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War continues to haunt Polish-Russian ties

At a Gdansk ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the start of WWII, Poles take note of Putin's remarks.

Kaczynski’s jabs against the Russians shows that the war is still very much a live issue in Poland, where people still smart at having been abandoned by U.S. and British allies to spend 45 years under Soviet rule after the war.

The troubled relationship with Russia stands in stark contrast with Poland’s much better ties with Germany, despite Germany’s much greater atrocities against Poland. After years of suspicion, the two are both members of the European Union and NATO, millions of Poles live in Germany, and borders are open. Crucially, as Merkel stressed yet again in Gdansk, Germany is open about its guilt in starting the war. That does not mean there are no historical frictions between Poland and Germany. Poles look askance at German attempts to remember the millions of Germans expelled from central Europe after the war, worrying that Germans are trying to see themselves as victims, not perpetrators. But those tensions have not been enough to derail relations.

“The difference is fundamental,” said Adam Daniel Rotfeld, a former Polish foreign minister. “Germans have built a democratic system, and undertook a process of reconciliation — there was nothing like that in Polish-Russian relations.”

Russia’s inability to acknowledge its war guilt to Poland’s satisfaction overshadows other aspects of their relationship. Poland is still not persuaded of Russia’s acceptance of its independence. Poland sees its membership in NATO as crucial to its security, but it is something Russia regards with suspicion. Poland also agreed to host elements of the U.S. missile defense shield during last year’s Russian-Georgian war.

Even the need to import oil and gas from Russia causes heartburn in Warsaw. Some Polish officials have compared Russian plans to build a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea directly to Germany to the 1939 pact because it could leave Poland vulnerable to a cut-off of natural gas shipments from the east.

Putin’s comments in Gdansk were milder than recent Russian media and intelligence agency reports, which accused Poland of collaborating with Germany before the war, and said a pre-war Polish foreign minister was a German spy. There are even Russians trying to shift the blame for the massacre of the Polish officers to the Germans, something long disproved.

But even his more conciliatory stance was not enough to please the Poles.

“Two generations have passed, but the Second World War continues to demand reflection,” said Kaczynski.

Editor's note: This article was updated to correct the reference to last year's Russian-Georgian war.