Today President Joe Biden is in Poland to meet with Polish leaders and talk to Ukrainians who have fled the Russian invasion. The U.S.-Polish relationship was strained before Russia invaded Ukraine, and has had its awkward moments during the war. But Poland is an important NATO ally, has an army that matters, and has taken about two million refugees from Ukraine. The Biden visit is meant to smooth the wrinkles.
Poland also problems with the European Union. For the past six years, the Polish government has worked to subordinate the independent judiciary, drawing the ire of European leaders. This is also hugely controversial within Poland itself. The war has caused Polish leaders however to praise the EU and describe EU membership for Ukraine as part of a peace settlement.
The tensions within Poland and between Poland and its partners would seem to offer an opportunity for skillful Russian propaganda. The extraordinary recent text from Dmitri Medvedev “On Poland” was not this. It shows an imperial contempt so abstruse and unfounded as to be incomprehensible to its targets.
Medvedev was Putin’s political partner for much of this century, notably exchanging the jobs of president and premier with him in a trick that allowed Putin to stay in power without interruption. Medvedev is now the deputy chairman of the security council, a group that meets with Putin on a regular basis.
He has been distinguishing himself of late by taking positions to Putin’s right. After Putin wrote last July that Ukraine’s destiny was “historical unity” with Russia, Medvedev added that the Ukrainian government was illegitimate because it represented the interests of global elites rather than the Ukrainian people. He was saying that Ukraine was not a state because it had a Jewish president.
Russian policy in late 2021 was indeed to ignore the government of Ukraine, range troops at its border, and insist on talking with the United States. Negotiations with Ukraine itself were ruled out by the Kremlin’s claim that it was not a country. Volodymyr Zelens’kyi had run for president of Ukraine on a peace platform with Russia. But Russia ignored him, denied his government was real, and invaded. In his message to Poland, Medvedev takes for granted that Russia’s war of destruction in Ukraine is natural.
It troubles Medvedev that Poles might have their own opinion. On 15 March, the Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki and deputy prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński journeyed by train to war-torn Kyiv (along with the Czech and Slovene prime ministers) in a display of support. Kaczyński, the most powerful politician in Poland, is neither a young man nor a willing traveler, and the trip to Kyiv displayed physical courage. (I should say that I oppose most of Kaczyński’s policies, and was fired from the advisory council of a museum under one of his governments.)
The manliness element is important. The Russian leadership is obsessed with masculinity, and that opens a vulnerability. If Russian leaders are so manly, why does one never see them taking risks in the real world? Their emblems of manhood are sarcasm and bombs: but does keeping a safe rhetorical and physical distance really make a man?
For this reason, Zelens’kyi generates tremendous stress in the Kremlin. Having been dismissed by the Russian leadership as a non-entity, he performs feats of courage that are unthinkable for a Medvedev or a Putin. (As I write, the whereabouts of Russia’s high military leadership are unknown).
Zelens’kyi is a target well beyond Medvedev’s reach, so he he mocks Kaczyński and the other leaders for visiting Kyiv. Medvedev expresses an imperious displeasure that Polish leaders, having returned from Kyiv, proposed separating the country from Russian energy supplies. He ignores the obvious explanation: that Poland does not want to rely on a country that has just invaded Ukraine, and would like to weaken the Russian war effort.
All is to be explained instead, according to Medvedev, by Poland’s “phantom pains.” With this we enter a rhetoric once associated with the comments section of Russian fascist websites, but which is now apparently Kremlin doctrine. Medvedev means that Poles have never recovered from the early seventeenth century, when they failed to install a ruler in Moscow. For Medvedev, this is the explanation for Polish policy today.
I have never encountered anything like “phantom pains” in the actual country of Poland, which I know pretty well. The vast majority of Poles have no idea what happened during what Russians remember as the “time of troubles.” Yet we are supposed to believe that Polish energy policy today is motivated by a war of 1612 rather than the war of 2022.
Medvedev goes on to claim that, unlike Poles with their supposed complexes about 1612, Russians face the darkest pages of their history with courage and openness. This is ridiculous. Russia is a pioneer in memory laws, in the manufacture of innocence. There is no effort to recall the hundred thousand Poles killed in the Polish Operation of the Great Terror. It is a criminal offense to mention that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union began the Second World War together in 1939. Medvedev gives Poland a long lecture for not loving the Red Army.
Putin and Medvedev in 2016.
Medvedev lands on the basic position of the Russian government towards foreign nations. The masses have good instincts, just like the Russian masses, but are deluded by global elites in thrall to American paymasters. If only those global elites were not so subservient to American moneybags, the masses of country x would happily unite with the Russian masses. Beneath the surface there is a healthy population that has no deeper wish than to indulge in the earthy pleasures of the common people, as defined by Russian oligarchs through Russian television.
That was Putin’s argument for invading Ukraine: the healthy Little Russian masses just need to be liberated from a (Jewish) government that simply follows the wishes of the globalist elites and the Americans.
A Ukrainian firefighter in Kharkiv after Russian bombing, 14 March
“Grotesque” may be too grand a word for this argument when applied to Ukraine, let alone to Poland. Fear of Russia in Poland has nothing to do with globalized elites or American paymasters. It has to do with experience. The people who run Poland today are actually the party that, of the two options, Russia has always preferred. Calling the Polish right tools of global elite and puppets of the Americans shows not just hysteria, but something worse: a lack of political touch. Kaczyński’s people cannot be provoked by a charge like that. I would guess they cannot even understand it — and who can blame them. It’s weird.
Polish political divides are intense, and Polish tensions with the EU and the U.S. are real. But it is hard to imagine anything overcoming those divides better than a Russian oligarch wildly claiming that the Poles need to understand the curative power of invasion from the east.
Something strange is happening with Russian imperial language. Medvedev’s idea is that the healthy Polish masses should rebel against their leaders in the name of Russian oil and gas. In other words, he is insisting that Russia play the role of a provider of raw materials to Poland. In order to defend this role as energy supplier, Medvedev then calls people lots of names which are intended to be offensive.
Russian wealth comes from hydrocarbons, and the hydrocarbons are profitable not for the Russian masses but for a small group of people. So naturally when anyone talks about resigning from the oil and gas, a Russian oligarch like Medvedev gets upset. His peers, with their children and their yachts abroad, are just the kind of globalized tyrants he claims are governing everyone else’s country.
Something has cracked. Imperial rhetoric has pushed beyond the point where its targets can understand it. Medvedev wants to be the folksy populist, speaking for the Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, etc. masses against the global elite. But he is himself a caricature of the global elite, wealthy for no reason, trying to dictate to people in a foreign country what they should do and how they should think, endorsing a war of destruction in the name of nothing more, in the end, than his own personal comfort.