Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Poland was and is right about Russia

Opposing Putin isn’t hawkish, just realistic

Some western capitals have always placed Poland on the hawkish side in terms of how it perceives Russia. Perhaps it is because they have fallen for Russian propaganda that labels Poland Russophobic. Or maybe they deliberately reject the Polish perspective. Either way, our warnings against the Kremlin’s voracious appetite for more of everything have been downplayed and not taken with due seriousness. But not anymore. With the Russian bestial invasion going on in Ukraine at this very moment, Poland can only say with bitter satisfaction, “told you so.”

The world now realises it should have listened. “We were sticking to a bridge in which Russia no longer believed and which other partners had warned us against”, said German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier of his adherence to Nord Stream 2 as he admitted it had been a mistake. Poland has been a vocal opponent of this pipeline and never bought Berlin’s narrative that it was a purely economic project. We saw the Russia-to-Germany gas link (and its twin pipeline Nord Stream 1, too) for what it always was a tool of the Kremlin’s energy blackmail, and a powerful threat to peace.

Just days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, the Polish Prime Minister issued (yet another) wake-up call to Germany, urging it to realise how dangerous it would be to hand over this tool to Moscow. The pipeline is now virtually decommissioned — good riddance! During her official visit to Warsaw, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Poland was “always clear eyed about Russia” and “understood Putin’s malign intent”. Note that one of the most important British government officials praised Poland for vigilance, and Britain itself is not a country that tends to go soft on Russia either.

Poland knows how to read Russian propaganda

Since Russia attacked Ukraine, a flurry of high-level political and diplomatic meetings have followed in Poland. Heads of states, top diplomats and government officials from across the western community have been coming to Warsaw for consultations and expertise on how to deal with the challenges stemming from the war unleashed by Russia. Poland has become the hub of the western support — humanitarian, material, political and military — for the fighting Ukraine. The Polish government and president have also embarked on a diplomatic crusade to provide a robust international response to the Kremlin’s aggression. The Western unity against Russian imperialism, which must have come as an unpleasant surprise to Putin, is largely due to these efforts.

The western media seems to be coming back to its senses, too. Take, for example, a BBC article that reads as follows: “Poland warned the West for years that Russia planned to redress the balance of power in Europe in its favour. Polish leaders were dismissed as alarmists at the time. But no longer.” Or the following citation from a piece posted by The Wall Street Journal: “[…] and after warning about Russian imperial ambitions for more than a decade, Poland is now in a position to play a pivotal role in shaping the NATO defence policy and the West’s response to Russian President Vladimir Putin.” The Guardian writes on a similar note: “Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine was a pivotal moment for Poland: proof positive it had been right about Russia all along, and the start of an immense national humanitarian effort.” Then there is an excerpt from an article by Politico

For years, Western Europeans have been dismissive of politicians from Poland and the Baltic countries whenever they sounded the alarm over the expansionist threat posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. They now realise they should have listened to countries with a far deeper knowledge of the Kremlin and a bitter historical memory of the violence that Moscow is willing to unleash to pursue its goals.

I could go on like this for pages.

Poland’s clear-eyedness about Russia stems from a couple of factors. We have a long record of a difficult proximity with Russia, one that took a painful toll on us rather than on Russians. Throughout the ages, this neighbourhood was marked by devastating wars, brutal occupation, forced russification and attempts to annihilate the Polish nation or statehood. Our ability to read Russia’s mind has been forged in blood. The very same factor is behind our openness and sympathy to the refugees from Ukraine, and our compassion to those who stayed behind to defend their homeland. Since 24 February, Poland has accepted almost four million refugees — without a single camp. Not everyone is staying here, of course, but almost all of those who are find a safe house in the homes of ordinary Poles. As our top officials have stressed on a number of occasions, these people are “guests” rather than refugees.

Nobody can deny that Ukraine’s agility in dealing with the Russian invaders is impressive. However, we are fully aware that Ukraine is fighting a righteous war against the invading Russia on behalf of the rest of the free world. Had the darkest scenario come true and Kyiv been conquered within a week following the attack, Poland, an important NATO and EU member state, would presumably now have Russian troops — jacked up by a swift victory — deployed across its border with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. That is more than one thousand kilometres in total. The potential for extremely dangerous developments on NATO and the EU’s doorstep would be clear.

