Poland is situated in one of the toughest places on earth – right in the middle of Europe with assertive, even aggressive neighbors on all sides, some of whom may want it to disappear altogether. It did just that for 123 years until, shockingly, it was reborn after World War One thanks to steadfast Polish efforts. It survived the brutal post-World War Two Soviet occupation and even contributed to its collapse. Today it stands free, independent, the largest nation in Eastern Europe with the strongest economy.
And as usual, with problem neighbors. To the east, Russia, which invaded Ukraine, tells Poland to stop supplying U.S. weapons to Ukraine or else. To the west, the European Union, of which Poland is a member, threatens to cut off funds to the country unless it stops backsliding on democracy. Both powers say do as you’re told or suffer the consequences. Poland replies that it has heard all that before.
Russian leader Putin is no Stalin, who slaughtered more Poles than any other ruler in history. His war aims, he says, are limited: independence of the Russian-speaking eastern part of Ukraine and no further NATO advance toward Russian borders. But a more prolonged war, he warns, could eventually involve Poland which borders Ukraine, thereby triggering a U.S. military response, and then who knows what?
Russian rhetoric is in keeping with policy. A top Russian official says Poland has been infected with “Russophobia” by Western “puppeteers.” Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a Putin ally, boasts that he will attack Poland if it keeps giving weapons to Ukraine. “In six seconds, we’ll show you what we’re capable of.” A Russian TV host insists – you guessed it – Poland should disappear.
Poles reply that if anything, they will increase their aid to Ukraine. They have already accepted half of the five million Ukrainian refugees and many Poles go to the border with offers of food and shelter.
At the same time, they have built a fence along the border with Belarus, another Putin ally, to keep out refugees from that direction, mostly Muslims as compared to Christians from Ukraine.
Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity union that triumphed over the Soviet Union, says Russia should be dismembered with its population reduced from 145 million to fifty million. He doesn’t say it should disappear altogether.
The EU threat to Poland is not a military one. It doesn’t have any troops. Its power is only political but no less formidable for that. Its headquarters in Brussels keeps close tabs on 27 member nations to make sure they adhere to EU norms for European benefit. Violations are not accepted as we see in the case of Poland along with Hungary. The official complaint is that the Law and Justice Party, which has governed Poland since 2015, is compromising democracy by abridging the role of the judiciary among other actions.
Yet there’s a deeper reason for the rift. Increasingly, Brussels has appeared to be moving in a more global direction as opposed to the populism of Law and Justice, which combines liberal economic policies with traditional social values regarding gender, abortion, and the like. One size does not fit all, say dissenting Poles. who don’t want to leave the EU but change it from within.
Paradoxically, that may prove more difficult in the long run than militaristic Russia. Once the Ukraine war is over with a substantial Russian win, as seems likely, borders will be clear. Putin doesn’t care what happens on the other side of the Polish border so long as it doesn’t threaten Russia. The Poles can do as they please. But that’s exactly what concerns the EU. Poland must conform to EU guidance if it expects to have EU help and funds. It looks as if Poland will continue to live in a troublesome neighborhood.