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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Puts History Aside for Closer Polish Ties

ReutersPrime Ministers Donald Tusk and Vladimir Putin talking as they walk along a pier in Sopot on Tuesday. The two agreed to leave the past to historians.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, agreed on Tuesday to leave their countries’ painful past to historians to study and focus their energy instead on developing closer ties.

The two leaders met in the Polish town of Sopot amid commemorations for the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II, when the first Nazi shots were fired at the tiny Polish military outpost of Westerplatte.

“I believe that what relates to the history, what relates to the beginning of this tragedy, is first and foremost a matter for specialists, at least today,” Putin told Tusk, according to a transcript of their meeting posted on the government’s web site. “Of course, we need to understand what served as a starting point to this war — to understand and move on.”

Tusk thanked Putin for coming, telling him that “you and I are taking another step in strengthening trust with such an attitude toward the past on which we can build our future.”

Relations between the two former members of the Communist bloc have deteriorated rapidly since 2004, when Poland actively supported a regime change in Ukraine that brought pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko to power there.

Moscow also fiercely opposed a plan advanced by the previous U.S. administration and some Polish politicians to set up a missile base in Poland. Russian officials argued that the base, which its supporters said would counter possible missile strikes from Iran, would undercut Russia’s strategic security balance with the United States.

The latest diplomatic spat between Russia and Poland was linked to World War II anniversary, with each side accusing the other of striving to make a deal with Nazi Germany before the war.

The usually hawkish Putin unexpectedly struck a reconciliatory note Monday, writing in the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza that the two countries should stop politicizing the history of their relations and start strengthening ties, as Russia and Germany have done.

He described the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, under which Europe was to be divided between Nazi Germany and Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union, as “immoral.” He also described the 1940 execution of more than 20,000 Polish officers at Katyn by the Soviet secret police as a “crime” and called for “forgiveness,” adding that the same attitude should be granted to Russian soldiers who perished in 1920 during Moscow’s brief war with Poland.

The message was well met by Poland’s political establishment. Even Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Warsaw-born former national security adviser to U.S. President Jimmy Carter and an outspoken critic of Moscow, praised Putin’s article, Interfax reported Tuesday.

Tusk said after the talks with Putin that they had agreed to create joint centers to study the Katyn tragedy and Putin had promised to open Russian archives for joint research.

“The creation of the Russian-Polish centers — institutes that will study historical issues, including those related to the Katyn massacre — demonstrates that we can move step by step toward mutual understanding,” Tusk said at a news conference with Putin.

Putin said Tusk and his government were “colleagues and partners that we can work with.”

The role that Stalin’s Soviet Union played in defeating Nazism is perhaps the strongest and proudest part of Russians’ national identity. East European nations, however, blame Stalin for the Ribbentrop-Molotov deal with Hitler and also for the emergence of socialist regimes in their countries after World War II.

The Kremlin recently tried to counter these accusations by creating an official commission against the falsification of history to Russia’s detriment, which at its first meeting last week decided to focus on defending Russia’s liberating role in World War II.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov defended the Soviet Union in an interview published Tuesday in Rossiiskaya Gazeta and accused Western countries of being responsible for the biggest tragedies of the past two centuries, including World War II.

“All tragedies of 19th and 20th centuries, including colonialism, extremist products of European political thought, the First and Second World Wars, Nazism and Fascism, as well as the Cold War, took place when the West dominated global politics, economy and finance,” Lavrov said.

Tadeusz Iwinski, a lawmaker with the Democratic Left Alliance in the Polish parliament, said Putin’s remarks on Tuesday provided “a much-needed contrast to the alarming signals that have been coming from Russian historians and officials in the past weeks.”

Some of them were unprecedented, most notably a claim in a documentary aired on Rossia state television last week that Poland bore responsibility for the outbreak of World War II, he said.

For the Poles, the most serious issue is the Katyn massacre, Iwinski said.

“Of the approximately 200 volumes in the Russian archives, we have had access to less than a half. Putin acknowledged that he might open them for us today. This is a very positive signal,” he told The Moscow Times.

Krzystof Bobinski, a political analyst with the Warsaw-based Unia & Polska think tank, said Putin’s condemnation of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, made amid conflicting statements from Russian historians and officials was the most important move.

“This visit makes it clear that Putin would like to improve Russia’s relations with Europe,” he said by telephone. “I suppose that in a way reaching out to Poland could provide him with a ticket that will allow him to do so.”

Kristina Mikulova contributed to this report.