Poland knows how to read Russian propaganda. Over the years we have developed an immunity to the lies spread by the Kremlin. We expose them to our western partners. The Kremlin fears our ability to break its vile intents into pieces and retaliates with an ongoing smear campaign. As a result, western audiences are targeted with constant disinformation implying that Poland’s harsh stance against Russia is only motivated by Russophobia. Unfortunately, sometimes these bogus claims still find a fertile ground, or serve as an excuse not to listen to us.

We have grown immune to Russia’s energy blackmail

But it is worth listening to us. As already highlighted, our warnings against Nord Stream 2 have proven prescient. Besides, we have grown immune to Russia’s energy blackmail. On the night of the Russian invasion on Ukraine, the Polish natural gas storage facilities were 57 per cent full — the highest rate in the EU. At that time, the average rate for the whole European Union was barely at 30 per cent. Today, the Polish gas storage infrastructure is filled up to 96 per cent of its capacity. The EU stays far behind with 46 per cent. Therefore, when Russia suddenly cut off its gas supplies to Poland by the end of April in retaliation for Warsaw’s refusal to pay for the fuel in roubles, the move did not do us any harm. Poland had planned to drop the Russian gas forever by the end of 2022 anyway with the definitive expiry of the so-called Yamal contracts. The culmination of Poland’s efforts to diversify energy supplies, and escape the reliance on Russia, will be the October launch of the Baltic Pipe pipeline to transmit gas from deposits in Norway.

The international intelligence community trusts our judgement on the Kremlin. Common threat assessments to which the Polish agencies contribute have turned out to be a brutal reality. But there is one more factor: Poland has clearly proven to be a reliable, trustworthy and, what is particularly important, discreet partner for those countries that are providing military support to Ukrainians.

Poland was also right not to succumb to the international pressure to let in illegal migrants during the so-called Belarus-EU border migrant crisis that spanned 2021 (and has continued ever since). We knew from the beginning it was a hybrid warfare operation orchestrated by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko in a bid to destabilise the EU’s eastern flank member states. An operation okayed by Moscow, of course. Those who watched it happening from afar claimed it was a humanitarian issue. They could not be more wrong. Thanks to the firm stance of the Polish government, a real crisis has been prevented and the term “instrumentalisation” or “weaponisation” of migration is now making its way into important EU security documents.

Had Poland not put up a tough resistance against the influx of migrants for the sake of political correctness, our troops and uniformed services would now be busy neutralising the dangers stemming from illegal migration, instead of providing logistical support as befits the armed forces of a frontline country. Given Belarus’ notorious role as Russia’s accomplice in the war, it seems that Lukashenko’s hybrid efforts were a kind of prelude to or exercise ahead of the 24 February attack.

Do not get me wrong — this piece of writing is not about chastising anybody. Nor is it, God forbid, about Poland’s triumphalism. It is about highlighting the fact that in its dealings with Russia, the West has followed a path that ignored the historical experience and perspective of the countries bordering Russia. The invasion of Ukraine must come as an alarm bell that will wake the world from this geopolitical slumber. For Russia this war must end in a spectacular defeat. Going back to business as usual with the Kremlin — regardless of who will be its ruler — is not an option. It is high time the West has redefined its relations with Russia. If not, the concept of Russia “from Vladivostok to Lisbon”, first outlined by Bolsheviks, and recently refreshed by one of Russia’s top propagandists and former president Dmitry Medvedev, will eventually become a horrific reality.

As a conclusion, I offer a citation by one of the founding fathers of Poland’s independence and the first post-WWI chief of state, Józef Piłsudski. Interviewed by a French newspaper early on in the Polish-Soviet war of 1919–21, Piłsudski said: “No matter what government Russia has, it remains a ferociously imperialist state. This is in fact an essential trait of Russia’s character. We had a tsarist imperialism, and now it’s a red imperialism — the Soviet one.”

The war that Russia wages against Ukraine only proves him right, all the more since it is a century-old quote. And now, when Poland says more and harsher international sanctions are needed to curb the Russian imperialism, it is not idle talk, but a necessity.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover