How Do You Like Them Apples?

Poland’s political forces are aligned against Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine. But its neighbors are more swayed by Moscow’s charms (and money).

Photo by PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images

WARSAW, Poland — The cool wood and glass modernist interior of Restaurant 99, in downtown Warsaw, may not seem like a combat zone, but it is on the front lines of the Polish resistance efforts. The popular, upscale eatery has come up with a special apple-heavy menu that includes everything from veal with apple purée to duck breast with apple gnocchi — ending, of course, with apple pie. (The resistance happens to be delicious.)

Restaurant 99’s menu is a celebration of the Malus domestica, but also part of a wider riposte to Russia’s Aug. 7 announcement of an embargo on imports of Polish fruits and vegetables that includes, most painfully, apples — one of Poland’s leading exports to Russia. When 99 revealed its special menu on Facebook, the announcement was accompanied by a slashed-out image of Russian President Vladimir Putin holding up an apple with a bite taken out of it.

The embargo on Polish produce was the first step in a Russian ban on agricultural products that quickly spread to include goods from the rest of the European Union, the United States, and other countries — Putin’s answer to sanctions levied in response to Moscow’s support for fighters in eastern Ukraine.

The Poles have taken to their apple-a-day-keeps-Putin-away campaign with gusto, posting pictures of themselves on social media eating the fruits, or hoisting glasses of cider, in an effort to support Polish farmers, who now need to find a home for more than half of their $587 million apple crop. But the tongue-in-cheek response also signals Poland’s readiness for a more serious recalibration of relations with its giant neighbor to the east. Poland, for its part, seems to have readily come around to the idea of a frosty relationship with Putin’s Russia for the foreseeable future; the same cannot be said for the rest of the countries that make up Moscow’s former Central European empire.

As Western Europe and the United States struggle to maintain a common front in their response to Putin’s Ukrainian adventures, the countries in Russia’s backyard have also found themselves deeply split over how to respond to Russian actions in eastern Ukraine. Despite their common experience of spending a half-century under Moscow’s heel as part of the Soviet bloc, it has proven impossible for Poland to forge a regional alliance against Russia. Some countries are awake to the danger of Russian tanks and green-uniformed troops appearing on their own borders; others are still keen to cut commercial deals that require being in the country’s good graces.

"The Hungarians are still conducting a policy of rapprochement with Russia. The Czechs don’t care what is happening in Eastern Europe. The Bulgarians first joyfully accept, then doubt, then again accept [Russian proposals for the South Stream, a new natural gas pipeline running through Bulgaria to Southern Europe]," said Roman Kuzniar, national security advisor to Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, in a recent radio interview. "The Baltic countries also do not have a common front. That shows how easily we are divided, even among countries which have a heightened geopolitical awareness."

Kuzniar’s comments came ahead of a late July meeting in Warsaw of most Central European leaders. The summit attendees condemned the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Ukraine. But they were unwilling to go any further. Despite the effort to forge a common front, and what Komorowski called "far-reaching similarities of views," by the end of the meeting the most the Polish president hoped for was that the group would speak "if not with one voice, at least with common arguments" during September’s NATO summit.

Central Europe has been divided into two broad camps. Hawks are clustering around Poland, the region’s largest country, which has taken the lead in pushing for a firm EU response to Russia and is calling for a strengthening of NATO’s commitment to the region. Warsaw’s calls are echoed by the three Baltic countries and Romania. But the core of Central Europe — which includes Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Bulgaria — has been much more lukewarm about taking tough steps against Russia.

For the Poles, fear of Russia is a return to a long historical tradition. Poland warred for centuries against Russia before being conquered and turned into a sullen colony more than two centuries ago. Relations in the 20th century were no better: The Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939 as part of an alliance with Nazi Germany, and the 45 years spent under imposed communist rule still haunt Poland today.

Polish right-wingers have long been anti-Russian, seeing Moscow’s hand in the 2010 air crash that killed Poland’s president and many senior officials. But until recently, the government was more evenhanded and preferred to keep its distance from generally discredited conspiracy theories. Before the Ukraine crisis, the current government, under Prime Minister Donald Tusk, was even attempting a reset of sorts with Russia, after relations between the two countries had been plunged into a deep freeze under Poland’s previous right-wing administration. The Poles and Russians tried to tackle historical irritants — primarily the Soviet Union’s responsibility for the 1940 murder of more than 20,000 Polish officers being held as prisoners of war. Tusk had a warm meeting with Putin in 2010, and economic ties between the two countries have expanded: Total trade doubled from $18 billion in 2009 to $36 billion last year.

