Dispatch

All Tusk and No Teeth

The appointment of Poland's prime minister, Donald Tusk, as EU chief is a strong indication of collective intent toward Russian aggression. But will the new Italian foreign policy boss undermine him?

WARSAW, Poland — Back in spring, as Russia was annexing Crimea, Poland's prime minister, Donald Tusk, sounded the alarm bells for the rest of Europe, suggesting that it was unclear "whether children in Poland will go to school on September 1st at all." On Monday, Sept. 1, Polish children did indeed return to school after their summer vacation. But 1,000 miles east, in Ukraine's Donbass region, fewer than half of schools opened for the start of the new school year.

This weekend, as the conflict in Ukraine escalated even further, Tusk was named to one of the European Union's top jobs -- president of the European Council, or European leaders' decision-making club. That same evening, on Aug. 30 at an EU summit in Brussels, European leaders chose Federica Mogherini, known for her soft stance toward Russia, as the EU's foreign-policy chief, raising eyebrows about the message this sends about the bloc's stance on Ukraine.

The summit came at the end of a frantic week that involved a meeting of the Russian and Ukrainian presidents in Minsk, Belarus; the creeping advance of Russian forces into Ukraine; and an emergency meeting of the North Atlantic Council (NATO's main political decision-making body) on Aug. 29. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke at the EU summit the following day, and once the top jobs had been allocated, European leaders moved on to discuss further sanctions against Moscow. The talks lasted past midnight Brussels time, but the leaders failed to reach an agreement. Mogherini has since announced that a decision will be made this Friday, Sept. 5.

Tusk's appointment has drawn comparisons to the papacy -- partly due to the opaque manner in which the head of the European Council is chosen but, more symbolically, because of how high he has risen in international affairs. "To be honest, with the exception of John Paul II, no Polish man has ever assumed such high office," Pawel Swieboda, the head of demosEuropa, a think tank in Warsaw, told Reuters.

Choosing a Pole for the job 25 years after the fall of communism in Europe has "great symbolic meaning," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a speech to the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, on Sept. 1. Tusk himself has called his appointment "a huge opportunity to introduce this Eastern and Central European energy" into European affairs. Some Poles rounded off Saturday with a toast to Tusk's health, though, in downtown Warsaw, people were more excited about Poland's victory over Serbia in the opening game of the volleyball world championship in the city's National Stadium.

Things almost turned out differently. Tusk had been discussed as a possible candidate for months, but he was reluctant to accept the position, afraid that things would crash and burn at home if he left for Brussels. His departure is expected to cause an earthquake in Polish politics, where his center-right Civic Platform party, which has been trailing in the polls, faces parliamentary elections in 2015 (if not sooner). Poland's "Waitergate" wiretapping scandal this summer, involving top Polish officials, has not helped.

But at this moment, Europe needs Tusk more than Poland needs him -- which may have been what ultimately convinced him to take the job. In the days before the summit, the stars aligned in Tusk's favor, helped by a surprising endorsement by David Cameron, the British prime minister. (The catch: He expects Tusk to support his plans to reform the EU.)

Tusk, 57, is a sensible, pro-European figure who, in his seven years as Poland's prime minister, has won the respect of his peers in Europe and beyond. He enjoys playing soccer in his free time and has a sense of humor, which can be seen in this clip of him singing the Beatles' "Hey Jude" to draw attention to a government campaign. Unlike his polyglot (but otherwise lackluster) predecessor as head of the European Council, Belgium's Herman Van Rompuy, foreign languages are not Tusk's strongest point. "Nothing is good enough for Europe, including my English today," he admitted at the press conference the evening he was chosen. "I will polish my English," he added with a smile, promising to be ready by the time he starts the job in December.

Readers will likely be more familiar with Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland's already-polished, Western-educated foreign minister, who has been praised for his engagement with Ukraine. Speaking on Polish radio last week, he condemned Russian "aggression," which has created the most serious security crisis in Europe in decades. In a powerful Slate article, also last week, his wife, Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian, drew parallels with September 1939, when Poland was invaded from both the east and the west.

The EU foreign-policy job seemed tailor-made for Sikorski, but it ended up going to Mogherini, the Italian foreign minister, who was previously secretary of the parliamentary defense committee. As a center-left politician and woman, the 41-year-old fitted Brussels' staffing arithmetic (as it stands, there will be a dramatic gender imbalance in the next European Commission). But her lack of foreign policy experience -- she has only held her current job since February -- suggests that European leaders have once again shirked choosing a heavyweight for the job. Catherine Ashton, who currently has the job, had been derided as a lightweight from the start (despite her unexpected role in the nuclear deal with Iran last December). Since the Maidan protest last winter, her statements voicing that she is "gravely concerned" about events in Ukraine have become a joke in Kiev.

