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Lavrov's Poland Visit Sends Mixed Signals On Russia's Crises With West

Lavrov with Polish counterpart Radoslaw Sikorski (right) in Warsaw

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

Appearing afterwards in a joint press conference with Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, Lavrov affirmed Moscow's opposition to the deployment of a U.S. missile shield in Central Europe, and he showed no sign of easing Moscow's tough stance over Georgia.

But there also were signs during his visit that Lavrov might be hoping to interest Warsaw, and other EU states, in some bargaining to ease tensions.

Lavrov used much of his press appearance in Warsaw to reaffirm Moscow's baseline positions in what have become multiple quarrels with the West.

Speaking about Warsaw's decision to host a U.S. antimissile shield, Lavrov said: "We don't see any threats coming against the Russian Federation from Poland, but we cannot ignore the fact that an integral component of U.S. strategic systems is appearing near our borders -- systems that were regulated for many decades until recently by agreements between Moscow and Washington in order to maintain parity of offensive and defensive strategic weapons. This parity has been seriously upset in recent years."

That underlined Moscow's position that the planned shield of 10 interceptor missiles based in Poland, plus a supporting radar base in the Czech Republic, directly threatens Russia. And it dismissed Washington's position that the shield is only intended to help protect the United States and Europe against attacks from rogue states such as Iran or North Korea.

Then, turning to the Georgia crisis, Lavrov emphasized again that Moscow regards the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as newly independent states.

Insisting upon South Ossetia's sovereignty -- recognized only by Russia and Nicaragua -- he said South Ossetia does not intend to join the Russian Federation. That is despite remarks earlier on September 11 by its leader, Eduard Kokoity, that union with Russia is South Ossetia's historic goal.

Appearing beside Lavrov, Sikorski said their meeting helped him "better understand" the Russian stance. But the top Polish diplomat also showed no inclination to downplay his country's concern over Russia's foreign policies.

Pointing to repeated threats from Moscow to target the missiles in Poland in the event of any conflict, Sikorski called on Russian generals to "weigh their words more, so they don't needlessly frighten Europe."

Looking For A Grand Bargain?

All this makes it unlikely that the meeting did much to ease the current high tensions between Russia and the West. But it's likely to increase speculation as to why Lavrov chose Poland as the first EU state to visit since those tensions soared to new heights with the Russia-Georgia war.

The speculation is partly fueled by a letter that Lavrov wrote that was published in the Polish daily "Gazeta Wyborcza" on September 10 and appeared to suggest he was coming to Poland 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 did indeed come to Poland to make a deal, it remains unclear for now whether the proposals were presented in his meetings with Sikorski and with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. And it remains unclear what, if any, response may have come from the Polish side.

Answers to those questions may take days more to emerge. But in the meantime, Lavrov's uncompromising stance in his press conference, contrasted with the exploratory tone of his public letter, only add intrigue to the increasingly complicated standoff between Russia and the West.