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Russia, Poland, and Trump: An Interview with Dr. Jacek Lubecki

In the summer of 2016, during an academic exchange trip that took me to the West Bank and Israel, I traveled with a small group of other academics affiliated with various universities. All of them had impressive backgrounds in their various disciplines and some of them were well traveled in the Middle East.

One of them was Dr. Jacek Lubecki, currently Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for International Studies at Georgia Southern University, and former Coordinator of International and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (2005 to 2012). During the course of our travels I became friends with Jacek, who obviously has a wealth of experiences due to extensive international travels. Because of his education, background, sense of humor, and warm personality, Jacek is also a great conversationalist, particularly during long trips from one region to another in the back of a cramped shuttle bus or (as I was fortunate to learn first hand) when sipping a beer in a smoke filled bar in Ramallah in the West Bank.

While Jacek has a lot of experience traveling and meeting with political leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere, I came to find out that the primary focus of his research is actually Eastern Europe, with an emphasis on Poland where he was born and raised, and its relationship to Russia, which obviously has had considerable influence in the region and is often a source of concern for Eastern European states.

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Above Image: Map of Poland. Note its border neighbors, particularly Russia to the north.

Naturally, I could not help but think that Jacek, who often travels to Eastern Europe, has numerous connections with Eastern European leaders and academics, and speaks five European languages, as well as Russian and Arabic, is extraordinarily well suited to speak about current events in the region. This is particularly the case as they relate to Russia under Vladimir Putin’s leadership and how the recent election of Donald J. Trump to the U.S. Presidency may alter the current political and strategic viewpoint of Eastern European states in relation to Russia and the U.S. Consequently, I asked him if he would consent to answering some questions on these issues and he kindly agreed.

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Question 1: Jacek, could you briefly explain your background and how you came from Poland to be a professor of political science in the United States? What are your varied research interests? 

I had a regular Polish middle-class background, albeit under communism. Both of my parents were teachers. I was 15 when the communist government of Gen. Jaruzelski proclaimed martial law in December 1981. So, I spent the following eight years engaging in small acts of anti-government resistance (like, painting slogans on my high school wall), but mostly unsuccessfully chasing girls and covering up my zits.

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Above Image: Picture of Polish children marching in a May 1 parade in Warsaw, a mandatory communist holiday, sometime during the 1970s. Jacek notes: “One of these kids could be me easily, except I was in a provincial town in Western Poland. Did I participate in these compulsory parades? Absolutely. I think that I took them seriously when I was 6-7. Then, my uncle introduced me to Radio Free Europe when I was 10 or something.”

Then, I went to law school, and, when the opportunity to come to the US for the University World Debating Championship at Princeton University in January 1989 came (by then, the regime was more relaxed about foreign travel) – I came to the US.  One thing led to another and by fall 1990 I was at Graduate School for International Studies, University of Denver. Again, one thing led to another and I was teaching college classes by fall 1991, teaching full-time by fall 1998 (at University of Colorado – Colorado Springs), married with children, etc. I got my Ph.D. in 2000, and followed a classical academic route since: Millikin University, University of Arkansas at Little Rock and, recently, Georgia Southern University, were my mileposts.

Initially, I researched political cultures and electoral patterns in Eastern/East-Central Europe in comparison with Western Europe. Then, I switched to the Middle East and foreign/defense/military policy issues. I have been working (with a friend, James Paterson from Valdosta State) on a book on defense policies of East-Central European countries (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia). I wrote an article on the Polish military and political leader Joseph Pilsudski (ruled Poland between 1926-1935) and I had been a contributing writer on these issues to the magazine “The Armchair General.”

Question 2: Could you give a sense of how Polish people (or Eastern Europeans more broadly) viewed the Soviet Union and later Russia while you were growing up in Poland? What is the common Polish historical view of its relationship with Russia? Is it one of distrust? Fear? Hope for better relations? Etc… How might Polish views of Russia have evolved over the course of your lifetime?

The Soviet Union subjugated all of Eastern Europe, and that subjugation was not much liked, even then some countries and groups of people liked it better than others. Polish people were especially hostile to the Soviet Union, as 500 years of geopolitical hostility towards Russia and the hostility towards Soviet-style communism overlapped in this case. I very much grew up in the culture of that distrust, fear, and hostility. I lived under a regime was a direct result of a Soviet conquest of Poland, and fear and hostility towards a subjugation coming from the East is a part of a real, lived experience for me – not some abstraction.

