Polish apples, Russian rockets – The sum of all fears

At many Warsaw venues and companies, there are boxes full of apples just at the entrance. For free. “Eat apples to cross Putin, eat them because it is patriotic” – so it is said. But the apple war may also serve as a mere introduction to much more serious developments in relations between Warsaw and Moscow.

Photo: Facebook/Embassy of Ukraine in the Republic of Poland

At the very beginning of August, in reaction to European Union sanctions, Russia decided to introduce its own retaliatory measures and close its market to – among other imports – Polish fruits and vegetables. Of course Polish apples, one of the main exports to Russia, have been badly hit. To compensate fruit producers for their losses, Poles would now have to eat twice as many apples as previously – not to mention pears, cherries and plums… But fruits and vegetables are only 1% of overall Polish exports, and on unsold apples Poland will lose no more than 500 million euros. So in reality, the Russian reaction will not have a significant impact on the Polish economy as a whole.

Nevertheless, the embargo cannot explain the fact that Poles are afraid of Russia, and currently dislike it even more than in the past. In fact, we have never started to like each other, even after the fall of communism. In the last 20 years we have often treated each other with distrust, and the old fears and stereotypes are still strong: Poles may be seen as plotting to weaken Russian influence in Eastern Europe. For Poles, Russia often looms as a dangerous empire that is currently being rebuilt.

The revolution and then the war in Ukraine have established a new wall between Russia and Poland. This mutual distrust is in the media, in the opinion polls (showing growing feelings of insecurity), in politics and everyday life.

Propaganda culture

The Ukrainian crisis was not good PR for Russia; in many countries of the world its image has worsened. The difference between 2013 and 2014 is striking: research done by the PEW Institute shows that negative ratings of Russia have increased significantly since 2013 in 20 of the 36 countries surveyed in both years. In Poland, it was a record rise of 27%. In 2013, an unfavourable view of Russia was held by 54% of Poles, while this year it was 81% – the highest result among all states included in the research. (The next on the list were Germany at 79%, and Spain and Italy at 74%.) At the same time, the percentage of Poles who perceive Russia in a favourable manner decreased from 36% in 2013 to only 12% this year.

It is worth stressing that in 2013, Poland did not see Russia totally in black. Last year, 54% of Poles admitted an unfavourable view of the country, but it was more disliked by Germany (60%) and France (64%). This shows how great the impact of the recent events beyond Poland’s eastern border has been. For their part, Russians are not giving up on the propaganda war. A prime example is the exhibition organised by the Russian embassy in Warsaw, where photos taken by Andriej Stenin, a Russian photo-reporter killed near Donieck, were displayed in the Hotel Victoria at the same time that a session of the human rights group OSCE was being held there. The dramatic pictures were presented as proof of alleged Ukrainian crimes, and also to show that Poles are not unanimous in their support of the new Kiev government. But in Warsaw, it was described with one word – scandal – and perceived as not very subtle propaganda.

The year 2015 was to be the Polish year in Russia and the Russian year in Poland, full of cultural events, exhibitions, theatre shows and general promotion of the cultures of both countries. However, Warsaw, in reaction to Russian propaganda, has cancelled its part in the project. The Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky was waiting for exactly this; he declared that Russia, on the contrary, will be happy to host Polish artists as they are not guilty of anything. This message is to show the world, but above all Russians themselves, that it is the West that is aggressive towards Russia, not the other way around. “Poles and Russians live in separate informative realities, hostile and over-sensitive at the same time”, Kiev journalist and commentator Vitalij Portnikov told Visegrad Revue. Their estimation of the crisis in Ukraine is especially different, says Portnikov.

Account of losses

Among the EU countries, the sanctions were most painful not for Poland – although fruit producers are definitely suffering, as more than half of their apples have until now been exported to Russia – but for Finland and the Baltic states; 20-30% of their food exports are directed to the Russian market. If the EU countries are suffering, however, Russia is suffering even more as its economy relies to a large extent on imports of food products. As we read in the Centre for Eastern Studies’ analysis, “The Kremlin imposed the sanctions on food and agricultural products from EU member states without giving the decision more careful consideration concerning the possible adverse impact it might have on the Russian economy. The consequence of these hasty decisions will be GDP falling at a faster rate, the inflation rate rising and more capital flowing out of Russia.” Nicu Popescu, an expert of the European Council on Foreign Relations, is of a similar opinion. “Paradoxically, the Russian retaliatory sanctions damage Russia itself, and by limiting the access to Western goods it is Russians themselves who are harmed. But this is precisely Putin’s plan – to harm Russian citizens and blame the West for it”, Popescu explains to Visegrad Revue.

