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For the time being, the Kremlin is likely pleased with Tusk returning to power since it fondly remembers the era of Polish-Russian friendship from his first premiership, which sharply contrasted with the nadir in their relations that followed under PiS.
Popular discussion about the return of Donald Tusk as Polish Prime Minister has thus far mostly focused on his planned rapprochements with Berlin and Brussels alongside his liberal–globalist power play against the country’s conservative-nationalist opposition, but few have asked what this means for Russia. Although Tusk’s policies towards abortion, illegal immigrants, and LGBT are the opposite of President Putin’s, his suspected fealty to Germany could bode well for Russia’s long-term geopolitical interests.
The prior government run by former Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and closely advised by “Law & Justice” (PiS) leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski supported similar socio-cultural policies as Russia but became its mortal enemy as a result of its foreign policy even prior to the events of February 2022. Russia believes that Poland is trying to topple the Belarusian government to which it has mutual defense obligations while Poland accused those two of waging hybrid war against it via weaponized illegal immigration.
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These allegations served to toxify their ties, but everything spiraled completely out of control almost two years ago. Morawiecki provoked the Kremlin’s wrath in March 2022 by praising Russophobia, which he boasted had become mainstream in the world largely due to his government’s efforts. Two months later, he described the “Russian World” as a “cancer” that he swore to “root out”. His government also “de-Russified” the energy sector and took the leading role in facilitating NATO’s military support for Ukraine.
On top of that, Poland dispatched a lot of its own equipment to that country too, and some of its citizens have even reportedly volunteered to fight alongside the Ukrainian Armed Forces and allied militias. The depletion of its stockpile directly led to the decision to undertake an unprecedented military buildup, which Politico described as heralding “Europe’s coming military superpower”. Additionally, Poland committed to spending 4% of its GDP on defense, which is double NATO’s recommendation.
To make matters even more troubling for the Kremlin, PiS expanded the number of US bases in Poland, which combined with the previously described moves to pose a very serious challenge to Russia’s military-strategic interests in Europe. Under the leadership of former Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak, Poland also exposed the former Tusk government’s secret plans to retreat as far west as the Vistula in the event that Russia invaded, which shocked many Poles once they found out about this.
That wasn’t all that PiS revealed about its predecessor’s close ties with Russia, however, since the commission that was created to investigate alleged Russian influence in the country also discovered what they described as suspicious interactions between these two’s domestic security services. Commission member and former head of the Military Intelligence Service Andrzej Kowalski even claimed that one of the agreements obligated Poland to inform the FSB of NATO operations against Russia.
The commission ultimately recommended that Tusk and several other officials including former Interior Minister and newly appointed Minister of Culture & National Heritage Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz not be entrusted “with tasks, positions and public functions related to responsibility for state security.” Its advice went unheeded since Tusk had already been poised to return to the premiership by then and his government accordingly dismissed the commission’s findings as a politically driven witch hunt.
If his second time in office is anything like the first, then precedent suggests that Polish-Russian relations might improve upon the improvement of Polish-German ones first. Kaczynski previously accused Tusk of being a “German agent” due to his partial German roots, closeness with that country during his first time in office, and him serving as President of the European Council in between his premierships. If Polish-German ties soon improve, then Polish-Russian ones might follow just like before.
To explain, Germany is Europe’s indisputable leader and exercises its hegemony across the continent in multifold ways, including through the cultivation of foreign leaders (whether by corruption, appealing to their egos, etc.) like Tusk. He shares that country’s liberal-globalist worldview and is therefore naturally inclined to align Poland’s policies with Germany’s, not to mention the ethnic affinity that he feels towards its leaders, so he might work to improve ties with Russia following Germany’s lead.
Although his recent claim that “As long as Ukraine is at war with Russia, we are relatively safe” implies that he’ll continue to support that country just like PiS did for most of the past two years, Germany’s growing fatigue with this conflict and Russia’s consistent interest in peace talks could change that. The German economy is in trouble and could greatly benefit from the resumption of Russian energy imports if the conflict ends with an armistice and Berlin then orders the EU to lift some sanctions as a reward.
PiS wouldn’t ever support that due to its openly Russophobic foreign policy, but Tusk could be convinced by Germany that this would be for the greater good of their shared liberal-globalist worldview, or perhaps as a quid pro quo for its alleged support of his campaign last year. However it ends up happening, observers can’t discount the possibility that he’d go along with this, even if only out of simple solidarity with his partial co-ethnics whose interests he’s been criticized of placing above fellow Poles’.
No prospective Russian-German rapprochement is possible without reining in Poland, however, since its geostrategic location and growing military potential enable it to perpetually disrupt their ties unless that country’s leadership is also on board with their continental plans. German could therefore exert its influence over Tusk to convince him of the need to abandon PiS’ anti-Russian foreign policy, including its plans to build Europe’s largest land army, which he might be amenable to due to precedent.
Polish-Russian ties under his first premiership were better than at any time since the end of the Old Cold War, and this was arguably attributable in part to him following his de facto mentor former German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s lead in prioritizing economic ties above all else. It might have even been with the intent of building trust that his security services agreed to inform the FSB of NATO operations against Russia and the military promulgated its secret plan to withdraw to the Vistula in the event of an invasion.
These close ties shouldn’t be spun as proof that Tusk and the other officials named by PiS’ commission are Russian agents, but just that his prioritization of German interests over Polish ones and previous economically driven ties with Russia might have inadvertently had security implications for Poland. The mutual trust that they built stabilized Europe, however, so some might argue that these trade-offs were worth it while others like PiS’ supporters will always remain opposed to them out of principle.
If Tusk once again does Germany’s bidding, whether for personal reasons or to advance their shared worldview, then Sienkiewicz’s seizure of state media might lead to the removal of Russophobic content to precondition the public for a rapprochement. Any anti-Russian riots that could explode in response to him reversing PiS’ policies like backtracking on its military buildup could be put down by those German troops who his Deputy Foreign Minister just invited into Poland per the “military Schengen” proposal.
To be clear, the Russian-German rapprochement that would precede any Polish-Russian one under Tusk is still a long way off and might ultimately never materialize, particularly if Germany decides to exploit its newly restored hegemony over Poland to become a global power at Russia’s expense. In that event, Germany might advise Tusk to retain PiS’ military buildup plans in order to use that country as its eastern bulwark against Russia and for needling it in Belarus, Kaliningrad, and/or Ukraine via hybrid war means.
That would be an overall worse scenario for Poland than if PiS was still in office since Tusk’s track record proves that he’ll endanger Polish interests in order to advance German ones, which could lead to a hot war by miscalculation. PiS places Polish interests as the party understands them to be above all else, however, and would thus be unlikely to risk a hot war just to please Germany. A “cold peace” between Russia and PiS-led Poland is therefore better for Poland than a hybrid war waged by Tusk’s Poland.
For the time being, the Kremlin is likely pleased with Tusk returning to power since it fondly remembers the era of Polish-Russian friendship from his first premiership, which sharply contrasted with the nadir in their relations that followed under PiS. With this in mind, it’s expected that Russia will pursue a policy of “regime reinforcement” in the face of the Russophobic opposition’s challenge to his rule in order to relieve pressure upon him in the hopes that he’ll lead a German-backed rapprochement like last time.