for the strategic missile-defense project that he loathes. Nor can he be happy with the parallel deal to station tactical air- and missile-defense Patriot missiles and their American crews in Poland, with the clear intent of deterring any Russian intimidation of Poland.

An explanation for the Kremlin shift can be found in the financial crash of last September, suggest both Undersecretary Grudzinski and Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow office. The crash was a brutal reminder to all players that in today's globalized world, everyone's future really is interlinked.

Putin has not talked publicly of reconceptualizing his foreign policy in the wake of economic reversals. But the selling price of Russian oil is down 70 percent from its high last July.

The ruble has lost 35 percent of its value. Capital flight from Russia has reached $40 billion. Under these conditions, Putin is in no position to carry out an assertive policy of reconstituting Moscow's "near abroad" of pliant neighbors.