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Above Image: Map of the “Eastern Bloc,” or Eastern European states aligned with the U.S.S.R. reflecting the political situation in Europe during the Cold War.

By the way, fear and suspicion of Poland has been reciprocated by Russia, and for centuries and good reasons. Polish military expeditions occupied Moscow for two years in 1606 and then in 1610. In other words, out of all invaders of Russia for the last 400 years, the most successful were the Poles. Poland also defeated the Soviet (Bolshevik) army at the battle of Warsaw in 1920, thus winning the Polish-Soviet war.

Of course, the Soviet regime failed, and there was brief (1991-1993) period of a Polish-Russian friendship and mutual interest in improved relations. For instance, Yeltsin came to Warsaw and loudly proclaimed that Russia has no problem if Poland wants to join NATO. He also released super-secret evidence of the most famous Soviet crime against Polish people – the 1940 massacre of 30 thousand Polish military officers. But, that was short lived. Today, Poland and Russia are caught in their traditional cycle of fear, hostility and suspicion. I’d say, the view of Russia is back where it was in 1981, with the caveat that Poland is free now. So, Poland is arming: hundreds of Leopard II tanks, multiple-rocket launch systems, submarines, “storm shadow” missiles, self-propelled howitzers, missiles defense systems, F-16 fighter-bombers: all of it is being procured to deter or fight a potential Russian invasion. The newly elected (fall 2015) Polish right-wing government is building territorial defense forces of US National Guard type. The purpose is to fight a foreign invasion when it comes to the Polish soil, be it as a guerrilla force. That’s serious.

You mention hope for better relations. The fear in Poland is that Russia only understands and reacts to force. Better relations, and issues like trade, in this interpretation, as a way for Russia to gain control and power. Russians, or at least Russian political elite likely sees the issue the same way, btw. Like the Russian saying goes “kto kavo?” (who is going to dominate whom?) is the name of the game. Of course, cooperation and friendship are a theoretical possibility, but the pervasive notion is that whoever expects a relationship with Russia based on mutuality, is a naïve “useful idiot.” The whole cycle has a self-fulfilled prophecy type of dynamics. The cycle, obviously, became stronger as the result of Russian actions in Ukraine.

Question 3: What are Poland’s strategic concerns with regard to Russia? What are Russia’s strategic concerns with regard to Poland and broader Eastern Europe?

The prospect of Russia direct military aggression is still remote, but has recently increased. Russia has a slice of it right next in Poland (the Kaliningrad oblast’) and either has or threatened to deploy substantial military assets there. Of course, this is a game of deterrence and posturing, but these games tend to get out of hand. More directly, if Russia subjugates Ukraine, Belorus and the Baltic countries, Poland’s security will be dramatically under threat. Finally, what Russia is already doing is subverting and attacking Poland in covert and unconventional ways: intelligence activities, corruption, manipulation of energy supplies, cyberattacks, etc. etc. In this last respect the threat is real and tangible – and serious.

In a typical “mirror-imaging” syndrome, Russia sees Poland as a threat too, and, again, mostly not in a conventional way (even though Russian troops are certainly training to fight Polish troops), but mostly in non-conventional sense. The very existence of a democratic Poland, offering a different form of a political regime, is ipso facto a threat to Russia’s semi-authoritarian system.

Question 4: Could you explain how important security guarantees from the United States are to the Polish people? How does Poland, or even broader Eastern Europe, understand their security interests to be tied to the U.S.?

Poland was given security guarantees by France and England prior to WWII, and then, in Polish perception, betrayed in 1939, as the allies were helpless and unwilling to do a damn thing for Poland, except for nominally declaring war on Germany and then sitting on their hands. Then, Poland was betrayed by Western allies in 1944-45, when nothing decisive was done to prevent Soviet takeover of Poland. So, for one, Poles do not think that Western European allies security guarantees matter much, as the perception of Western European countries as weak and feckless has pretty much survived since WWII.

