It is diplomatic war between Warsaw and Vilnius after Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė is reported to have taken a swipe at Poland during a visit to the US. While speaking to a gathering of the Lithuanian-American community in Illinois, Ms Grybauskaitė is quoted as saying that “for some reason, Polish politicians have decided that in the short run it would be good to have a friend in Russia, and other smaller countries that are not so important can be left as sacrificial lambs.” Lithuanian daily Lietuvos Rytas described Grybauskaitė’s declaration as “undiplomatic,” adding that the paper hoped that the statement “does not hinder the achievement of the objectives of Lithuanian foreign policy.”
“I cannot imagine that such a statement could be made at a time when Polish pilots are guarding the skies over the Baltic states,” was the reply of Poland’s Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, while attending a NATO summit in Chicago. “It seems to me that it would be easier to establish rights under the European Charter on Minority Languages, than to build exotic theories,” he added, referring to ongoing efforts by Lithuania’s Polish minority to use Polish versions of their names in official documents.
Relations between Warsaw and Vilnius have been strained in recent times, largely due to Polish accusations that the Lithuanian government has been discriminating against Polish minorities who live in Lithuania, once united with Poland under one king. Vilnius introduced laws in September 2011 ensuring that a larger number of subjects must be taught in Lithuanian, regardless of whether schools are for ethnic minorities, while Foreign Minister Audronius Azulis commented that Lithuanians “do not need a big brother,” stating that Poland should not try and influence the country’s internal policies. The protection of linguistic minorities in the Baltic republics is an issue shared by both Poland and Russia, with whom Warsaw is trying to establish more cooperative relations.
In his annual foreign policy statement this March, Sikorski pledged that Poland “will continue to work towards Polish-Russian reconciliation,” adding to “hope that the new president of Russia will lead his country on a path of modernization, in line with the expectations of Russian society.” The Polish-Russian rapprochement is raising apprehension within NATO, accustomed to see Warsaw as the rampart of the Alliance against Russia and Belarus. Traditionally driven by Russophobic feelings firmly anchored in the history of the country, Poland is now seeking to turn itself into a more independent actor able to mediate between the US and Russia.
Back from two decades of steady economic growth, and influential member of both NATO and the EU, Poland has indeed all the credentials to become a regional power, but on the condition to achieve greater autonomy from the US and closer relations with Russia, a reality of which the post-Kaczyński leadership has become aware. Are we therefore witnessing the birth of a formidable Warsaw-Moscow axis? Not necessarily.
To the extent that the Polish-Lithuanian diplomatic war should jeopardize the realization of NATO missile shield in Europe, the US would be forced to intervene in the dispute, with the risk of creating a split within the Alliance. In such a scenario, given the greater importance of Poland for the US and the greater energy dependence of Lithuania on Russia, a Lithuanian rapprochement to Moscow would be the only way to counterbalance Vilnius’ weakened position. However, although it is too early to assess the consequences of the Polish-Lithuanian diplomatic war, Washington should give the issue highest priority, being the Baltic region the Schwerpunkt of NATO in Europe. Sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, the hyper-militarized Russian exclave of Kaliningrad seems to remind the Alliance that Moscow is always ready to exploit any Western weakness to strengthen its geostrategic positions in what the Russians call their “Near Abroad.”