More worrying, given the current crisis, is Mogherini's attitude towards Russia. She previously backed South Stream, a controversial Russian pipeline that would circumvent Ukraine to bring gas to southeastern Europe, saying it would be good for Italy's energy security. Her visit to Moscow in July, apparently intended to show her interest in events in the east, backfired, confirming the widespread view in the EU's eastern member states that she is "pro-Kremlin oriented", as Lithuania's president, Dalia Grybauskaite, put it.

Southern Europe is traditionally less concerned about events to the EU's east -- unlike countries like Poland and Lithuania, which have long been calling for stronger EU engagement in the region. Fortunately, there is Tusk. As the Kremlin started flexing its muscles this spring, Tusk put security at the center of the Polish political debate. He has called for heightened NATO presence in the region and, in March, drew up a plan for a European energy union. "Excessive dependence on Russian energy makes Europe weak," he wrote in an article in the Financial Times outlining his proposals. But, reluctant to damage relations with Russia, they were met with limited interest in other European capitals. Tusk's hope now may be that a Pole will get the EU's top energy job, with rumors in Warsaw now that Elzbieta Bienkowska, Poland's deputy prime minister, might become the European commissioner for energy.

"There's a joke going round the corridors of Brussels that Tusk's appointment will be the biggest sanction against Russia," Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine's foreign minister, tweeted. "Although I prefer the word ‘challenge," he added.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out between Tusk and Mogherini -- who, after all, has the foreign policy portfolio. Tusk will have a mound of other things on his hands, including a dire economic situation and keeping Britain in the EU. With a tight agenda, limited formal powers, and a gaggle of 28 national leaders in the room, it is unclear how much Tusk will be able to do for Ukraine.

The clue may lie in looking at who backed Tusk. Like Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Juncker, who got another one of the top EU's jobs, the presidency of the European Commission, the union's executive arm, Tusk was endorsed by Germany's Merkel. Over the years, the two veteran leaders have made Polish-German relations closer than they ever have been before. But things have become less rosy in recent months amid Berlin's cautious reaction to events in the east, even prompting concerns that Germany has been trying to marginalize Poland in the Ukraine crisis negotiations. Sikorski, who played a key role in helping broker a deal between then-president Viktor Yanukovych and the Ukrainian opposition at the height of the Maidan protests in February, was noticeably absent from talks between the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine in Berlin this summer, to which he was not invited.

Ironically, Tusk and Sikorski are also the ones who worked hard to improve Poland's relations with Russia after they came to power in 2007. Tusk's firm response to the crisis in Ukraine temporarily boosted his ratings this spring. At the same time, he has shied away from the Russophobic rhetoric of the Kaczynski twins, who were in power before Tusk's party won the elections in 2007. President Lech Kaczynski's death in a plane crash near the Russian city of Smolensk in 2010, continues to fan the flame of conspiracy theories about Moscow's involvement in the accident. Now Tusk's departure for Brussels may turn out to be a gift for his political arch-rival, the conservative Jaroslaw Kaczynski -- the other twin. Still, Kaczy?ski's Law and Justice party, which is leading in the polls , has done surprisingly little to take advantage of the current geopolitical situation as of yet. Struggling to compete with Tusk's party on foreign policy, it has focused on diverting the debate back to domestic issues.

So far, Tusk has said that the key thing will be for him and Mogherini to formulate a "brave but not radical" response to the situation in Ukraine. "We share this point of view," he added.

Despite the negative press she has received, there are signs that Mogherini may be learning quickly (or at least taking care not to offend Poland and Lithuania. Tomasz Bielecki, the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza's Brussels correspondent, has pointed out that she may not be as bad as she is thought to be -- or, at very least, that she has a good knowledge of the geography of eastern Ukraine and events in Kiev. Speaking in front of EU lawmakers in the European parliament on Sept. 2, Mogherini described the situation in Ukraine as "a time of complete darkness" and said that the EU would decide on a new package of sanctions against Russia -- targeting sectors including defense, dual-use goods, and finance -- on Friday. The EU-Russia strategic partnership with is over, she emphasized, "and that was Moscow's choice."

But which of the Polish-Italian duo will actually hold the reins, and how far west Russian forces will have advanced by the time Tusk starts his job on Dec. 1, remains an open question.

EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET

Dispatch

Preparing for War With Ukraine's Fascist Defenders of Freedom

On the frontlines of the new offensive in eastern Ukraine, the hardcore Azov Battalion is ready for battle with Russia. But they're not fighting for Europe, either.

MARIUPOL, Ukraine - Blue and yellow Ukrainian flags fly over Mariupol's burned-out city administration building and at military checkpoints around the city, but at a sport school near a huge metallurgical plant, another symbol is just as prominent: the wolfsangel ("wolf trap") symbol that was widely used in the Third Reich and has been adopted by neo-Nazi groups.