But Russia’s annexation of Crimea, followed by its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, has made security more important than business. Since the takeover, Warsaw has been one of the strongest advocates for a tough stance against Moscow.

Radek Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, has pushed for a greater NATO presence, advocating for two heavy brigades, or about 10,000 troops, to be stationed in Poland. Warsaw is also building up its own military capacity: The country is already one of the top defense spenders in the region, devoting 1.95 percent of GDP to military spending. Now, the country is promising to reach the Atlantic alliance’s formal goal of 2 percent. Warsaw is embarking on a $45 billion rearmament program that will see it beef up its tattered anti-aircraft and anti-missile defenses, strengthen its land forces, and potentially acquire AGM-158B JASSM-ER cruise missiles from the United States with a range of more than 600 miles and packing 1,000 pounds of explosives.

This tough line against Russia is popular at home and supported by the country’s two leading parties, both right-of-center heirs to the Solidarity labor union of the 1980s that helped undermine the communist regime. But even the ex-communist leftist political parties, such as the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), are wary of Russia.

"NATO has a huge deterrence effect, and we Poles, thanks to our presence in NATO and to our presence in the European Union, can feel secure," said Leszek Miller, head of the SLD, in a July interview.

Poland has found a sympathetic ear with a group of Central European countries, mainly the Baltics and Romania, which also see Russia’s actions in Ukraine as a real danger to themselves — a sort of guns-before-butter bloc.

The Baltics are also taking a closer look at their defense spending. Lithuania, which until recently spent a paltry 0.8 percent of its GDP on its military, is now pledging to increase that to 1 percent by 2016, and upwards from there. The country is also building an offshore liquefied natural gas terminal, dubbed the Independence, aimed at reducing its reliance on imports of Russian gas. (The country currently relies on Russia for 100 percent of its natural gas.)

Latvia and Estonia, the two most exposed NATO and EU countries, with their large Russian-speaking minorities and shared Russian border, have also expressed alarm at events in Ukraine: Latvia is promising to increase its defense spending from 0.9 percent of GDP to 2 percent by 2020. (Estonia is one of the rare NATO allies to already spend that much on defense.) Earlier this year, they too urged NATO to put troops in the area, asking for a permanent base in the Baltic region. NATO allies currently provide air patrols over the three small countries, which do not have the capability to defend their own airspace.

All three Baltic nations still have raw memories of their half-century as Soviet republics. Unlike the rest of Central Europe, which retained at least a limited independence after the war, the three Baltic states were invaded and forcibly incorporated into the USSR, disappearing from the map entirely.

Some of the most stringent language condemning Putin’s actions over the course of the Ukraine crisis has come from this corner of northeastern Europe. At a June security conference in the western Polish city of Wroclaw — as fighting in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian military was ramping up — Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves compared Russia’s annexation of Crimea to Hitler’s dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, saying the region had returned to a "Hobbesian state of nature." Later that month, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite compared Putin to both Hitler and Stalin. Her rhetoric has showed no sign of cooling since. 

"There should be no concessions made to an aggressor, who continues an open war and supplies arms to terrorists, and it poses a threat not only to Ukraine, but also to entire Europe, including the Baltic region, and we should not concede, neither fear the aggressor, as then he would never stop," Grybauskaite said in a local radio interview in early August.

These countries have been joined by Romania further south, which is also ramping up defense spending from its current 1.4 percent of GDP to reach a goal of 2 percent. Bucharest is especially concerned about events in neighboring Moldova, which it views as a potential next target for an expansionist Kremlin — a move that would put Russian troops right on Romania’s eastern border. Moldova, a former Soviet republic, is largely populated by ethnic Romanians, but an eastern sliver, Transnistria, split away in the 1990s and is home to thousands of Russian troops. Moldova recently signed an association and free trade deal with the EU, raising worries that Russia would act to prevent the country’s tighter integration with the West.

The jitteriness among the hawks stands in marked contrast to the much more relaxed attitude about Russia among the doves. Although some had bloody experiences with Soviet terror, like the Hungarians in 1956 and the Czechs and Slovaks in 1968, today commercial ties outweigh security concerns. And unlike Poland and the wary Baltic countries, Hungarians, Czechs, and Bulgarians have historically tended to see Moscow as an ally, not a threat. 

