Long on Europe's fringe, Poland takes centre stage as war rages in Ukraine

Poland has has repositioned itself as an indispensable and a trusted ally of the US. PHOTO: AFP

WARSAW (NYTIMES) - After the White House announced this week that President Joe Biden would visit Poland, the Kremlin let rip with a belligerent tirade: Polish leaders were a "vassal" of the United States, gripped by "pathological Russophobia", and their country a "community of political imbeciles".

Instead of fearful jitters, however, the broadside by Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of the Kremlin's security council, stirred a burst of pride in Warsaw.

"This is further proof that the Russians treat Poland seriously and see its growing importance in the West," said Stanislaw Zaryn, director of the Department of National Security and spokesman for the coordinating minister for security.

Russia's rage and Biden's decision to make Poland his only European stop on Friday and Saturday (March 26) after summit meetings in Belgium reflect a new reality created by the war in Ukraine: Poland is suddenly the pivot around which many of the West's hopes and Russia's fury turn.

Shaking off, or at least obscuring, its reputation as Europe's inveterate troublemaker, Poland's right-wing populist government has now taken centre stage, embraced by both Brussels and the United States as a linchpin of Western solidarity and security. It shows no sign of retreating from its many fights with the European Union, but Poland, which has also quarrelled with Washington, has repositioned itself as an indispensable and a trusted ally.

"Poland is the centre of gravity. Just look at the map," said Jacek Bartosiak, founder of Strategy and Future, a Warsaw research group. "Without Poland there is no Nato eastern flank."

Dmitry Medvedev's angry remarks about Poland made Polish leaders proud. PHOTO: REUTERS

To fortify that flank, the Pentagon has sent more than 5,000 additional troops and Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries to Poland, more than doubling the number of US military personnel in the country.

On Wednesday, Poland said it had identified 45 Russian diplomats as spies, all of whom had been ordered to leave the country.

The deputy foreign minister, Pawel Jablonski, said Poland could not tolerate Russia's abuse of its embassy in Warsaw when Moscow "is waging a barbaric war against Ukraine". Spies disguised as diplomats, he added, not only "pose a threat to Poland's security, but also to the security of Ukrainian citizens staying in Poland. Hence this decision."

Previously scolded by Brussels for its hostility to migrants, Poland has over the past month welcomed more than 2 million refugees fleeing the war next door in Ukraine, far more than any other country. It has also become a vital staging post for the supply of weapons, ammunition, fuel and other assistance to Ukraine and put itself at the centre of deliberations shaping the West's response to the crisis.

Warsaw has become the capital through which all diplomatic, military and humanitarian roads to Ukraine now pass.

And the Polish government, which earlier infuriated Washington by pushing through legislation, later vetoed by the president, that threatened an American-owned television network, is basking in the glow of appreciative attention. In recent weeks, it has received visits and praise from US Vice-President Kamala Harris; CIA Director William Burns; Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin; the president of the European Council, Charles Michel; and a host of other senior US and European officials.

Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, on Tuesday described Poland as a "frontline and very vulnerable ally" that "has taken the brunt of the humanitarian impact outside of Ukraine".

Poland's sudden prominence as Nato's most exposed frontline state has stirred alarm that it could be sucked into the conflict, particularly after Russian missiles last week obliterated a Ukrainian military base near the border. Among those most worried are some of the Ukrainians who fled to escape fighting at home.

"Poland is too close. I want to get out of here," said Yevgeny Pyskuko, a music teacher who fled to Poland after Russian forces attacked a huge nuclear power station near his home in southeastern Ukraine. "I want to go across the ocean. It is not safe here."

Despite the possible risks, Poland has been in the forefront of rallying Europe to take tough measures to punish President Vladimir Putin of Russia for his aggression.

After rejecting refugees from places like Iraq, Poland is now taking in millions from Ukraine. PHOTO: REUTERS

When Germany, stunned by Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Feb 24, weighed whether to preserve the long-standing pillars of its security and foreign policy toward Russia, Poland's prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki - who just a few weeks earlier had attended a conclave of Putin-friendly populists in Madrid - flew to Berlin to personally "shake Germany's conscience" and stiffen its resolve against Moscow.

Soon after Morawiecki's trip to Berlin, the German government dropped its earlier resistance to sending weapons to Ukraine and to ejecting key Russian banks from a money transfer network known as SWIFT.

Poland's deputy culture minister, Jaroslaw Sellin, a conservative firebrand who previously relished his country's role as Europe's great disrupter, has found a new cause celebrating Poland's favour at the centre of attention.

"Everyone watches us with admiration," he told Radio Gdansk on Tuesday.

Long-running squabbles with the European bloc over the rule of law, LGBT rights, coal mining and various other issues still rumble in the background and the government's critics worry that instead of curbing what they see as a steady demolition of democratic norms by the governing party, Law and Justice, Poland's newfound favour will only embolden the government.

"We are in this respect another victim of the war," lamented Roman Kuzniar, a professor at Warsaw University who advised the country's previous pro-European governments before Law and Justice took power in 2015.

"War always helps those who are ruling a country. It would be too bad if both the European Union and the United States forget about all the wrong things that this government has done and is doing."

Poland's ruling party has previously been criticised for eroding democracy and rights in the country. PHOTO: AFP

For the moment, however, security issues have trumped the governing party's image as a disruptive force obsessed with stoking culture wars and hostility to foreigners, particularly migrants, bureaucrats in Brussels and Germans.

"The government focused too much on stupid things instead of more important things like security," Bartosiak said. "But now everybody in Poland sees what matters."

Supported in parliament by even its fiercest political enemies, Law and Justice last week enacted a new Homeland Defence Act that will increase military spending to 3 per cent of gross domestic product, from around 2.2 per cent.

Poland was already one of only 10 countries in the 30-member Nato alliance that met a minimum spending target of 2 per cent.

Polish foreign policy, preoccupied until the war in Ukraine with efforts to form a bloc of like-minded conservative and often pro-Kremlin European populists who share its hostility to Brussels, is now working to cement a new bloc of European countries pushing for tougher sanctions against Russia, including the Baltic states and the Czech Republic.

At a meeting of European foreign ministers this week in Brussels, Poland joined Lithuania and other countries on Europe's eastern fringe that have a long and painful experience of Russian aggression in lobbying hard for a ban on oil imports from Russia.

The effort failed in the face of strong opposition from Germany, the Netherlands and others, but it put Warsaw at the centre of an emerging bloc of nations determined to punish Putin for invading Ukraine.

Remote video URL

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.