When a Russian airstrike hit a large military base in Ukraine just 15 miles from the Polish border, it drew instant international attention. The attack stood at strategically given its proximity to the territory of a Nato member. Any attack on Polish soil would trigger an automatic response from Nato countries and represent a major escalation of the conflict.
The Baltic states and Poland have been warning western countries about Russia for years. Recently, Radosław Sikorski, former Polish foreign minister and current member of the European Parliament, expressed frustration over western states patronising eastern ones for years by suggesting they were “over-nervous” and “over-sensitive” about the Russian threat.
There is a long history of distrust between Poland and Russia that is not attributable to over-sensitivity or prejudice. Poland experienced Russian, Austrian and Prussian partitions three times in the 18th and 19th century – a history that casts a long shadow. In 1939, the Soviet Union’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, signed an appeasement with Germany and declared the end of the Polish government, enabling Germany to takeover Poland.
Rise of the European Union
Ever since the EU expanded to bring in some former Soviet states in 2004, Poland has moved closer to its western neighbours in diplomatic terms. Meanwhile, Poland’s ascension to Nato in the late 1990s brought the alliance’s border eastward. And regular tensions have flared with Russia ever since.
Just last year, on the 80th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, Russian president Vladimir Putin accused the Polish government of colluding with Hitler at the outset of the second world war. This came as a reaction to a European Parliament resolution recognising that the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union contributed to the outbreak of the war. At the same time, however, Putin joined a ceremony commemorating the Soviet massacre of about 22,000 Polish officers in Katyn.
It was during a journey to commemorate that same massacre in 2010 that Polish president Lech Kaczyński was killed in a plane crash. His death, alongside his wife and 100 Polish dignitaries led to further tensions between Russia and Poland. This was in no small part because separate Russian and Polish official inquiries produced contrasting evaluations of what happened that day.
Under the new government led by the deceased president’s twin brother, Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland has been shifting in an increseasingly undemocratic direction, causing a rift with EU partners. But while the political tactics on display might be reminiscent of the Kremlin, relations remain bitter in that direction too.
Being at the border of the European Union has left Poland in a precarious position on numerous occasions, even before the crisis in Ukraine. Reflecting on a reluctance to send Nato troops to the border, Sikorski complained that other nations did not understand “the pain of being a flank country, of being on the edge of the world of democracy, rule of law and security”.
For some time, Poland and Hungary have been in dispute with the rest of the European Union over their floundering commitment to the democratic principles considered to be at the heart of the European project. But the situation in Ukraine could drive a wedge between the two EU nations.
An alliance against Brussels is one thing but appeasing the Kremlin quite another. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán visited Putin at the Kremlin as recently as February. His nation’s deep economic ties, geographical position and energy dependence create quite a different picture when it comes to ties with Moscow.
Meanwhile the Polish government has put forward a “homeland defence bill”. This will rapidly ramp up defence spending and bring in voluntary military service.
Unlike Hungary, it is clear where Poland’s allegiance lies. Even if the government has not seen eye-to-eye with Brussels in recent years, Poland firmly supports European sanctions against Russia and has already taken more than 1 million refugees from Ukraine.
We can expect Polish voices to continue to remind Brussels of how precarious security can be on the periphery of the union. That was made clear when Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki recently visited Ukranian president Volodymyr Zelensky alongside his counterparts from the Czech Republic and Slovenia.
However, while Poland is becoming a European leader in the response to the Russian attack, the EU won’t forget its expectations for its member states to maintain democratic values.