Author: Natia Totoghashvili, Master of International Relations, International Black Sea University
Based on shared historical experience, security, political needs and geographical proximity, the Russia-Ukraine war has become an opportunity for Europe’s eastern flank, especially Poland, to show the world what it is capable of after overthrowing the socialist regime and uniting for international cooperation. For Poland, the current conflict in the region has proved to be significant in several ways: on the one hand, a difficult past resurfaced that naturally brought about security challenges arising from a resurgent revisionist power, and on the other, away to highlight its strategic location, one that is vital for the EU and NATO to fight Russian imperialism.
In our blog, we will try to answer the question: how does the ongoing war in Ukraine affect the role and importance of Poland in the international arena?
Poland’s security challenges and past experience
The dynamics of Ukrainian-Polish relations have always been characterized by the highest standards of cooperation, which were primarily conditioned by a common, difficult past. These relations further deepened and warmed up during the war, which is explained by the existence of a foreign threat – and Russia has always been such to these countries.
Poland’s leading role against Russian military aggression in Europe points to its severe experience of Russian imperialism, which first manifested itself in tsarism, and then in the Soviet form. Now, the civilized world is actively fighting the aggressive foreign policy of its successor. Poland has been participating more actively in these retaliatory actions since it joined the European Union in 2004. After its accession, politicians from Warsaw warned Europe about the growing threats coming from a resurgent and revisionist Russia. Acting President Andrzej Duda, during a meeting with the Secretary General of NATO, in a speech at a press conference in 2018, noted that neither the past experience nor the coming years indicated possible cooperation between NATO and Russia, and that Moscow was not ready and had no desire for constructive dialogue.
For years, Poland opposed the deepening of German-Russian relations in the energy domain, the main goal of which was to transfer Russian gas to Germany directly, without an intermediary state. The Poles met with particular opposition the NORD STREAM II project, which connects Siberian gas to the Baltic coast of Germany. Based on the hard experience of Poland’s past, politicians, especially the Minister of Defense Radoslaw Sikorski, as early as 2006 compared this pipeline project to the successor of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (signed in 1939, as a result of which Poland was also deprived of some territories), which resulted in the world war and the Nazi and Soviet regimes invading Poland. The Poles warned Germany that this was an opportunity for Russia to bypass Ukraine as a major transit country, and supply gas to Germany, which would naturally encourage its aggressive actions and put Ukraine at risk of war, leaving all of Europe vulnerable to Russian energy blackmail. Germany ignored this warning even on the eve of the start of the war, and the project was suspended only on February 26, 2022.
Poland’s historical experience, as Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau says, is entirely based on the struggle for freedom, independence, and existential survival: for them, the concept of independence means liberation from Russia. He quotes the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski and says that Moscow has always had interests in Ukraine, because the Russian Empire cannot exist without Ukraine. The existence of an independent Ukraine leaning towards the West will transform Russia and destroy its idea of restoring the empire, while a Ukraine under its subjugation will guarantee the status of Russia as an empire. Gaining control over Ukraine, its people, resources, and the Black Sea, for Russia means once again becoming a threat to European and transatlantic security. Lech Kaczynski proposed the roadmap of this route, arguing that the Russian aggression would not stop in Tbilisi or Kiev, but would reach the Baltic countries and finally Poland. The position of Polish officials is based on the assumption that Russia will not stop unless it is stopped by the joint efforts of the free world.
Poland’s international cooperation against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war
Poland’s outstanding role in world security policy began in 1999, when it became a member of NATO and the main pillar of security on the eastern flank of the alliance. This was made possible by its strategic location, rapid economic growth, and the modernization of its military system, which, in turn, was the result of increased financial spending on military resources, which grew even more during the war and was manifested by intensive purchases of military equipment from the USA and South Korea, the strengthening of the bilateral defense dialogue with the USA, and a change in military strategy- which is now focused on the increase of ground forces, the main goal of which is the formation of the strongest ground army in the European Union member states, which means replacing the current leaders Germany and France.
Poland soon began advocating in NATO and the EU to send much-needed aid to Ukraine, and became the main transit country for international aid sent there. Poland’s advantage lies in its border with Western Ukraine and the airport at Rzeszow, which has become the main conduit for Western weapons entering the territory of Ukraine. Passenger planes there were used to smoothly transfer aid from NATO countries and other allies of Ukraine; the airport was also used to deliver small ammunition and heavy armored vehicles. For this purpose, the United States of America and other NATO member states have deployed additional troops, armored vehicles, and air defense systems to the border regions. Consequently, Poland found itself on the frontline of the systemic conflict that arose between the West and Russia, and assumed a role as important as Germany’s during the Cold War.
Along with military assistance, Poland has been particularly active in diplomatic efforts as a loyal friend, ally, and representative of Ukraine. As well as demanding the tightening of sanctions against Russia, Poland is actively trying to put pressure on international partners, especially on Germany, so that Ukraine can more effectively oppose Russian aggression – Poland remembers Germany’s old position – a passive role after the end of the Second World War, and an avoidance of involvement in conflicts. Poland had a special mission to ensure the safe conduct of Western leaders’ visits to Kiev. The visit of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to Kiev three weeks after the start of the war was a symbol of support and friendship, and in April 2022, Andrzej Duda himself visited Kiev, together with the leaders of the Baltic states, to show support for Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The civil position in Poland is equally strong, reflected in the full mobilization of society around this issue, as well as expressions of support, aid, donations, charity events, and free will for the Ukrainian people to be able to protest the Russian aggression while in Poland.
