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‘We will be in danger if Russia wins’: Security concerns drive Poland’s support for Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has conferred a new importance to the Baltic States and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe geographically closest to Russia – particularly Poland. Warsaw is determined to learn from Poland’s own history and help Ukraine win the war.  

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Poland has been living with the consequences: 8 million Ukrainians have crossed the border into Polish territory since last February and the majority of NATO assistance is delivered through Poland, which shares a 535-kilometre-long border with Ukraine. With the prospect of a new Russian spring offensive in Ukraine on everyone’s mind, Poland is acting as if it is preparing for a war.  

If Poland’s support for Ukraine has been seemingly limitless, it comes from a deeply rooted belief that if Russia is not defeated, Poland itself will become a target. Security concerns have led Poland to modernize its army and boost its defence spending to up to 4 percent of its GDP this year, the highest percentage among all NATO countries, according to Prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki.  

“If we don’t support Ukraine now, there will be new targets for [Vladimir] Putin,” said Paweł Jabłoński, the Polish deputy minister for foreign affairs. “A Russian politician recently suggested that Russia should ‘denazify’ six more countries after Ukraine, including Poland. What we do now, we do out of solidarity and in support of the victims.”  

“The opinion throughout Polish society is that if Russia succeeds in Ukraine by claiming territory, whether in Kherson or Zaporizhzhia, there will be the next war, and another after that…,” said Łukasz Jankowski, a political journalist who covers the Polish Parliament. “The feeling is that our basic safety and our independence will be in danger if Russia wins.”  

The threat from Belarus  

Another fear is that Russian troops would combine the territories wrested away from Ukraine and “create a government like the one in Minsk”, said Jankowski. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, an international treaty between Russia and Belarus signed in 1997 by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko created the basis for a union between the two former Soviet republics. Both countries maintained their independence but Lukashenko has always supported Russia’s military initiatives without directly taking part in them.  

Should the war in Ukraine drag on, some in Eastern Europe fear Russia could eventually aim for the Baltic States. “This war is not over the territory of Ukraine but over the independence of Eastern Europe. That is why we must support Ukraine and there should not be any limits to this help,” said Jankowski.  

Poland’s support for Ukraine has been especially forthcoming when it comes to the country’s humanitarian response. Poland began to see increasing numbers of Ukrainians in 2014, the year the conflict effectively started with Russia’s takeover of Crimea. “We opted for a very simple way of permitting them to work,” said Jabłoński.  

Following the Russian invasion last year, a massive influx of 8 million refugees crossed the border into Poland, though many eventually went on to Romania and Moldova while others returned home. Recent arrivals have brought the total number of Ukrainians living in Poland to 3.37 million people. “In every Polish city, you can meet someone from Ukraine. There was never any ghettoization. Their integration was virtually seamless and today Ukrainians make up 8 percent of the total population in Poland,” said Jabłoński.   

A shared history not without dark episodes  

“Many Poles who take Ukrainian refugees into their homes see Ukraine as a very new nation, and they consider the relationship between Poland and Ukraine as a brotherhood,” said Jankowski. The history between the two countries is not without dark episodes. During the Second World War, Poles were the victims of ethnic cleansing by Ukrainian nationalists, while Poles forcibly deported thousands of Ukrainians. Decades later, former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski and his Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Koutchma led a historic and formal Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation beginning in 1995.  

The strong bond between the two countries comes from similar languages and a shared history. In 1997, Ukraine and Poland had a no-visa regime. The experience of Ukrainians in a large, Slavic country with functioning public insitutions and a free market helped drive calls for reform in Ukraine, wrote the historian Timothy Snyder in his book “The Construction of Nations”. At the turn of the century, Poland resisted pressure from the European Union to end its visa-free regime with Ukraine, asserting its right to fulfill its obligations once its adhesion to the EU became official. Once Poland joined the EU, its special arrangements with Ukraine came to an end.

While Poland has set a model in terms of welcoming refugees from Ukraine, its hospitality towards refugees from other countries has been debatable. A report from Amnesty International detailed Poland’s “selective solidarity” of welcoming Ukrainians fleeing the war and refusing entry to other refugees, principally from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, who were attempting to enter Poland through the border with Belarus. 

Is there an element of self-interest in Poland’s extensive help to Ukraine? Polish vice-minister for Foreign Affairs Jabłoński wrote off the idea, claiming instead that the number one priority was to defend Ukraine and Central European states from a resurgent Russia. “In 2021, Russia demanded NATO to withdraw from Central Europe. If our international position grows while we are helping Ukraine win the war, we would be glad,” he explained.

“If Germany had taken a stronger position for Ukraine, we wouldn’t have had to take on this role. I wish we didn’t have to take on this role,” said Jabłoński, while citing the power imbalance between Central Europe and Western Europe, whose citizens often have the top leadership positions in European institutions.    

‘We want to strengthen NATO and be a driving force within it’ 

An opportunity for developing Central Europe’s role would be through a future Polish-Ukrainian Treaty, which could be signed in the upcoming weeks or months. Comparing it to the Élysée Treaty between France and Germany, Jabłoński said it would be a wide security, cultural and economic agreement. The treaty would “certainly not” be an alternative to NATO. “We want to strengthen NATO and be a driving force within it,” said the deputy foreign minister.  

When it comes to integrating Ukraine into the European Union, Polish leaders and observers are under no illusion. “We know corruption exists within the Ukrainian administration, but Poland [which joined the European Union in 2004] can help with its know-how,” said Jankowski.  

With the enlargement of the EU, citizens from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine found themselves materially and symbolically separated from “Europe”, according to Snyder, who noted that the hard border may have been helpful to authoritarian rulers like Lukashenko. By helping Ukraine, Poland is considering “lessons that were repeated in the past”, said Jabłoński, “because otherwise we could be victims again”.  



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