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Ukraine

Poland's fear of 'the Russian Bear'

Poland, which borders Russia and Ukraine, played an active role in the deal that ended the violent conflict in Ukraine. But this time, Poland's shot at successfully mediating between its neighbors is slim, experts say.

Poland's increasing anxiety over the situation in neighboring Ukraine became evident as Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk warned that the world "stands on the brink of a conflict" that would affect states everywhere. The consequences could be dire, and a matter of survival for his country, the Prime Minister told reporters on Sunday in Warsaw.

Poland, which borders the Russian exclave Kaliningrad in the north and shares more than 500 kilometers (310 miles) of border with Ukraine in the southeast, is arguably the EU member state most vulnerable to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Poland and Ukraine share more than a border, though; they also look back at similar experiences in the past. Both states were used as pawns in international politics, and both were always positioned between Russia and the West. The two countries' borders have been repeatedly redrawn. Entire ethnic groups were expelled from each of the two nations.

Polish mediators

At the time of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine about ten years ago, Poland acted as mediator between Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych, with the aim of calling new presidential elections following the manipulated polls in 2004. In close cooperation with Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, then Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski held numerous talks in Kyiv that helped deescalate the tense situation.

Viktor Yanukovych, Laurent Fabius, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Radoslaw Sikorski seated at table

EU foreign ministers on Monday agreed to consider sanctions on Russia

More recently, Poland, along with Germany and France, had a role in brokering the deal that ended the violent conflict on the Maidan and led to Yanukovych's ouster. The agreement brokered by Germany's Frank-Walter Steinmeier, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and their Polish colleague Radoslaw Sikorski was short-lived: just a few hours later, Yanukovych was ousted and had vanished to Russia.

Domestic pressure

But Poland is less qualified to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, says Otfried Nassauer, head of the Berlin-based Information Center for Transatlantic Security (BITS). "Poland can play a productive role in cooperation with France and Germany, but Polish domestic considerations limit its capacity to conduct an exclusive, rational political mediation," Nassauer told DW. The Polish government must always represent the anti-Russian positions in the country as well, the analyst says, so as not to come under domestic pressure.

"Traditionally, Polish security policies are strongly oriented towards the US," Nassauer says. "Poland constantly tries to underline its special relationship with Washington." That goes hand-in-hand with a defensive attitude towards Moscow, Nassauer adds, noting the presence of latent fears "that the Russian bear could regain its strength once again."

Not Putin's last step

Marcin Zaborowski, PISM

The international community must act, Marcin Zaborowski says

Within the EU, Poland often spoke up for Russian interests, says Marcin Zaborowski, director of the Polish Institute of International Afairs (PISM). "Poland is strongly supporting the visa liberalization for Russian citizens," Zaborowski told DW.

Such support may soon be a thing of the past. Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski took a harsh stance at an EU Foreign Ministers meeting on Monday. "The EU is saying that it will revise its relations with Russia if there is no de-escalation," he told reporters after the meeting.

Poland must "respond to these unprovoked acts of aggression towards our other direct neighbor," Zaborowski says. "We think it's in breach of international rules of law."

The political scientist also urged the international community not to stand by and do nothing. Putin will go as far as they let him, Zaborowski warns: "If his behavior goes unchecked by a response on an economic, political or diplomatic level, my guess is he will not stop with the takeover of Crimea."

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