If there’s one nation that understands Ukraine’s torment, it’s Poland, which welcomes President Joe Biden on Friday as part of his emergency mission to shore up NATO’s defenses following Russia’s brutal invasion.
In the United States, Biden’s warnings that democracy is under siege from menacing autocrats can seem remote, even after former President Donald Trump’s US Capitol insurrection and attempt to steal the 2020 election.
But in Poland, which neighbors Ukraine, freedom is fresh enough to still be a novelty. In a tortured 20th-century history, the country – torn between East and West – was repeatedly conquered, was ruled by foreign tyrants and saw millions of its people purged or driven as refugees from homes destroyed by warfare.
Poland again finds itself on the front line of conflict. It’s on the dividing line between states in the NATO club, to which it now belongs, and President Vladimir Putin’s Russian orbit, which includes another Polish neighbor, Belarus. Poland has opened its borders to more than 2 million of the 3.7 million Ukrainians who have fled Putin’s onslaught, and the war came close to its borders with a Russian strike on a base in western Ukraine earlier this month.
Like Ukraine, Poland lived for decades under Moscow’s Communist iron fist. Like Ukrainians, Poles are often gritty, are deeply suspicious of Russians and have fighting for their freedom and sovereignty ingrained in their DNA. Unlike Ukraine, one of the founding republics of the Soviet Union, Poland made it to the West after decades under the Warsaw Pact umbrella. And in addition to being in NATO, it’s a member of the European Union, albeit one that has had tensions recently with Brussels over its own flirtations with populist nationalism.
As Putin’s threat mounted in recent years, Poland hosted rotations of US troops and jets. In February, before Putin invaded Ukraine, Poland was one of the nations to which Biden ordered 3,000 troops to bolster the alliance’s eastern flank. If the war in Ukraine spills over into a broader conflict between Russia and the West, a frightening prospect, there’s a good chance it could happen in Poland.
“We feel that it is the right place for (Biden) to go to be able to see troops, to be able to see humanitarian experts, and to be able to meet with a frontline and very vulnerable ally,” US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said this week.
Biden’s trip comes several weeks after Vice President Kamala Harris was in Warsaw and helped ease a disagreement between the two governments about Poland’s plan to send Soviet-era jets to Ukraine. Biden opposed the transfer, reasoning that it could be seen by Putin as an escalation of the conflict that could create a cascade of consequences and a showdown between the West and Russia, which would risk a nuclear exchange.
Deep ties with Washington
Americans and American presidents are popular in Poland – a legacy of strong US support for the dissident Solidarity movement, which was nurtured in the shipyards of the northern city of Gdansk and created some of the first cracks in the Soviet Empire, with the support of the Polish Pope, John Paul II.
Ronald Reagan, the American President mostly credited with winning the Cold War, was revered in Poland. And his successors have often found a warm welcome on European tours. Poland, conscious of its debt to the US and keen to build stronger ties to the West, sent troops to America’s early 21st-century wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – even as many of Washington’s older allies balked at joining the latter conflict.
Over the next two days, Biden will meet Polish President Andrzej Duda and is expected to visit US forces sent to bolster Poland’s defenses. Biden will visit some of the thousands of Ukrainian refugees in the country to shine a spotlight on the grave humanitarian crisis unleashed by Putin that is straining health and government services in Eastern Europe. Biden, who announced Thursday that the US would accept up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, hinted after a NATO summit that he would meet some of the throngs of people who have fled Putin’s civilian bombardments in Ukraine and his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Friday that Biden will meet with Ukrainian refugees and deliver a “major address” in Warsaw on Saturday.
Ahead of that possible visit, the President reflected on refugees whom he had met in camps elsewhere in the world over the years.
“You see children that are without parents in those camps … men and women who are completely lost … and you see that blank look on their face, that absolute feeling of ‘My God, where am I?’” Biden said.
Poland is used to being a presidential metaphor
US presidents have long seen Poland as an exemplar of freedoms that NATO was set up to safeguard and have lauded its long and successful battle for its own existence – a struggle that Ukraine is now waging.
Poland was eviscerated in the middle of the 20th century when almost all of its substantial Jewish population was murdered in the Holocaust. The preserved camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, west of the southern city of Krakow, stand as a haunting memorial to the horrors of the Nazi occupation. The fall of the Third Reich didn’t, however, bring liberation. Poland then endured nearly half a century of Communist repression imposed by Russia.
In 2003, in Krakow, President George W. Bush lauded the eastward expansion of NATO, which has so irked Putin, saying it had brought “the peace and security of our alliance to the young democracies of Europe.” At the time, however, Bush was more preoccupied with the twin wars in Afghanistan and Iraq launched after the September 11, 2001, attacks than a revived showdown with Moscow.
In 2014, marking the 25th anniversary of an election that started a process that led to the downfall of Communist rulers in Warsaw, President Barack Obama said: “The victory of 1989 was not inevitable. It was the culmination of centuries of Polish struggle.”
But Trump chose a different tone traveling to Warsaw in 2017 to align himself with right-wing forces in Poland and Europe hostile to the EU – a bloc that the-then President abhorred. In a speech that redefined traditional Western values and fleshed out his own brand of populist nationalism, Trump did reaffirm NATO’s Article 5 creed that an attack on one member is an attack on all. But he also slammed US intelligence assessments that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election in remarks that bolstered Putin, warned that a wave of Muslim immigration and lax border controls threatened Western values and lashed out at American journalists in a nation that had been accused by the EU of eroding its own press freedoms.
Biden’s message will be very different.
After meeting Duda in Warsaw on Saturday, the President will deliver a speech that the White House says will frame the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a challenge to the core purpose of his presidency at home and abroad: securing “a future that is rooted in democratic principles.”