Poland’s Ukrainian rehabilitation

Russia’s war against Ukraine has been reshaping European politics. The former Soviet bloc countries of Central and Eastern Europe—all now members of the European Union and NATO—have proved to be a major force in shaping the West’s strategy for preserving Ukraine as an independent nation-state. And none more so than Poland.

When discussions about imposing a price cap on Russian seaborne crude oil stalled last year, it was Poland, Lithuania and Estonia that the United States lobbied to break the impasse. These governments had dug in their heels to demand an even lower price (of US$30 per barrel), in order to cut more deeply into the Kremlin’s oil revenues. Then, at the start of this year, US Treasury officials turned to Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland again, to see what maximum price level they would accept for additional caps on Russian refined petroleum products.

Before the war, Poland and the Baltic states were often portrayed as being irrationally intransigent when it came to dealing with Russia. Owing to their memory of Russian imperialism, occupation and oppression, they had long exhibited a ‘Russia realism’, in stark contrast to the pragmatic, economically minded stance of Germany and France.

This divergence in perspective prevailed up until Russia’s full-scale invasion last February. Even though the US intelligence community had presented compelling evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin was about to send in his forces, most other Western governments continued to insist that such a move was ‘irrational’ and thus ‘improbable’. By contrast, Poland and the Baltic states took the reports at face value and braced for the worst.

One year later, their strategic posture has become the new Western standard. Central and Eastern European governments now enjoy significant influence in Brussels, London and Washington, especially when it comes to designing policies to punish Russia. Some have demonstrated unwavering resolve, even as their bigger, more powerful EU neighbours have made half-hearted efforts and dragged their feet.

For example, Poland has provided more military, humanitarian and financial assistance to Ukraine than most other Western countries. It has welcomed 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees (more than any other country) and increased defence spending to a record 3% of GDP this year, putting the Polish army on track to become one of Europe’s finest.

Of course, not all Central and Eastern European countries are on board. Most notably, Poland’s formal ‘illiberal’ ally, Hungary, has adopted an openly pro-Russian stance. Its anti-EU propaganda and obstruction of sanctions against Russia have been a major a headache for both the EU as a whole and its Visegrad neighbours (the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia). Poland and Hungary used to be in lockstep when they would break with the EU on issues such as migration and the rule of law. Now, they find themselves in opposite corners.

This falling out leaves the Visegrad Group in a tough spot. Both the Czech and Slovak governments are among Ukraine’s top supporters globally, in terms of total bilateral aid as a percentage of donor GDP. They have also shown solidarity with Ukraine by welcoming hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees and providing heavy weaponry. Moreover, Slovakia has used its position as the president of the Visegrad Group to mute foreign policy cooperation with Hungary. But this clear foreign policy orientation could have been bolstered by closer alignment in other policy arenas, notably, on energy policy. The EU’s oil embargo last year was a case in point: the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia all negotiated exemptions allowing them to continue importing Russian oil through the southern Druzhba pipeline.

While the commitments from some Central and Eastern European states remain patchy, Poland has continued to rise to the challenge. But to emerge decisively as a new force in the EU, it will have to do more to win the confidence of other Western governments. That means shaking off its image as Hungary’s illiberal fellow-traveller and addressing its own democratic shortcomings head-on.

After the right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power in 2015, Poland’s reputation nosedived. Once the EU’s leading economic success story, the country ceased to be viewed by its partners as offering largely constructive positions. Under its chairman, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, PiS has stripped the judiciary of its independence, smeared independent media outlets, curtailed access to legal abortion, ended state funding of in vitro fertilisation, and—as recently as last October—harassed LGBT and women’s rights activists.

Poland’s democratic backsliding came fully under the spotlight during the pandemic, when it ended up in a standoff with the European Commission over a rule-of-law requirement for receiving EU recovery funds. Poland’s government is now pursuing limited reforms designed to free up the funds that were allocated for it.

Looking ahead, one hopes that the 73-year-old Kaczynski’s influence will diminish, enabling PiS to undergo a political facelift. Many now regard Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki—a former banker and economic adviser to former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk—as being more modern, competent and independent (from Kaczynski) than his PiS predecessors. Later this year, a general election will offer a fresh opportunity for a reset and revival of democratic institutions.

Poland’s geostrategic importance is undeniable, and its response to Russia’s war of aggression has improved its international standing. With leaders who understand the nuances and complexities of dealing with Russia, it can serve as an effective broker for Central and Eastern European interests in Brussels, and for Europe’s interests in the world. But to be taken seriously, Poland must defend democratic values and freedoms at home with the same resolve it has shown in standing with Ukraine.