For Poland, especially, NATO is really about the US security guarantees to Poland, and without the US the organization is perceived as worthless. I would say that it is the same thing for all Eastern European “new Europe” which famously aligned with the US in the lineup to war in Iraq 2003, because for Eastern European it is the alliance with the US that matters. Now, the difference here is that not all Eastern European countries (today) have the same perception of the Russian threat, and, therefore, of the importance of the US alliance. In descending order of importance, the most threatened countries are: the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – there, the threat perception is crazy high and the mood is like in Saigon, March 1975), then Poland, then Moldova, etc. Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are actually flirting with Putin. As the memory of the Soviet empire fades, countries with no long-standing geopolitical feud with Russia actually see no need to either arm or be alarmed. Military spending in these countries is going down, actually, is at the all-time low in a 100 years.

Question 5: How important are the personalities of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in Polish consideration of the issues mentioned above? Both men speak forcefully about foreign policy and seem determined in their stated efforts. In fact, based on statements each leader has made about the other, it seems that there is a kind of budding respect developing between them. In what ways might this positively impact U.S. diplomacy with Russia? In what ways might it negatively impact U.S. diplomacy with Russia?

Well, let me talk mostly about Trump, because the view of Putin as a Russian imperialist is a given in Poland, and requires no explanation.

Now, some of the Polish view Trump favorably, not because of his Russian policy, but because of other issues. For instance (a little known fact) Trump made highly specific promises to Poles and Polish-Americans to lift a visa requirement for Poles coming to the US for tourism purposes (btw, many Polish people stay on beyond their visa to work illegally, but, well, Trump says different things to different people). The Polish right (in power right now) likes Trump’s celebration of the nation-state, etc. But, on the Russian issue, Polish public opinion and political forces are roughly unanimous – Russia is a threat, and Trump’s bizarre bromance with Putin makes no sense and is a threat to Polish national interest  – this in context of a country that had been very touchy about being betrayed.

Now, there is a growing fringe Polish nationalist pro-Putin, anti-Western movement, but it is still a collection of wacos and Putin’s trolls. Given the insane political age in which we live (no doubt due to the growth of the internet, where every sexual and political deviation is fostered) that movement might grow. So, perhaps Trump’s Russia policy has some sympathy among that fringe movement.

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Now, to answer your final question – so, is, there is a basis for some good relationship and perhaps a breakthrough in the relationship between Russia and the US here. Someone will have to be sacrificed on the altar of this relationship, and Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic countries would be first. But, the whole bromance is words only so far. There might very much be no relationship between words and actions. Still, Trump has a (fairly few) themes to which he has actually stuck. The wall with Mexico is one, bromance with Putin is another. So, on the Russian-US relationship there might an initial improvement. Historically, “resets” with Russia have failed: under Clinton, GW Bush and Obama they did. However, Trump is different. Indeed, we never had a president like him in 200 years of American presidential history. So, who knows, perhaps the laws of geopolitics (two powerful countries with different interests and different political systems are bound to collide, unless united by a common enemy) will operate differently?  Btw, if the common enemy is Islamic radicalism, perhaps the better relationship makes perfect sense, and follows the laws of geopolitics.

Question 6: How do Polish people, or Eastern Europeans more broadly, view the election of Donald Trump? Do they view it as helpful to their interests? Or are they waiting to see how his presidency plays out a bit? What would Trump need to accomplish during his time in office to assure Eastern European allies of the U.S. with regard to their concerns about Russia?

I think that I answered most of this question above. Eastern Europe has fairly powerful right-wing parties and nationalist/anti-Islamic parties. These people look at Trump with sympathy, but despite, not because of, Trump’s Russian policy.

If Trump continues Obama’s policy of deploying US troops to Poland and the Baltic countries, and does it with greater zeal than Obama, Eastern Europeans who fear Russia will be reassured. That’s mostly Poland and the Baltics countries. The rest of Eastern Europe is different. It is high time not to talk about Eastern Europe as a block. This makes less and less sense as time moves on, and the memory of communism fades. Indeed, I just about never talk about communism in my classes, because the topic is less and less relevant to today’s issues. My antiquarian memories are for hobbyists and historians only. I am getting old.

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If you have questions or comments for Dr. Lubecki, he invites you to email him at jlubecki@georgiasouthern.edu

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