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Russia Sanctions Fail to Soothe Poland’s Frayed Nerves

Russia Sanctions Fail to Soothe Poland’s Frayed Nerves

This article has been corrected. 

By presenting a united front and slapping Russia with harsh sanctions, it was thought that the United States and Europe might in one fell swoop deter Vladimir Putin from seizing Crimea while also reassuring nervous allies on the Russian border. On Tuesday, that line of thinking crumbled underneath the Russian president’s decisive move to seize legal control of the Black Sea peninsula.

In the early stages of the crisis in Ukraine, Poland served as a highly-engaged mediator. Now, it’s little more than a highly anxious, somewhat powerless observer of a feckless sanctions regime by the West. "What happened doesn’t accomplish anything, it doesn’t change the situation and is not a punishment towards those who have really transgressed," said Roman Kuzniar, a foreign affairs adviser to Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.* "The principals will remain untouchable."

Indeed, the Russian oligarchy appears to agree. "I see the decision by the administration in Washington as an acknowledgment of my service to Russia," said Vladislav Surkov, the architect of Putin’s system of "sovereign democracy" and one of the individuals targeted by U.S. sanctions. "It’s a big honor for me. I don’t have accounts abroad. The only things that interest me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing."

Surkov, in fact, is an illustrative example of the difference in approach between the United States and the EU in sanctioning Russian officials. The EU imposed asset freezes and travel bans on a motley crew of 21 middling officials who were deemed to have assisted in Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The U.S. list was shorter — 11 names, in total — but hit a somewhat higher echelon of apparatchiks, targeting some Kremlin aides, such as Surkov. But the truly big fish — Putin and the heads of the country’s state-led gas and oil companies — remain conspicuously absent from both lists.  

Victor Ashe, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland during the George W. Bush administration, called the current sanctions "very limited" and said that additional sanctions were needed "to have a real impact."

It should come as no surprise that Polish commentators have been struck by a slight fatalism. "Putin doesn’t care about sanctions. He knows that in the short term they won’t undermine Russia’s authority, on the contrary, they will strengthen it," Pawel Wronski writes in Gazeta Wyborcza, one of Poland’s biggest daily newspapers.

EU leaders will meet to discuss further sanctions during a summit meeting Thursday and Friday, and while those measures may include tougher economic sanctions, there is little indication of broad support in Europe toward imposing harsh economic penalties on Russia. "I suggest caution with the enthusiasm towards imposing the sanctions, because we will pay for it as well, and we will pay more than others," Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said during a press conference. European nations have generally much stroner economic ties with Russia than the United States and are deeply reliant on Russian natural gas supplies. Poland, for example, imports some two-thirds of its natural gas from Russia.

With the first round of sanctions on Russian officials having paid few dividends, Vice President Joseph Biden rushed to Poland with promises of support. "You have an ally whose budget is larger than the next 10 nations in the world combined, so don’t worry about where we are," Biden said. His proof of U.S. support against possible Russian aggression: promises of 12 F-16 fighter jets and 10 additional U.S. F-15s to patrol the skies over the Baltic States as part of a NATO operation.

"Only Euro-Atlantic solidarity will allow us to prepare sufficient and strong reactions to Russia’s aggression," said Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

So far, Poland has been willing to take a tough line on Russia, much more so than other European nations. "We need to sit at a [negotiating] table and talk about resolving this conflict, but our gun has to be cocked when it comes to sanctions. They have to be imposed," MP Grzegorz Schetyna said Monday.

As Poland marks its 10th year of EU membership and 15 years in NATO, the country is having flashbacks of Russian and Soviet dominance. Poland threw off the Moscow’s yoke just 24 years ago, and many still remember the invasion of the Red Army during World War II. On Tuesday, Gen. Stanislaw Koziej, the head of Poland’s National Security Bureau, warned of a "new Cold War."

Even Poland’s typically swashbuckling foreign minister has struck an anxious tone. "Everyone is aware that something sinister has happened, that in Europe, contrary to what we have learned from World War I and II, from the Cold War and so many civil wars in the last quarter-century, borders are changed by the use of power, based on the excuse of aiding your compatriots," he said Monday.

*Correction, March 20, 2014: Roman Kuzniar is a foreign affairs adviser to Poland’s president. This article originally stated he is an adviser to the Polish government. (Return to reading.)