The Azov Battalion -- so named for the Sea of Azov on which this industrial city is located -- is one of dozens of volunteer battalions fighting alongside pro-government forces in eastern Ukraine. After separatist troops and armor attacked from the nearby Russian border and took the neighboring town of Novoazovsk, this openly neo-Nazi unit has suddenly found itself defending the city against what Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called a Russian invasion.

Pro-Russian forces have said they are fighting against Ukrainian nationalists and "fascists" in the conflict, and in the case of Azov and other battalions, these claims are essentially true.

With the incursion from the Russian border, Mariupol, which had been peaceful since pro-Russian protestors were forced out in May, has become a third theater in the eastern Ukrainian conflict along with the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk. Pro-Russian forces claim this week's advance along the coast has been made by separatist rebels, but Oleh Odnorozhenko, deputy commander of the Azov Battalion, comprised of some 500 men, said the Ukrainians are facing thousands of regular Russian Army troops. He claimed that his men have captured dozens of Russian soldiers over the past week and destroyed a Russian fighting infantry vehicle.

"Despite all its wishes, the Russian Army will have a difficult time taking Mariupol," Odnorozhenko said, cradling his Kalashnikov as two more fighters jogged laps with their weapons behind him. "We have left our positions so it's not possible to shell us from Russia. That's why they came to Novoazovsk. Mariupol won't be taken without blood."

Odnorozhenko said the city's defenders are "first and foremost volunteer battalions," with numbers of National Guard and regular Ukrainian Army troops playing a smaller role. Overall, there are more than 50 volunteer battalions fighting in eastern Ukraine, he said. The pervasiveness of these paramilitary units has raised concerns about their influence over the government. National Guard spokesman Ruslan Muzychuk said the volunteer battalions play a role in the city's defense but insisted that "all the battalions in the anti-terrorist operation cooperate according to the military chain of command."

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has come, in some ways, to resemble a battle between Ukrainian and Russian nationalists. Volunteers from the nationalist groups who clashed with riot police on Kiev's Independence Square this past winter have filled out the ranks of the many battalions fighting alongside Ukraine's small, dilapidated regular army in the east, including Azov.

Meanwhile, the pro-Russian forces are striving to reunite what they say are historically Russian lands to create Novorossiya ("New Russia"). Each side refuses to see anything of itself in the other. The pro-Russians call the Ukrainians fascists, who in turn portray their opponents as imperialists. Odnorozhenko said the conflict involved "people with a European identity fighting with Sovietness."

But the "European identity" to which Odnorozhenko aspires is one estranged from mainstream European and American liberalism. The Azov Battalion, whose emblem also includes the "Black Sun" occult symbol used by the Nazi SS, was founded by Andriy Biletsky, head of the neo-Nazi groups Social-National Assembly and Patriots of Ukraine. Although the Social-National Assembly website linked to by the Azov Battalion's social network pages said its program was undergoing "development and modernization," other materials on the site give a clear idea of the group's political leanings.

"Unfortunately, among the Ukrainian people today there are a lot of 'Russians' (by their mentality, not their blood), 'kikes,' 'Americans,' 'Europeans' (of the democratic-liberal European Union), 'Arabs,' 'Chinese' and so forth, but there is not much specifically Ukrainian," read one text. "The reason for this situation is the mass propaganda of trans-myths that are foreign to us through advertising, television, laws and education. It's unclear how much time and effort will be needed to eradicate these dangerous viruses from our people."

According to Odnorozhenko, the battalion's political platform supports the natsiokratiya, a system of government devised by the Ukrainian nationalists of the 1930s and 1940s, who fought Soviet forces but were also guilty of atrocities such as the murder of thousands of Jews and Poles. It supports a national government based on syndicates representing different classes of the population, as well as a strong foreign policy including the nuclear re-armament of Ukraine, he said.

The battalion has a number of foreign volunteers, including numerous Russians, four Swedes and one Canadian, but no Americans, Odnorozhenko said -- as two jeeps full of tanned fighters in sunglasses and bandannas rolled into base, a wolfsangel painted on each side.

Although he declined to provide details, Odnorozhenko said the Ukrainian forces are deploying armor, building fortifications, and "activating different military groups" in the Mariupol area. Local activists have been digging trenches in some places outside the city and organizing "civil defense" forces.

Ukrainian forces have been falling back in the face of the Russian advance. According to various reports, they had retreated to the west of the town of Bezimenne ("No Name"), which would put them within 20 miles of Mariupol itself.

Besides a strong defense, Ukraine needs the support of the West to defeat the invaders, Odnorozhenko argued. He called for the Europe and the United States to take a more aggressive stance on Russia and begin shipping weapons to Ukrainian pro-government forces. Oddly enough, he compared the conflict to World War II, when his battalion's ideological forebears were fighting Soviet and Western troops.

"The blindness and stupidity of the European political elite will lead to Russian aggression being open and unhidden, and Russian forces will soon be everywhere," he said. "A hybrid war? We have the kind of normal war that was last seen in Europe in 1945." 

SERGEI SUPINSKY / AFP