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How Poland became the new ‘center of gravity’ in Europe

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“Glory to Ukraine,” chanted the Polish crowd gathered outside Warsaw’s Royal Castle. “Glory to the heroes,” responded Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, smiling in gratitude. His Wednesday visit to the Polish capital marked a meeting of close friends and allies, whose bonds have only grown tighter since the onslaught unleashed by Russia last year. Earlier in the day, President Andrzej Duda awarded his Ukrainian counterpart Poland’s highest honor, the Order of the White Eagle, while Zelensky voiced thanks for the active role Poland has played in marshaling support for Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion and in welcoming more than 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees.

“You have not abandoned Ukraine, you stood with us shoulder to shoulder, and we are grateful to you. We believe this is a historic relationship,” Zelensky said at a joint appearance with Duda. “Your personal attitude to our people, millions of Ukrainians who have found shelter in Poland, who feel at home here — I want to thank the entire Polish nation for all of this and for those first days and weeks when we needed this help so much.”

It’s not just Zelensky who appreciates the help. Over the course of the past year of war, Poland has emerged as a key bulwark in the West’s confrontation with Russia. Beyond accommodating Ukrainian refugees, it has been a major conduit of aid and supplies to Ukraine, a vocal advocate for Kyiv’s initiatives to join both NATO and the European Union and a vociferous critic of Western Europe’s perceived softness toward the Kremlin.

That political conviction has been reinforced with steel: While many NATO countries still struggle to boost their defense funding to the mandated 2 percent of their GDP, Poland’s defense spend is slated to reach 4 percent. Before other European nations, it rushed some of its inventory of German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and, most recently, became the first country to pledge fighter jets to Kyiv’s war effort. The United States, in conjunction with NATO, recently established a new permanent military garrison in Poland, alongside a gigantic new arms and weapons depot, bristling with hundreds of U.S. tanks and infantry vehicles. Poland, said a U.S. commander recently, is “a linchpin of regional security.”

Poland was once an outcast in Europe. Then Russia invaded Ukraine.

On the threat of Russia, Poland’s hawkish nationalist government sees itself vindicated. “We’re seeing again today what the people of Poland, and the people across Europe, saw for decades,” President Biden acknowledged during a speech delivered in Warsaw in February, referring to the ambitions of the autocratic regime in the Kremlin.

Indeed, the war in Ukraine has ushered in a kind of geopolitical shift in Europe, moving “NATO’s center of gravity” — as Chels Michta, a U.S. military intelligence officer and nonresident fellow at the Center of European Policy Analysis, recently put it — away from its traditional anchors in France and Germany and eastward to countries such as Poland, its Baltic neighbors and other nations once under the Iron Curtain. In Central and Eastern Europe, wrote Le Monde columnist Sylvie Kauffmann, “the weight of history is stronger … than in the West, the traumas are fresher and the return of tragedy is felt more keenly.”

Almost four decades ago, Norman Davies, the great British historian, wrote of Poland as a nation at the “heart of Europe,” not simply because of its geographic centrality, but because it seemed the crucible of all the political currents coursing through the continent. The current moment has surfaced a deeper cultural animus too, as Neal Ascherson, veteran journalist of the Soviet world, observed last month: “The sense that Poland is actually more European than anybody else — through its old myth-role as ‘the bastion of western Christian civilization’ against the barbarian east — is still alive.”

“There is a sense of moral superiority, which is very strong at the moment,” Piotr Buras, director of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told the New York Times magazine’s Elizabeth Zerofsky. “That we have been right on Russia, we have been right on energy security, we have been right in warning against getting so much dependence on Russia. And we have been ignored — by the Germans and by the others. We have been proven right, and now we want to show it.”

Poland is on a quest to have Europe’s strongest military — with U.S. arms

But, as Zerofsky charts in her commendable, lengthy piece, there’s also an inherent tension in this position of “moral superiority.” Prior to the Russian invasion, Poland’s illiberal, right-wing government was an outlier in Europe and the target of official European Union censure for an overhaul of its judiciary that critics argue undermined the rule of law and democracy in the country. The top officials of the ruling Law and Justice party, known by its acronym PiS, are among the most outspoken critics of technocratic Brussels.

“We proved from last year that we are reliable, that we were right, that German policy was bad for Europe,” Sebastian Kaleta, a deputy minister of justice, told Zerofsky, referring to Berlin’s overreliance on Russian energy imports. “And now we are punished for that by the European Union.”

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki delivered a major speech last month at Germany’s Heidelberg University, where he declared Europe was at a “historic turning point.” That language has been used by others, too, in the context of the Ukraine war, not least by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. But in Morawiecki’s telling, the moment now ought to shake up the status quo further west, and dissuade those in Brussels who would “create a super-state government by a narrow elite” — a popular theme among right-wing nationalists in Europe.

“In Europe nothing can safeguard the nations, their culture, their social, economic, political and military security better than nation states,” Morawiecki said. “Other systems are illusory or utopian.”

Morawiecki’s view, such as it is, is at odds with “his Western counterparts who believe that only stronger integration and more effective decision making are the way forward,” observed Monika Sus, an associate professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences. Beyond smirking at countries such as France and Germany, and sheltering a bit closer beneath the American security umbrella, it doesn’t offer much as far as a vision for an independent European agenda.

That may not matter much for a lot of reasons, not least because Morawiecki may be out of his post if Poland’s ruling party and its allies do not return to power after elections later this year. Polls suggest a tight race with the opposition. Whatever the outcome, though, it’s unlikely the country’s position on Ukraine will change. “Putin has fastened Poland tightly into the West,” wrote Ascherson. “If this autumn’s elections replace PiS with a liberal opposition, the bond will be even stronger.”