Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his state of the nation speech today under a cloud of international tensions, domestic unrest, and a growing suspicion among many in the West that it will only be a matter of time before he moves on Ukraine. Diplomats, defense and geopolitical analysists across the world tuned in for the speech in the hopes of discovering a hint about the Russian leader’s plans and intentions. Putin left a trail of breadcrumbs, although probably not in the amount of detail that most were expecting. He spoke in broad terms, as is generally the case with this type of speech. However, his words and tone left ample leeway for audiences to read between the lines, so to speak.
Putin warned the West explicitly not to cross Russia’s ‘red lines,’ promising a swift and strong response to any provocations and assuring the responsible nation-state would regret it. He went on to explain that Russia will determine where the red lines lay, comparing Russia’s present situation to a tiger surrounded by hyenas. Blunt, powerful words, even for a Russian leader. The image he portrayed will resonate well with nationalists, who have been watching NATO encroachment moving closer to Russian borders for decades now. Putin went on to say that Russia wants good relations with all nations, but constant attempts by the West to single out Russia for punishment have undermined the effort. This was certainly a swipe at the United States and the Biden administration’s recent application of sanctions on a select number of Russian officials and businessmen, as well as the Czech Republic’s accusations of Russian involvement in a 2014 ammunition depot explosion in that nation.
Belarus was a topic brought up in the speech. Putin tied the application of ‘unjust’ sanctions to a 17 April coup attempt there. On that date, Belarussian authorities claim to have stopped a US-backed plot to assassinate Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko and kidnap his children. Mind you, this story has received little news coverage in the West, but it could prove to be significant down the line with regards to the Belarussian role in Russia’s plans for Ukraine and beyond.
The Biden administration’s expulsion of ten Russian diplomats on Thursday brought about a tit-for-tat response from Moscow almost immediately. Now, it appears the move and countermove have set off a string of similar actions between Russia and Ukraine, as well as a growing number of other European countries.
The exchange between Ukraine and Russia has come about because of events in St Petersburg on Friday. Alexander Sosonyuk, Ukraine’s consul in St. Petersburg was accused of receiving classified information and was taken into custody by the FSB (Federal Security Bureau) on Friday. There has been no explanation of exactly what type of classified information Sosonyuk was allegedly found in possession of. Later in the day, the Russian foreign ministry informed the Ukrainian government that Sosonyuk must leave the country by Thursday. The Ukrainian foreign ministry responded by announcing that a senior Russian diplomat will be expelled from Ukraine on Monday.
Fresh on the heels of that, the Czech Republic today announced the expulsion of 18 Russian embassy officials linked to an ammunition depot explosion in 2014. Prime Minister Andrej Babis said earlier today that Czech intelligence agencies have provided him with clear evidence about the involvement of Russian embassy officials in the blast that killed two people. While the expulsion of diplomats suspected to be intelligence officers is nothing new, the timing of the Czech move raises an eyebrow. With so many nations directly or otherwise involved in the Ukraine crisis now trading PNG (persona non grata) declarations, one has to wonder where it will all end. Also, these moves will adversely affect tensions in the region over the coming days.
On the diplomatic front, expect to see more expulsions also in the next few days. For what it’s worth, don’t be surprised if Belarus, or another Russian ally steps up and declares a number of Western diplomats to be declared persona non grata. That’s how the game is played.
The dispute between the European Union and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) over that nation’s respect for the democratic process, and respecting EU values is heating up once again. On Wednesday, new legislation revising the retirement age for Poland’s Supreme Court judges went into effect. The new retirement age has been set at 65, requiring roughly one-third of the current sitting judges to retire. Critics and opponents of the new law have labeled it a purge of the courts. The EU considers the action an attempt by the Polish government to control the judiciary. Warsaw’s view of the legislation is quite different. It sees the law as a necessary move to rid the judiciary of communist-era practices, and thinking.
On Monday, the EU began a new infringement procedure against Poland, claiming the new law undermines judicial independence in the nation. This is not the first action taken by the Union concerning Poland’s judicial reforms either. A year ago, a previous infringement procedure was launched as a result of Polish government reforms to lower court system. An Article 7 (1) procedure is also presently underway, which could theoretically lead to Poland’s expulsion from the EU.
