How the Russian-Ukrainian crisis makes Poland a strategic player

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As a key NATO ally that shares a 332-mile border with Ukraine, Poland is quietly preparing for the worst. Cities across the country have set up housing to prepare for up to 1 million refugees who could arrive if Russian forces, which have now entered Russia’s proxy states in eastern Ukraine, trigger 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 have increased their own vigilance against potential cyberattacks. Now that a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine seems every day more likely, Polish leaders are acutely aware that what happens in the coming weeks will inevitably affect Poland as well.

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

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

As a key NATO ally that shares a 332-mile border with Ukraine, Poland is quietly preparing for the worst. Cities across the country have set up housing to prepare for up to 1 million refugees who could arrive if Russian forces, which have now entered Russia’s proxy states in eastern Ukraine, trigger 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 have increased their own vigilance against potential cyberattacks. Now that a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine seems every day more likely, Polish leaders are acutely aware that what happens in the coming weeks will inevitably affect Poland as well.

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

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

Meanwhile, Poland provided Kiev with vital support. Since December, Polish politicians have traveled to Kyiv to show their solidarity with Ukraine; announced its intention to send tens of thousands of artillery shells, anti-aircraft weapons and mortars, among other weapons, to the country; and, last week, finalized a new tripartite security agreement between Poland, Ukraine and the United Kingdom which aims to improve trade and defense cooperation between the three countries.

Still, Poland’s importance in the slow-burning crisis could increase further. Located between Russia’s post-Soviet sphere and Western Europe, Poland is no stranger to great power confrontation. Both a target and opponent of Russian ambitions, NATO’s largest member in Eastern Europe is well placed to play a crucial role in Europe-Russia security relations and become the linchpin of Western efforts to project power into Eastern Europe.


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

Poland sits on the fringes of the westernmost extensions of the Russian presence in Europe: the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus, which has effectively become a Russian proxy state since Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko appealed for Russian support. against nationwide protests challenging his sham re-election in 2020.

Since then, Russian President Vladimir Putin has used Belarus to threaten Poland. After Warsaw supported and provided refuge for the Belarusian opposition, Lukashenko caused a migration crisis in 2021, almost certainly with the support of Moscow, which left thousands of migrants stranded along the Polish border and the European Union. According to Poland and the EU, Lukashenko’s militarization of migrants and his concomitant wave of propaganda against Poland amounted to hybrid warfare. In addition, Belarusian forces destroyed Polish border fences, harassed Polish security forces and reportedly 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 before World War I, Russia invaded Poland again in World War II and installed a puppet communist regime after the war that lasted until 1989. Since then the two countries fell out due to Warsaw’s opposition to Putin’s regional position. and its support for Ukraine’s moves to embrace the West since 2014. “Poland is hindering Russia because we have a long history of closeness 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 previous governments and is now a member of the European Parliament.

Now, Poles are increasingly wary of the imminent threats on their doorstep in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. Beyond the potential for waves of disinformation, cyberattacks and other types of hybrid warfare that Poland has faced since Belarus last year, Russian forces stationed 200 km from Warsaw in Belarus have also shaken Poland. . These forces are primarily intended to threaten Ukraine, but Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau called their presence a “great concern”.

Although any Russian attack on Ukraine would have a huge 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 chief from the security office at the Polish research institute Polityka Insight.

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

“Poland, from the very beginning of this tension that Russia evokes, has tried to play very actively on the international scene,” said Michal Potocki, a journalist at the Polish magazine. Dziennik Gazeta Prawna and lecturer at the University of Warsaw. “The strengthening of democracy in Ukraine and the strengthening of political pluralism in Ukraine also serve to reinforce the pro-Western orientation of [Ukraine].”

Creating a prosperous Ukraine without Russian interventionism is not limited to the security of Warsaw. It is also vital for 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 workers 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% of Poles said their country should stand up for Ukraine if attacked by Russia, a much higher percentage than in any other country surveyed. The fact that Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party portrays itself as the sole defender of Europe against Russian and Belarusian incursions may have contributed to such attitudes.


“Paradoxically, this conflict could be an opportunity for Poland,” said Tomasz Grzywaczewski, Polish journalist and expert at the Warsaw Institute.

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

However, this role has so far only developed outside the EU institutions. Even as the current crisis has progressed, Poland’s longstanding battles with the EU have persisted and a European court last week overturned a Polish legal challenge linked to rule of law issues. According to Sikorski, such disagreements have weakened Poland’s efforts to build alliances within Europe.

Yet amid the crisis, Poland has taken a step back from the internal wrangling that divides the EU. For example, Polish President Andrzej Duda introduced legislation scrapping controversial judicial reforms, saying “we don’t need this fight”. “The top priority is the security of the continent, the security of the wider western world, the security of Ukraine, the security of Poland,” Potocki said.

Even if Putin decides to stop before an open war with Ukraine, the political moment in which Poland finds itself is not one that will soon pass. The increase in 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 the years to come. , as have continued efforts to smooth over the squabbles that have marred 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 bay. After all, this crisis will certainly not be the last in the region.


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