Bulgaria has been a close Russian ally for ethnic and religious reasons for more than a century. As a Slavic and Orthodox nation, Bulgaria looked to its much larger religious and ethnic kin in Russia for help against the Ottoman Turks in its 19th-century struggle for independence. During the Cold War, Bulgaria was Moscow’s most loyal ally in the region, and those ties remain today. Bulgaria had to be pressured by the EU to halt construction on South Stream, a pipeline that aims to send Russian gas to Europe while avoiding Ukraine. Construction has halted, but the Bulgarian government continues pushing hard to restart work.

Both the Slovaks and the Czechs have spoken out in strong terms about a larger NATO presence in the east. In contrast to Sikorski’s bellicose comments, Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico said he could not imagine NATO troops being stationed in his country, saying it had been scarred by the presence of foreign troops on its territory before — Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia and the 1968 Soviet invasion — and calling the topic "sensitive." Bohuslav Sobotka, his Czech counterpart, also said his country would not call for more NATO troops in Europe, though his comments did spark a domestic firestorm. (Poland’s Sikorski recently told Reuters that NATO member states were close to reaching an agreement that would boost the organization’s presence in Eastern Europe, though he did not go into details about the terms.)

Both countries are ruled by left-wing parties traditionally suspicious of the United States, and historically, both Czechs and Slovaks have been less reflexively anti-Russian than Poles, looking to Moscow for help when they were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After shaking off communist rule in 1989 and then joining the EU, Czechs’ and Slovaks’ fears of Russia have largely subsided.

Russia’s expanding economic role in the region, as countries looked for alternatives to the EU following the global economic crisis, has also helped it win friends. As in the rest of the region, Czech exports to Russia jumped from $2.3 billion in 2009 to $5.6 billion in 2012, and Russia is now one of the most important markets for Skoda, the Czech Republic-based Volkswagen subsidiary, which has car plants in Kaluga and Nizhny Novgorod. Hungary’s economic ties with Russia, its largest non-EU market, are also strong: Budapest backs the construction of the South Stream pipeline, and Russia’s Rosatom company recently signed a $13 billion deal to expand Hungary’s only nuclear power plant. Although Hungary has fallen into line with Western sanctions against Russia, Prime Minister Viktor Orban does not disguise his lack of enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, Hungary’s politics are moving in a direction that looks increasingly more compatible with Putinism than with Western Europe. Orban’s nationalism and support for ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries, including ominous calls for autonomy for ethnic Hungarians living in western Ukraine, bear more than a passing resemblance to Putin’s defense of Russians outside of Russia. Orban, who was once a fervent anti-communist in his youth, has also engaged in sharp conflicts with Brussels, announced the need for the rise of an "illiberal state" based on ethnic nationalism, denounced protections for sexual minorities, and decried foreign organizations interfering in internal Hungarian affairs — an echo of Putin’s clampdown on foreign-financed NGOs.

Although Central European countries share a joint history as Soviet satellites, those kinds of sentiments make it all but impossible for Warsaw to create a common front in Central Europe.

"There is no agreement at this time among our countries," said Kuzniar, the Polish presidential advisor, prior to the meeting of regional leaders.

Kuzniar also noted that Russia has been adroit in playing on the region’s divisions, building support in nations inclined toward Moscow. While Russia is willing to lend most of the money for the Hungarian nuclear project, for example, there has been very little direct Russian investment in recent years in the much more hostile Poland. Those countries which share a border with Russia, like Poland, Latvia, and Estonia, are much more apt to see Russia’s teeth, while more distant Czechs and Hungarians simply see a business-friendly grin.

Poland has long been one of Ukraine’s most ardent European advocates, seeing an independent and pro-Western Ukraine as the best guarantee for its own security by keeping Russia far away. That view was often seen as a bit paranoid by the rest of Central Europe, but finally, it seems, Warsaw has managed to bring at least a few of its neighbors into its corner. But the ongoing lack of regional unity on the issue continues to undercut Central Europe’s voice in the broader international debate over how to respond to the Kremlin’s aggressive posture, and makes it that much harder to bring an end to Russian interference.

The standoff, it seems, continues. Whether the chefs at 99 have enough apple recipes to last through the siege remains to be seen.

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