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Russia's Lavrov Bring Threats, Hopes For Deal To Warsaw

  • Charles Recknagel

Sergei Lavrov with Polish counterpart Radoslaw Sikorski (right) in Warsaw

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is in Poland, the first EU country he has visited since the Russia-Georgia crisis began last month.

There is much he can discuss with Polish leaders, but most of it would seem likely only to highlight the tensions between Moscow and the West. That is because, quite apart from Poland's strong support for Tbilisi, Russia is also angry with Poland for hosting a planned U.S. missile shield.

Ahead of Lavrov's arrival in Warsaw, there have been both threatening signals from Moscow and -- more mysteriously -- hints Moscow could be shopping for a deal.

The threats came in the form of a top Russian military official reminding Warsaw on September 9 that Moscow considers its hosting of a planned U.S. missile shield a hostile act aimed at Russia.

The commander of Russia's strategic missile forces, Nikolai Solovtsov, said, "I cannot rule out that...our ICBMs could in the future target both the missile-defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic."

That was a timely echo of an equally blunt notice delivered by Moscow shortly before Warsaw signed the missile-hosting deal with Washington last month.

"When one party agrees to host [a foreign facility], of course, it assumes certain responsibilities. And we're talking about a military facility in this case, so there is additional [responsibility]," said General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the Russian General Staff:

"Certainly, any facility is the target -- excuse me, I mean the subject of the interests of another country. So, of course, one has to be careful with that," he added. "A bordering country always makes it its priority to strike such installations [in case of conflict]. So, it is not simply -- it cannot go unpunished from the point of view of [its] military use and so on."

Defiant Poland

Such statements, matched by Poland's defiance of them, have sent Russian-Polish relations plunging.

Announcing his signing of the missile deal to the Polish public last month, Polish President Lech Kaczynski's words also seemed equally meant for Moscow.

"Poland, on this issue, has made a sovereign decision. It has the right to do this as an independent country, which decides its own affairs. Nobody should dictate to Poland what it should do. Those times are gone and every one of our neighbors has to live with the fact that our homeland will not be subordinated or intimidated by anyone," Kaczynski said.

"The installation of the shield in Poland means not only a strengthening of our position in the world, which proves the important geopolitical role of Poland. It is also clear proof of the strengthening of an alliance with the most powerful country in the world, the United States of America."

But if tensions between Moscow and Warsaw were not already bad enough over the U.S. missile shield, they have only worsened over Warsaw's support of Tbilisi in the Russia-Georgia crisis.

Kaczynski and four other leaders of former Soviet-bloc states rushed to Tbilisi immediately after Russian troops invaded Georgia last month.

There, Poland's head of state shouted to an applauding crowd: "We are here to take up the fight. For the first time in years, our eastern neighbors show their true face that we have known for hundreds of years. They think other nations should be subordinated to them. We say no! That country is Russia."

Looking For A Grand Bargain?

So, given all this, what would compel Russia's top diplomat to make Poland the first country he visits in the EU since the conflict in Georgia? This is where the hints Lavrov may be hoping for a deal become interesting.

On the eve of his visit, Lavrov wrote a letter that was published in the Polish daily "Gazeta Wyborcza" on September 10 and appears to suggest he wants to bargain.

Repeating the words of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, he writes that Russia has a geographical sphere of "privileged interests" and he calls on Poland and the rest of Europe to recognize that "new reality."

But in what suggests a quid pro quo for ending Polish support of Tbilisi, he adds: "If the United States and Poland genuinely are interested in guaranteeing that the antimissile base will not be directed against Russia, we are ready to examine their concrete proposals."

Lavrov also calls on Poland to stop opposing Russia's planned Nord Stream natural-gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, noting that Russia will count on Poland as a key transit country for oil and gas in the future.

"Producers, consumers of energy, and transit countries are in the same boat and can create security only when they work as partners," Lavrov writes. "With those who share this view -- and they form a majority in Europe -- we will easily find a common language."

That has left many in Poland speculating over just what kind of a "grand bargain" Moscow might have in mind that goes even beyond ending Polish support of Tbilisi.

"Gazeta Wyborcza" speculates that "it sounds like an invitation for Poland to join the club of EU countries leaning toward Russia, such as Germany, Italy, France and Spain."

In other words, if Poland stops leading the anti-Russia camp in the EU, and adopts a more "pragmatic" approach, Warsaw will find Moscow a willing partner.

If Lavrov is indeed suggesting such a deal, the details will only become clearer after he meets with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski later on September 11.