In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a power vacuum emerged in Europe. Germany, despite being Europe’s economic heavyweight, did not shed its historical reluctance to lead. French President Emmanuel Macron had to make up for years of French overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin. And the United Kingdom’s decision to exit from the European Union in 2016—and the rancorous and painful divorce that followed—stripped the country of any chance it had to play a meaningful role on the continent.
This absence of leadership presented an opportunity for Poland. By virtue of its size, growing economic and military strength, geography, and knowledge of Russia, Poland was in the perfect position to play a larger leadership role, especially in shaping how Europe should deal with the Kremlin. Such a shift in the balance of power to the east would have been a good thing for Europe, which desperately needed strategic leadership, and for the United States, which was looking to Europe to take up greater responsibility for its own defense and security. Poland’s response to the Russian attack on Ukraine was also extraordinary and courageous: Poland opened its borders to millions of Ukrainians and pushed the West to support Ukraine militarily. But Poland’s current government, led by the Law and Justice party, undermined a historic opportunity to lead Europe by leaning into divisive politics at home and with key European partners. By placing increased pressure on the country’s independent media and fighting with the EU over the independence of its judiciary, the Polish government started to burn through much of its political capital. At the same time, far-right extremists started pushing back against the country’s key foreign policy success: its admirable support for Ukraine.
Poland’s parliamentary elections this past weekend could upend all that. Although the right-wing Law and Justice party won the most votes, it failed to win enough seats to form a majority in parliament. Still, Law and Justice–aligned President Andrzej Duda will likely give the party the first chance to form a government, even though it will be very difficult for the party to do so. Amid record-high turnout (74 percent), a centrist coalition among liberals, centrists, and leftists won a clear majority of parliamentary seats. When the wrangling is done, former Polish Prime Minister and former European Council President Donald Tusk, the head of the liberal Civic Platform party, appears better placed to form a government. Such a government could elevate Poland within Europe, allowing it to play a leading role in guiding European security.
SETTING A BAD EXAMPLE
In recent years, Poland’s potential to lead had been hobbled by the Polish government, which became weighed down with quarrels at home and abroad. The Law and Justice party made changes to Poland’s judiciary that critics say were intended to cripple its independence. The judicial reforms led to widespread protests at home and persistent clashes between the Polish government and EU institutions, including the European Court of Human Rights and the European Commission. The EU even suspended payments to Poland until it backed off many of the changes to its judiciary.
The Polish government also put consistent pressure on the country’s independent media. In late 2021, Law and Justice pushed through legislation that would have forced the divestiture of Poland’s largest private television network, TVN, by its U.S. owner, Discovery. This would have left TVN vulnerable to purchase by a Polish state-owned company that could have changed TVN’s editorial policy on its popular news channel to be more supportive of the government. Duda vetoed that legislation later that year out of concern for media freedom, the integrity of foreign investments in Poland, and Poland’s relationship with the United States. But pressure on Poland’s independent media continued: after the state-owned energy corporation Orlen bought up local print media in Poland, pro-government changes were made to their editorial lines. Such government efforts to control the press damaged Poland’s standing in Europe and in the United States.
Polish domestic politics also started to erode the country’s unified position on Ukraine. Immediately after Russia’s invasion in 2022, support for Ukraine and Ukrainians from the Polish government and Polish society was remarkable, an act of solidarity that brought historically complicated Polish-Ukrainian relations to what was perhaps an all-time high. Doing the right thing for Ukraine also served larger European and transatlantic interests in resisting Putin’s designs. The strains of hosting over a million Ukrainian refugees have diminished that support somewhat, and the economic costs of sudden imports of inexpensive Ukrainian grain to Poland caused a spike in Polish-Ukrainian tensions this September. These developments allowed nationalist politics to complicate the emerging alliance between the two countries. The Polish government—and especially Duda—lowered the sense of crisis by calling for a de-escalation of tensions over the grain issue. But the government’s sensitivity to challenges from the nationalist hard right indicated that Poland’s relations with Ukraine could still be vulnerable to Polish domestic politics in ways that would benefit few but Putin.
Poland’s current government undermined a historic opportunity to lead Europe.
Coupled with Poland’s troubles at home was the government’s tendency to pick fights with key allies. For years, the Polish government has spent a great deal of energy on harsh rhetoric against Germany, including demands for massive German reparations for Poland’s losses in World War II. Poland also has a case for criticizing Germany for its excessive reliance on Russian energy and its long-held assumption that Russia was a partner rather than a threat. But heated rhetoric from Polish officials, seemingly intended to benefit Law and Justice in the parliamentary elections, came at the price of losing a strategic opportunity to forge a common German-Polish Russia policy more on Poland’s terms.
These quarrels and others have diminished Poland’s ability to help craft the Western solidarity needed to contend with Putin’s Russia. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban has gone much further than Poland in damaging independent media and other institutions vital to Hungary’s democracy and seems indifferent to the country’s resultant isolation. But Poles across the political spectrum see themselves as a European bulwark against Russian aggression, an imperative that makes Poland’s divisive politics costly. Poland’s parliamentary elections offered an opportunity to change course.
