Yesterday President Volodymyr Zelensky arrived in Poland, where he received the prestigious White Eagle award established more than 300 years ago.
The White Eagle is the oldest and highest decoration of the Republic of Poland, awarded for great civil and military merits for the country. It’s rarely given to non-Poles. And now Zelensky joins the ranks of Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa and Saint John Paul II as post-World War II recipients.
What has Zelensky done for Poland?
Apart from being a paradigm of courage and a role model on how to stand up to the Russian giant next door, Zelensky and Ukraine’s resistance have turned Poland into the geostrategic lynchpin of Europe.
Poland, along with the Baltic states, is leading the way in bringing aid to Ukraine. Whether it’s by actually supplying weapon systems, or merely announcing their willingness to do so, they oblige other NATO allies to follow suit.
The sleepy Polish town of Rzeszów has now become Grand Central Station for all manner of NATO materiel and personnel.
Poland was already allocating 2.42% of its GDP to its defense budget even before the Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began. In January, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawieck declared that Poland will increase its defense spending to 4% of GDP.
As military analyst Hans Petter Midttun pointed out in Kyiv Post, “Poland’s army has 170,000 soldiers presently. On par with Germany today, it plans to build ‘the largest land army in Europe’ with 300,000 men and women comprising 250,000 professional soldiers and 50,000 civil defense personnel.”
In short, with Russia having scattered the geopolitical cards by flipping the table over, Poland is now a force to be reckoned with. And its clout will be felt increasingly in Brussels, both at the EU and NATO headquarters.
Does Ukraine acknowledge Poland’s help?
Constantly. In fact, Zelensky himself repeated at a press conference in Poland yesterday: “I will never get tired of thanking the ordinary Polish people who have been helping the ordinary Ukrainian people since the beginning of the Russian invasion. Ukraine will never forget your humane attitude towards Ukrainians.”
Since the first days of the full-on attack, millions of Ukrainian refugees have funneled through Poland to settle abroad. More than 1.5 million of them have chosen to stay in Poland.
By all accounts the Polish welcome has been extraordinary. Not only does one find blue and yellow flags all over Polish cities, but the train stations near the border are full of bulletin board notices in Ukrainian for available jobs.
Is there a risk of Ukraine fatigue?
Absolutely. With so many Ukrainians flooding into the country, combined with their ability to assimilate quickly into a culture with a similar language and many shared historical ties, some Poles are expressing fear of the “Ukrainianization of Poland.”
As Adam Borowski wrote in Kyiv Post: “Ukrainians must heed the new realities that will culminate in the approaching Polish elections.”
The ruling Law and Justice party, which has been staunchly pro-Ukrainian, will likely form a coalition with the Konfederacja party.
“The initial enthusiasm to help Ukrainian refugees is waning in Poland. The Ukrainian war is a strain on Poland,” Borowski claims. “For its part, Konfederacja is trying to exploit the growing discontent in Polish society to its advantage. Grzegorz Braun, a prominent Konfederacja MP, openly protests against what he calls the Ukrainization of Poland.”
To aggravate matters, Moscow has long supported pro-Russian elements in Polish society that exploit historic antagonism between Ukraine and Poland.
Does that mean the Poles and Ukrainians have not always been friends?
The history between Poland and Ukraine is long, with intervals of enmity and alliance.
Before Moscow took control of Ukrainian lands in the late 17th century, most of the populated regions west of the Dnipro were colonized by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Poles, and before them the Lithuanians, had come in gradually after the Mongol invasion of 1240 destroyed Kyivan Rus, leading to a depopulation of now Ukrainian lands.
At one point, in 1648, the Cossacks rose up against the Polish nobility and began a campaign that led to years of war and chaos. For Poland is was the beginning of its decline from regional superpower to partition and absorption by neighboring empires. In fact, historians in Poland refer to the period after the Cossack uprising as “the Deluge”; whereas for the Cossacks that same infelicitous period came to be known as “the Ruin.”
When the dust had settled, Peter the Great and his new Russian Empire were the regional superpower.
Since then, both Poles and Ukrainians have had to contend with Moscow as an existentialist threat to their very identity.
Wasn’t there trouble in the 20th century?
Undeniably. Poland, which had been annihilated as a state in the 19th century, had just re-established itself after World War I. Ukraine tried to do the same, but was ultimately thwarted by the Bolsheviks.
As a result, the new Republic of Poland ruled over western Ukrainian lands that were not as homogenous as they are today.
The end of World War II saw major ethnic-cleansing all over Europe, and the area near what is today the Polish-Ukrainian border was no exception. Poles were forced to go west and Ukrainians were forced to go east. Poles, in particular, recall the Volhynia massacres perpetrated by Ukrainians. Ukrainians, too, saw their villages destroyed.
So today, while the younger generations have relegated the enmity to history books, many of the older people still remember their parents’ accounts.
How to go forward?
One of Ukraine’s staunchest Polish-American supporters was Zbigniew Brzezinski (1928-2017), former National Security Advisor for U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
Brzezinski, whose family came from Ukraine’s Ternopil region, always understood that Ukraine and Poland must maintain a Western-leaning position in this era and remain united if they are to definitively break free from Russia’s yoke.
In December 2013, when the Maidan protests were in full swing, Brzezinski wrote: “The events in Ukraine are historically irreversible and geopolitically transformatory. Sooner rather than later, Ukraine will be truly a part of democratic Europe; later rather than sooner, Russia will follow unless it isolates itself and becomes a semi-stagnant imperialistic relic.”
Poland has led the way. Ukraine is following. And Russia? Who knows.
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