The Poland-EU dispute is only part of a larger standoff between the EU and many of its Eastern European members. The cultural divide on the continent between east and west has become more evident lately. For nations like Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland, that lived under communist control for decades, recent EU efforts to infringe on their internal politics, and redistribute migrants to their nations harken back to the days before the end of the Cold War. Memories of that time period continue to influence Eastern Europe immeasurably, even more so now with the Russian threat again emerging to the east. European Union punitive measures aimed at bringing Eastern Europe more in line with Brussels is sparking staunch resistance. Given the other issues currently facing the EU, Brussels has to walk softly around the Polish matter for the time being, or risk transforming Eastern Europe into a powder keg that could bring about the eventual breakup of the European Union.
President Trump’s upcoming visit to Poland ahead of the G20 Summit in Hamburg has made some European leaders uneasy. President Trump will be meeting with his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda, will deliver a major speech, and make an appearance at the Three Seas Initiative Summit. The visit comes at a particularly sensitive moment in Europe. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have been embroiled in a standoff with the European Union over the EU’s mandated refugee quotas. The worry in Brussels is what consequences Trump’s visit to Poland could bring. Particularly, there is a great deal of anxiety bordering on fear that Poles will regard Trump in their country as a sign of support for the embattled nation. Deepening instability could result from that right when the EU is desperately attempting to forge solidarity across the continent.
The Three Seas Initiative is seen by Brussels as a move by Poland to expand its geopolitical influence beyond the EU. A worst-case scenario for the EU would be the Three Seas Initiative evolving into a federation of Central-Eastern European nations in the future. A federation effectively led by Warsaw. The concept is not new. Plans for a federation along those lines was explored by Poland following the end of World War I. The blueprint failed when Russia, and many Western European nations opposed it. Duda has invested tireless effort into rekindling the project and is likely banking on Trump’s influence and power to help it get off the ground.
The immediate worry on the part of the EU is the chance that the Poles will be emboldened by Trump’s appearance and Warsaw’s defiance will increase. Geopolitically, Poland and the United States have been forging closer ties recently. The populist anti-liberal order bent of Duda’s nationalist conservative government ties in well with the general platform that drove Donald Trump to victory in the US presidential election last November. Birds of a feather do indeed flock together, especially in the high stakes world of global politics. What comes from the visit to Poland remains to be seen, but the fact that EU is reacting with increasing concern tells us that it does not expect the end result to be anything good.
The European Commission has begun legal proceedings against three EU member-states who have not taken in refugees as per the 2015 plan to relocate migrants then located in Italy and Greece. The governments of Poland and Hungary have refused to take refugees in. The Czech Republic initially accepted 12 people, then informed the EU it would not accept any more. The EU plan was intended to relocate 120,000 refugees, but so far less than 20,000 have been moved. The plan was opposed bitterly by some EU members in 2015, yet ended up being pushed through. Not surprisingly, the strongest resistance came from central and eastern European member-states.
The actions announced by Brussels are infringement proceedings. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic will face large fines if they are found in fault, or cuts in EU funding. Whether or not the three nations pay the fines is another matter entirely. Poland especially has been outspoken in defense of its migration policies. Polish government officials have confirmed more than once that it will fight the legal proceedings. It does not appear that Poland is prepared to back down from the EU action. Hungary and the Czechs have also remained staunch in the face of threats and action by Brussels.
This matter has the potential to expand into a major issue as the year goes on. With Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron coming together and expanding their influence in all things EU, Eastern Europe’s defiance could be a challenge for them to confront. Although the nations of Eastern Europe are all EU members, most are aligned more closely Washington than they are to Berlin, Paris, or Brussels. The ‘Old Europe-New Europe’ argument that was sparked by comments by then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2003 has long simmered below the surface of US-EU relations. Merkel and Macron could decide to use Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic’s reluctance to accept refugees as justification to attempt and reassert the power and influence of Brussels and highlight Washington’s inability to influence matters that are strictly EU in nature.
This is certainly a situation to keep an eye in the future.