On March 26, as part of a broader trip to Europe to fortify Western unity, U.S. President Joe Biden traveled to Poland to meet with U.S. troops stationed in the Eastern European country and the Polish President, Andrzej Duda. During the visit, Mr. Biden referred to his Polish counterpart as a “brother” and applauded Mr. Duda for his leadership at one of the most perilous times in the West’s relations with Russia since the end of the Cold War.
This cozy reaction from Mr. Biden is a reversal of ties in recent years due to what the United States and the European Union (EU) bemoan as democratic backsliding. However, it is emblematic of the changing dynamics within this previously fraught relationship. Today, Poland stands front and center in the West’s proxy war with Russia in Ukraine. But, how long will these newly close ties last?
Polish Ties with the West Are Strained…At Best
Over, the past several years, Poland’s relations with the United States and the rest of the European Union have been rocky. Shifting toward Western values like liberal democracy, market economies, the rule of law, and human rights, Poland emerged from the Cold War as an independent country after years of rule by Moscow and aligned itself with Western institutions, joining NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004.
Yet, ever since coming to power in 2015, the Law and Justice Party – Poland’s governing political party – has clashed with the EU over its nationalist, right-wing agenda, specifically its hardline position on refugees, anti-LGBTQ stance, and efforts to bring the press and judiciary under tighter political control. As a result of the clashes, Brussels has been withholding pandemic recovery funds in hopes of persuading Warsaw to more fully embrace the liberal democratic values that have come to define the EU.
There has been more of an ebb and flow in the relations between the Washington and Warsaw. Mr. Duda maintained a close relationship with former President Donald Trump due to similar populist, far-right ideological outlooks. Ties under the Biden administration have been decidedly cooler. As a candidate, Mr. Biden likened Poland to Hungary – another democratically backsliding country in the EU – and Belarus – a Russian ally providing significant support during Russia’s war in Ukraine – as a means of warning about the “rise of totalitarian regimes.” In short, Polish ties with the United States and Europe were strained, at best. Until now.
Poland on the Front Lines
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed America and Europe’s calculus in coordinating with Poland. Conversely, the Russian invasion of its next-door neighbor reminded the Polish government just how much it needs the United States and the EU as well.
Today, despite its assault on liberal democratic values, Poland has proven itself to be a key ally in NATO’s clash against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. Poland, one of Ukraine’s neighbors that has constantly warned against Russian aggression, now finds itself on the frontlines of the West’s proxy war with Russia in Ukraine. Poland has absorbed nearly 60 percent of the Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war, according to United Nations’ estimates. Poland now serves as one of the major staging area for weapons and aid traversing the Polish-Ukraine border. Poland remains one of Russia’s toughest critics in Europe, pushing had for the EU To block all energy imports from Russia. The Polish government is even looking to boost defense spending to 2.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), putting it at the top with NATO’s highest spenders, a commitment recently promised by Germany
Over the course of the past several weeks, Poland has transformed from a marginal member of NATO to a crucial leader in the Western alliance.
Can It Last?
Despite vast improvements since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the relationship is not without its problems, particularly with the United States. The Biden administration was reportedly blindsided when Poland offered to route MiG-29 fighter jets through a U.S. air base in Germany to Ukraine, an offer that the United States worried risked a direct conflict between NATO and Russia. There was also tension between the two sides when Jaroslaw Kacynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party and de facto leader of Poland, suggested that NATO send a peacekeeping mission to Ukraine to end the war, an option that the United States and other NATO members immediately dismissed. And, the disagreements between Poland and its EU partners over its violation of the rule of law remains the elephant in the room.
The warm relations between Poland and its Western friends are largely the result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. More than likely, the friendlier and more cooperative than usual sentiments will fade in time. While the United States and other NATO allies will remain committed to defending Poland from attack in accordance with Article 5 and Poland maintains its membership in the European bloc – although the possibility of a Polexit is not out of the question – the United States and Europe cannot ignore Poland’s violations of Western values. The democratic backsliding presents a significant challenge to not just NATO and EU strength, it poses a threat to the entire Western coherence in its fight against Russia over Ukraine. It is a challenge that the United States and Europe cannot afford to lose.