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How the Russia-Ukraine Crisis Is Turning Poland Into a Strategic Player

By Michal Kranz, a freelance journalist.

As a key NATO ally that shares a 332-mile border with Ukraine, Poland has been quietly bracing for the worst. Towns across the country have been setting up accommodations to prepare for the up to 1 million refugees who could arrive if Russian forces, which have now entered Russia’s proxy states in eastern Ukraine, touch off a wider war. After hackers hit several Ukrainian ministries and two major banks in the country last week, Poland’s public administration and security services heightened their own vigilance against potential cyberattacks. Now that a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine appears more likely by the day, Polish leaders are keenly aware that what happens in the coming weeks will inevitably affect Poland, too.

So far, Warsaw’s diplomatic and military profile in the region has only grown throughout the crisis.

Poland has been the main destination for U.S. troops arriving in Eastern Europe since January: After sending 2,000 soldiers to Poland and Germany in early February, Washington deployed 3,000 additional troops to Poland, including from the 101st Airborne Division. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also announced a $6 billion weapons sale to Warsaw, which will include 250 M1 Abrams tanks, as he visited U.S. troops in Poland last week. On Monday, Washington moved its diplomatic staff in Ukraine to Poland.

Meanwhile, Poland has been providing Kyiv with vital support. Since December, Polish politicians have been visiting Kyiv to show solidarity with Ukraine; announced plans to send tens of thousands of artillery shells, anti-aircraft weapons, and mortars, among other arms, to the country; and, as of last week, finalized a new tripartite security agreement between Poland, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom that aims to improve trade and defense cooperation between the three countries.

Yet Poland’s importance in the slow-burning crisis may rise still further. Sitting between Russia’s post-Soviet sphere and Western Europe, Poland is no stranger to great-power confrontation. As both a target and vocal opponent of Russian ambitions, NATO’s largest member in Eastern Europe is positioned to play a crucial role in Europe’s security relationship with Russia and become the linchpin of Western efforts to project power in Eastern Europe.

There’s a reason the West has focused on Poland during this crisis: Poland is currently the top defense spender in Eastern Europe behind Russia itself, and its critical location in the region makes it a key part of NATO’s deterrence network against Moscow.

Poland sits on the edges of the farthest western extensions of Russia’s presence in Europe: Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave and Belarus, which has effectively become a Russian proxy state since Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko called in Russian support against nationwide protests disputing his sham reelection in 2020.

Since then, Russian President Vladimir Putin has used Belarus to threaten Poland. After Warsaw supported and provided refuge to the Belarusian opposition, Lukashenko engineered a migrant crisis in 2021, almost certainly with backing from Moscow, that left thousands of migrants stranded along the Polish—and European Union—border. According to Poland and the EU, Lukashenko’s weaponization of migrants and his concurrent wave of propaganda against Poland constituted hybrid warfare. In addition, Belarusian forces destroyed Polish border barriers, harassed Polish security forces, and allegedly fired blanks at Polish forces—the closest confrontation between a NATO member state and a Russian ally since the end of the Cold War.

Even before the current crisis, Poland, which joined NATO in 1999, had long been at odds with Russia. After occupying Poland for 123 years prior to World War I, Russia invaded Poland again during World War II and installed a puppet communist regime after the war that lasted until 1989. Since then, the two countries have sparred due to Warsaw’s opposition to Putin’s regional posturing and its support for Ukraine’s moves to embrace the West since 2014. “Poland impedes Russia because we have a long history of proximity and we don’t shy away from explaining Russia to the West,” said Radoslaw Sikorski, who served as Poland’s foreign minister and defense minister in past governments and is now a member of the European Parliament.

Creating a prosperous Ukraine free of Russian interventionism is about more than just security for Warsaw.

Now, Poles are increasingly wary of looming threats on their doorstep amid the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Beyond the potential for waves of disinformation, cyberattacks, and more of the kind of hybrid warfare that Poland faced from Belarus last year, Russian forces stationed as close as 124 miles from Warsaw in Belarus have also rattled Poland. These forces are primarily meant to menace Ukraine, but Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau has called their presence a “great concern.”

Although any Russian attack on Ukraine would have an enormous impact on Poland and the region, “the direct threat against Poland will come from the territory of Belarus, not from the territory of Ukraine,” said Marek Swierczynski, the head of the security desk at the Polish research institution Polityka Insight.

Given the threats posed by a militant, Kremlin-reliant Belarus, and Poland’s aversion to a major conflict breaking out across Ukraine, it appears inevitable that Poland will be forced to become even more of a strategic player in the region. And that’s a role Warsaw clearly wants to take on.

“Poland, from the very beginning of this tension that Russia is evoking, has been trying to play on the international stage very actively,” said Michal Potocki, a journalist with the Polish magazine Dziennik Gazeta Prawna and a lecturer at the University of Warsaw. “The strengthening of democracy in Ukraine, and the strengthening of political pluralism in Ukraine, serves to also strengthen the pro-Western orientation of [Ukraine].”

Creating a prosperous Ukraine free of Russian interventionism is about more than just security for Warsaw. It is also vital to safeguarding economic and social ties between the two countries. Poland is Ukraine’s second-largest trading partner behind China, and as the largest immigrant group in Poland today, Ukrainian residents and laborers have become an integral part of the Polish economy.

And it’s not just Polish policymakers who care about protecting their southeastern neighbor. According to a pan-European poll conducted last month by the European Council on Foreign Relations, 65 percent of Poles said their country should come to Ukraine’s defense if it were attacked by Russia—a much higher percentage than in any other country polled. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party’s styling of itself as the single-handed defender of Europe from Russian and Belarusian incursions may have contributed to such attitudes.

In addition to bringing Poland closer to its regional allies, Rau visited Moscow last week in his capacity as this year’s chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in hopes of reducing regional tensions. And Poland’s new alliance with Ukraine and the U.K. suggests Warsaw wants to expand its role as a regional node of security cooperation between Western Europe and Ukraine.

Nevertheless, this role has so far grown only outside the institutions of the EU. Even as the current crisis has progressed, Poland’s long-running battles with the EU have persisted, and a European court struck down a Polish legal challenge related to rule-of-law issues last week. According to Sikorski, disagreements of this kind have weakened Poland’s efforts to build alliances within Europe.

Still, amid the crisis, Poland has taken a step back on divisive, internal quarrels in the EU. For instance, Polish President Andrzej Duda has introduced legislation getting rid of controversial judicial reforms, stating that “we don’t need this fight.” “The absolute priority is the security of the continent, the security of the Western world understood broadly, the security of Ukraine, the security of Poland,” Potocki said.

Even if Putin does decide to stop short of open war with Ukraine, the political moment that Poland has found itself in is not one that will pass soon. Expanding Warsaw’s military budget, which the government has pledged to do as it plans to more than double the size of its troops, will allow Poland to become more self-sufficient in its own security in years ahead—as will continued efforts to smooth over the rows that have tarnished its relationship with the EU.

Poland knows it must prepare for a future in which it will have to play a leading role in keeping Putin’s Russia at arm’s length. After all, this crisis will almost certainly not be the region’s last.

Michal Kranz is a freelance journalist reporting on politics and society in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the United States.

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