According to EUobserver, as a consequence of the European sanctions, Russia will lose 23 billion EUR in this year alone, and even more in the next year – up to 75 billion EUR. This will cause its GDP to fall by 1.5% this year, and by 4.8% next year.

The EU Commission estimates the possible losses for the EU to reach 40 billion EUR this year and 50 billion next year. Although in terms of money the amount is similar, the loss of GDP for the EU will definitely be less significant – around 0.3% of GDP this year and 0.4% next year.

Yet, Russia has an ace up its sleeve, which the Poles are really afraid of: the gas turncock. Relying for 80% of its energy needs on Russian gas and large quantities of Russian oil, Poland has reasons to worry this winter. It is better prepared than ever, with full backup storage, alternative delivery sources from Norway and reverse deliveries from Germany, but still switching off the Russian gas would be a severe blow to the Polish economy. And gas is not the worst of Russia’s weapons. Now – again – we are seriously afraid of the Russian armoured divisions and missiles. According to a poll conducted by IBRiS, 84% of Poles point to Russia as a threat to Poland (compared to only 4% who are afraid of Islamic terrorism). In a poll conducted by CBOS and published at the end of August, when the situation in Ukraine was deteriorating, 78% Poles said that this crisis was a threat to the safety of Poland. That is 29% more than in a poll completed two months earlier. At the same time, 63% of questioned Poles are convinced that EU sanctions are not enough to stop Russia.

In the shadow of Iskander

“What may happen is that they launch an Iskander from Kaliningrad; it does not even have to be armed. It will fall down somewhere in Poland in a field”, says an anonymous official from the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “This is enough. They will test us this way, will learn how we are going to react, and it is clear that it will start a real hell in Poland, a clash of ‘hawks’ and those reasonable.”

In NATO, this missile is called an SS-26 Stone, in Russia an Iskander. It is a short-range ballistic missile, although its latest version, the Iskander-K, nearly reaches the same range of an intermediate-range missile, forbidden by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) signed in 1987 by the United States and the Soviet Union. It can cover a distance of almost 500 km, which means that from Kaliningrad Oblast it can reach any location in Poland. The Polish media has already been speculating about how long it will take the Russians to march to Warsaw. This unrest was ignited by Putin himself, after he declared that he could reach Warsaw in two days. Photos of Russian army manoeuvres were presented in the Russian and Polish press. “This is all propaganda; the Russian armed forces – despite modernisation – are still rather weak. But what was important was making Europeans believe that the threat is real”, Russian military analyst Andriej Piontkowski pointed out in a conversation with Visegrad Revue.

Poles do believe it. When the Crimea was taken and the Russian intervention in Donbas started but the Western reaction was not coordinated, the Poles suddenly began to remember the demons of 1939. They thought again about the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact and the Soviet army crossing the eastern borders of Poland. Less than 25 years ago, Poland was practically on the Cold War front lines, in the shadow of Russian and American nuclear missiles pointed at each other. But back then, both sides knew how dangerous it would be to cross the thin red line. Now, there is no line at all and Putin has already moved very far, running an armed intervention on the territory of a neighbouring country.

The whole of Western Europe wants to enjoy its own prosperity – to take care of the Eurozone, its business enterprises and its stability. Poles want the same, but because of their history they are more sensitive to the threat presented by Russia. However, the latest increase in negative emotions between Poles and Russians is not fuelled by old stereotypes, but by a very pragmatic list of possible dangers.

Michał Kacewicz

Michał Kacewicz

is a journalist of the weekly Newsweek Polska, a reporter, correspondent, and columnist. He deals with Central and Eastern Europe. He is the author of biographies on Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin. His latest book “Sotnie wolności” describes the protests on Majdan in Kiev and the war in eastern Ukraine.