A WINDOW OPENS
A new Polish government led by the liberal Civic Platform party with centrist and leftist coalition partners could put Poland on a better path. Although Law and Justice won 35 percent of the vote compared with the Civic Platform’s nearly 31 percent, neither party won the 231 seats in the Polish parliament required for a majority. This means that a coalition government will need to be formed, and the opposition has the upper hand. Confederation, the far-right party, barely scraped by the parliamentary threshold with seven percent or 18 seats, which means that Law and Justice with its 194 seats will not get to a majority even if it joins forces with the far right. The other two groups, the centrist Third Way, with 14 percent or 65 seats, and the New Left party, with about eight percent or 26 seats, will presumably join a Civic Platform–led coalition of 248 total seats. The horse-trading will take some time as Law and Justice will still have the first opportunity to try to form a coalition government.
Still, the odds favor a new, liberal-center-left coalition government. Such a government is likely to halt efforts to pressure the country’s independent media and could find a way to make state-run television genuinely independent and nonpartisan. It will almost certainly find a way to settle the dispute with the EU over the politicization of the Polish judiciary and keep focused on the strategic imperative of helping Ukraine.
Such a government is also likely to cool the antagonistic rhetoric with Germany and explore more constructive ways to address the legacy of World War II. Some creative thinking will be required. A resolution between Poland and Germany about the legacy of World War II need not involve straight monetary reparations. One Polish expert has suggested officials consider an education fund or endowment to help retrieve Polish art and other items of cultural heritage looted during the war. In concept, such funds could apply to countries beyond Poland that also suffered at the hands of Nazi Germany, including Ukraine. Such an approach would be far easier for Germany to consider than seeming to bow to the demands for enormous sums in reparations.
In addition, the new coalition government could and should use the revived bilateral relationship with the United States to help keep the U.S. government focused on its commitments to European security. Poland’s turnaround in its relationship with the Biden administration has been nothing short of transformative. The Biden administration came into power with an agenda to revitalize democratic alliances and initially labeled Poland, together with Hungary, as a democratic backsliding problem child. Duda’s veto of the TVN-related legislation averted major damage to the U.S.-Polish relationship just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Thanks to that move and Poland’s unequivocal support for Ukraine, the Biden administration was able to embrace Poland as part of the democratic world’s resistance to Putin’s aggression. Underlying U.S. concerns about the erosion of democratic norms in Poland remain, but a new centrist government should lay most of these to rest.
RIGHT ABOUT PUTIN
The moment is now right for the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom to craft a long-term and sustainable policy toward Russia based on a recognition that Russia will remain an adversary and a threat to long-term European security as long as Putin rules and perhaps after. This used to be a fringe view in Europe, associated mostly with Poland and the Baltic countries and often dismissed as mere Russophobia or a hangover from the past. But the Poles, the Balts, and others were right. France, Germany, and the United States were slow to recognize the gathering danger from Putin’s Russia. They dismissed Putin’s hostile address at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, played down his claims to Crimea made at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, and even treated Russia’s attack on Georgia in August 2008 as an unfortunate but isolated incident. Germany, especially during the long tenure of Chancellor Angela Merkel and even after Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, continued to deepen its dependence on Russian gas, regarding the Nord Stream 2 pipeline not as leverage for the Kremlin but as a stabilizing factor in Russia’s relations with Europe.
Putin’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022 finally shifted Europe’s strategic thinking closer to the Polish, Baltic, and other central and eastern European assessments of Russia. Poland and its neighbors on Europe’s eastern tier have been vindicated in their warnings about Russian imperial pretensions and growing aggression. They have also been critical in providing weapons to Ukraine while serving as a hub for getting supplies from other countries into Ukraine and sheltering millions of Ukrainian refugees.
The largest country on NATO’s eastern flank, Poland is quickly becoming an economic and military powerhouse. The country’s growth since overthrowing communism in 1989 has been astonishing. Since joining the EU in 2004, Poland’s economy has expanded faster than that of most EU member states, catapulting the country into becoming the sixth-largest economy in the bloc with one of the lowest unemployment rates. It has also become a major hub for technology: this year, Intel announced that it would invest $4.6 billion in a chip factory near Wroclaw. In 2022, Google announced that it would double down on its presence in Warsaw with a $700 million investment in its hub there. And unlike many western European countries, Poland has used its prosperity to invest in defense: it is already spending more on defense than the two percent of GDP required by NATO (a commitment that only 11 NATO members meet) and its defense spending is expected to hit almost four percent this year. The government has invested in high-end modern military equipment including U.S.-made missile defense systems, Abrams tanks, and F-35 fighter jets.
Poland is poised to start punching at or above its weight.
The Polish electorate, voting for change, may tilt Polish politics toward its natural advantage as a leader of Europe’s eastern flank and Europe as a whole. Part of the answer to Russia’s war against Ukraine is to continue the successful policy of welcoming European countries, such as Ukraine, into the European and transatlantic family if they make the grade in terms of democracy and the rule of law at home and their foreign policies are consistent with the rules-based order. The other part is to recognize Putin’s Russia for what it is and act accordingly, to neither equivocate nor excuse Putin’s tyranny at home and aggression abroad.
There are still plenty of western Europeans (and Americans), in and out of government, who seem to cling to the discredited view that Russia must be somehow accommodated, especially in its desire to achieve a belt of dominated countries to its west and south. Those who are pushing for a settlement in which Ukraine would inevitably give up territory fail to acknowledge the historical reality that so-called frozen conflicts never stay frozen or lead to a sustainable peace. They simply become the staging ground for further aggression in the future. Peace cannot come at any cost, especially when it benefits the aggressor. And the Poles, because of their historical experience with Russia, know that better than anyone. Poland is poised to start punching at or above its weight to advance these policies, to its own benefit and to the benefit of Europe and the transatlantic community.