The efforts of Poland did not go unnoticed by NATO’s main partner – US President Joe Biden, who has visited Poland twice in the last year. His last official visit to Warsaw took place in February 2023. The visit once again underlined Poland’s vital role in supporting Ukraine during the ongoing war, and its growing importance in NATO. Moreover, Poland’s actions are evaluated by American experts and high-ranking officials as vital, helping NATO to respond effectively to Russia’s war in Ukraine. Biden’s visit confirmed that the strong ties between the countries continue and that Poland is one of the most important allies for the US and NATO.
The Polish leaders constantly warned NATO and the European Union about possible threats from Russia. Moreover, they urged the organizations to establish close ties with Ukraine, as they saw the the coming Russian threat. The outbreak of the war fully validated Polish assumptions and put Russian aggression on the agenda, while prior to this, the Polish radicalism against Russian actions was considered by the Western partners as a post-communist disorder. Today, the reality has completely changed, because for NATO, Poland is the main partner in the Ukrainian war, and for the West – the main weapon in the defense of Ukraine and Europe.
Dynamics of Poland’s relations with other EU member states
The Russo-Ukraine war and the growing role and importance of Poland created a need for the EU to rethink its relationship with Poland.
The rift between Poland and the EU, which dates back to 2015 and is based on the illiberal views of the Polish Law and Justice Party, led to the restriction of financial aid allocated during the pandemic (which was supposed to be transferred from the European Post-Pandemic Recovery Fund) to Poland for the gross violation of democratic norms. It was the first time in the history of the European Union that the institution used such strict measures against a member state because of its judicial politics and democratic backsliding. Poland met this decision with great resistance, and even mentioned a second war front. Jaroslaw Kaczynski referred to Berlin as the “Fourth Reich” in the context of the EU goals.
The tense relations, especially between Germany and Poland, have not changed significantly, although Poland’s support for Ukraine, expressed by opening the border, accepting refugees and providing for their social needs, and military aid, has been crucial for European cooperation, for the EU to see the outstanding role of Poland on the Eastern flank of Europe and the need to review relations. Since the beginning of the war, Poland has been putting particular pressure on Germany to send military weapons to Ukraine, since the German federal government had strict controls on the export of military equipment, especially if a country was not a member of NATO and the European Union, in which case, export was possible only in the interests of a special security policy. Due to this restriction, it was also impossible for other states to supply German-made weapons to Ukraine, including Poland. Eventually, the pressure of the US, along with Poland’s request for a quick supply of weapons, pushed Germany to agree to send a Leopard 2 tank system from its own stockpile to Ukraine. In the elite circles of Poland, it was common to hear the opinion that one should not hope for Germany, as it “only thinks about itself,” and in this way they increased pressure on the one hand on the German local authorities, and on the other on the European Union as a whole. This is how they tried to stir up anti-German sentiment inside the country. Another example of the Polish-German confrontation is the note sent by the Polish government to Germany on September 1, 2022, demanding reparations (1.3 trillion euros) to compensate for the losses that Poland suffered during World War II. These actions were aimed at counterbalancing the loss of financial aid that the EU had withheld from Poland, and also served to reverse public sentiment over the financial losses resulting from tensions between the Polish government and other EU member states, especially as Poland faces parliamentary elections in 2024.
All in all, the analysis of Polish-German relations shows that the dynamics of these relations have not changed significantly – these countries still remain in opposition to each other and cannot offer the best model of relations to the world. Their rhetoric is still limited to criticism and appeals, especially among the ruling circles, although the Russia-Ukraine war is having a significant impact and is forcing both sides to rethink their foreign policies towards each other. The Polish experts evaluate the current events from two points of view. The first side considers the war as their own, and believes that Poland represents Ukraine’s hope in this war, since the Ukrainian government itself has a high level of trust towards the Polish government. The remaining experts pay particular attention to the so-called internal confrontation of Poland with Germany and the European Union, which, according to said experts, is trying to destroy their independence and, therefore, the Russia-Ukraine war is an opportunity for them to show the rest of the world the weakness of Germany’s earlier decisions in relations with Russia.
With its own humanitarian response against Russian military aggression, Poland was able to become a strong European power, a main base and a partner for international cooperation. The effort increased Poland’s importance to NATO and strengthened diplomatic relations with the US in the defense domain. As for the European Union, Poland is trying to show the West that the power dynamics in Europe in terms of the strategic distribution of defense is changing for the better for Poland, especially in the Central and Eastern parts of Europe; however, relations are still tense due to democratic breakdowns within Poland, which is most clearly seen vis-à-vis Germany, and which is emphasized by both the EU and the US. Finally, according to Ben Hodges, a US officer, NATO mentor and top general of the US Army in Europe, the real center of gravity in Europe is shifting to the east.