https://www.theguardian.com-Analysis: Boris Johnson to tread fine line between Germany and Poland as leaders discuss Russia sanctions
Polish president, Andrzej Duda (left) and German chancellor Olaf Scholz attend a joint news conference ahead of a Weimar Triangle meeting in February. Photograph: Reuters
When Boris Johnson meets the Polish president and the new German chancellor, he will see the divisions within the EU over Ukraine first-hand, and more broadly how they reflect a contest over the bloc’s future economic model.
The British prime minister may find himself in contrasting roles, instinctively sympathising with Andrzej Duda’s position when they meet on Thursday, but gently restraining its rhetoric, while coaxing the naturally circumspect Olaf Scholz to be bolder, and less reactive.
Poland is at the extreme end of how to prosecute Vladimir Putin for the war, while Scholz reluctantly finds himself at the other. Poland is happy to tell Germany not just that it has misjudged Putin, but that its misreading reflects a deeper arrogance in Germany.
Annalena Baerbock’s inaugural visit to Poland as German foreign minister in December, her third stop after Paris and Brussels, seems a long-forgotten gesture of reconciliation.
Riding high on the international admiration it has garnered for opening its arms to 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees, few of Poland’s leaders make much efforts to disguise their frustration with Scholz.
Speaking to the German press at the weekend as the news of war crimes started to filter out of Ukraine, the Polish deputy prime minister, Jaroslav Kaczynski – who leads the ruling national-conservative Law and Justice Party, accused Germany and France of “a strong inclination towards Moscow”. For years, Berlin did not want to see what Russia was doing under Putin. “It ended badly, as we can see now,” said Kaczynski. “But it wasn’t difficult to foresee that this would happen. But Germany always thought it knew better.”
The Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki – who saw the UK foreign secretary, Liz Truss, in Warsaw this week – has described Russia as a “totalitarian fascist state” who committed atrocities against civilians in Ukraine.
He then referred to Angela Merkel, saying: “Frau Chancellor, you have been silent since the beginning of the war. Germany’s policy over the past 10 or 15 years has meant that Russia now has a strength based on the monopoly on the sale of raw materials.”
Germany was the main obstacle to stricter sanctions, Morawiecki told journalists. This can be seen from the minutes of EU meetings. “Anyone who reads the transcripts will know that Germany is the biggest brake when it comes to more decisive sanctions.”
Some of this Polish nationalist rhetoric about Germany has, of course, existed for decades with extreme denunciations of Berlin for using the EU to create a Fourth German Reich, and impose its own rule of law on Poland.
But Poland, with the UK demurely observing, has spent the past month needling Germany about its cautious approach to sanctions and to arming Ukraine. Kaczynski said: “You can’t constantly support a major power like Russia with billions in payments from the purchase of energy. This is inadmissible from a political and moral point of view. This has to come to an end, and Germany should finally take a clear stance on it.”
The critical issue, he said, is whether Germany will agree to specific dates by which it will end the import of Russian coal, oil and gas. It is the oil exports, not the gas, that is the money spinner for Russia. Britain agrees, even if it says it less bluntly.
Britain also sympathises with Polish plans to step up the rearmament of Ukraine in advance of the battle for Donetsk and Lubansk. Poland says it is willing to hand over its spare Soviet era T-72 tanks. It has as many as 300, 100 of which are modernised and ready to go.
Some of Poland’s other ideas, such as peacekeeping mission inside Ukraine and the placing of US nuclear weapons on Polish soil, will probably make the UK Foreign Office blanch.
But judging by remarks made by Truss at a Nato foreign ministers’ dinner, the UK and Poland share broadly the same analysis of the threat posed by Putin. She argued: “The age of engagement with Russia is over. The Nato-Russia Founding Act is dead, and it is time to cast off an outdated approach to handling Russia.”
These remarks could well be directed at Scholz, who on Friday will be Johnson’s second European visitor this week.
In reality British diplomats recognise Germany is going through a painful domestic reassessment of the foreign policy it conducted since the 80s, and whatever Britain’s frustrations with the slowness of that reassessment, it is not going to help that process if London goads or gloats. It would be foolish to belittle the significance of Germany’s decision to spend €100bn on defence.
In his remarks on Wednesday, Scholz, within his rhetorical confines, could not have been clearer in denouncing Russian war crimes. Yet one G7 diplomat says: “Whether it is arms exports or sanctions, the Germans are still coming to terms with Russia’s behaviour. They start with why something is not possible, but get to the right position in the end, but it is always two weeks later than necessary.”
In Germany’s defence, Robert Habeck, the green economics minister, is working on diversifying Germany’s energy sources, but it is a slow process.
The Polish concern is that sometimes the slow pace seems to be driven by German industrialist’s fear that the whole economic model, built on cheap Russian energy, the basis of postwar prosperity, is now permanently threatened.
Casting Johnson in the role of a diplomatic bridge builder seems implausible, but if he can persuade Poland and Germany to act more in concert that would be an achievement.