“Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The famous words of Winston Churchill, who was dealing with the Soviet Union under Stalin rather than Russia under Putin. The world has changed – not always for the better some might think – since Churchill’s era, but is Russia any less mysterious or enigmatic? Or, more accurately, do we understand what Russia actually wants and can we work with her?
When it comes to defence matters, one man has his doubts. At a gathering of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels on Tuesday, Poland’s Witold Waszczykowski questioned Russia’s willingness to cooperate during the meetings which she holds with NATO. For him, the tone of the meetings is not all it might be. “We support the meetings of NATO countries with Russia, but we are wondering if they are heading towards any particular purpose,” Waszczykowski told reporters before the meeting. “Where do we want this dialogue to go?” – shades of Sir Markus Browning – he said, while adding that Poland does wish the meetings to be held regularly.
At the NATO summit in held in Warsaw in July, NATO adopted a twin strategy towards Russia with a policy of deterrence by strengthening NATO’s eastern flank while still maintaining dialogue. “We accepted resuming talks within the NATO-Russia Council, but so far, little has been achieved. Russia uses these meetings to promote only its own policies, but we do not see any willingness to cooperate,” said Waszczykowski. A criticism that could be made closer to home. According to the foreign minister, Poland does want to convince Moscow that NATO does not have aggressive intentions either towards Russia or to any other country.
Poland has greater cause than many to be wary of her neighbour to the east, and Poland is one of the few NATO countries meeting the commitment to spend two per cent of gross domestic product on defence. Thus Poland’s steady modernization of its armed forces, the latest example being the Polish defence minister Antoni Macierewicz’s announcement on Wednesday that three agreements on new equipment have been signed. The first relates to Polish-produced drones capable of carrying payloads, the second relates to the production of weapons to be carried by drones, and the third relates to the supply of equipment such as sights and night vision apparatus for Poland’s new territorial defence forces.
During a session whereby internet users were able to interact with the defence minister via Twitter, Macierewicz said that thanks to such agreements with Polish companies, the country was increasing its ability to repel a potential threat from Russia. While being clear on the potential threat, he did not specify how many drones would be bought, although he had said last month that thanks to the drones “our combat capabilities will be such that we will able to defend ourselves against every threat.”
Which is all very well, of course, but not all of the defence minister’s proposals for new weapons are equally popular. The establishment of the territorial defence force has become controversial pending clarity as to the command structure, which appears outside the normal military chain of command, those who would able to join it, and the no-doubt heretical suggestion that it is inherently dangerous to set up any armed body which see might see one political party as representing the true Poland.
Be that as it may, last week, Macierewicz said that within the next few years he wants legislation to be passed to allow greater public gun ownership in Poland, and the third-largest party in parliament, Kukiz ’15, has already submitted a draft law with the aim of putting firearms in the hands of one million more Poles. Interestingly, a new survey by IBRIS for Rzeczpospolita found that 79% of those polled oppose loosening gun-ownership laws.
And this in the context of a gradual authoritarian drift by the government, one example of which is the planned new law dealing with public gatherings, currently making their way through the Polish parliament. On Friday, the Sejm approved rules that would ban counter-rallies from taking place in the same place as public assemblies, and would give priority to gatherings organized by the authorities, churches and religious groups. A government spokesman said that these legal changes are democratic, adding that the proposed rules on public gatherings “are conducive to assemblies by citizens”. Interior Minister Mariusz Błaszczak said the changes would not restrict civil rights. “This is a law about resolving social conflicts,” he said. “It does not make sense for two groups to demonstrate in one place at the same time. That would lead to confrontation, to brawls.” In opposition, 77 NGOs have appealed to the Senate to reject the rules, and called on President Duda to veto the law if it is enacted.
Of course one man’s social conflict is another man’s assertion of liberty, and it is a dangerous step when any government anywhere is so careful of the citizens’ liberties, that it puts them away for safekeeping.