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Poland's Moral Leadership
January 26, 2023
Germany and Russia spent centuries partitioning, exploiting, or destroying the countries between them, disdainfully referred to in German as “inzwischenlander” or “in the meantime lands”. In 1939, the two signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, agreeing not to attack one another and to divide Eastern Europe. But Hitler double-crossed Stalin and, after World War II ended in 1945, East Germany and the “meantime lands” became Russian-controlled. In 1980, Poland was the first to stand up to Moscow and by 1989 the Iron Curtain was demolished. In 1992, Ukraine and all Soviet republics were liberated but Russia re-invaded Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. Today the United States leads the effort to defeat Putin, and is joined by Europe’s “meantime lands” politically. Led by Poland, they have taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees and opened their treasuries to provide military aid. As a result, the moral leadership and backbone of Europe has shifted from Berlin and Paris to Warsaw and an embattled Kyiv.
In 1991, Ukraine declared independence from Moscow, but was left defenseless in 1994 when the West demanded it hand over its nuclear arsenal to “democratic” Russia for safekeeping. It has struggled ever since to get out from under Russian influence, corruption, and oligarchs. In 2014 Ukrainians staged mass protests to join the European Union and months later were invaded by Russia. Crimea was annexed, Ukraine’s industrial heartland, known as Donbas, was conquered and destroyed, 14,000 died, and two million fled the occupied territories.
Putin decided in 2022 to finish the job and his latest invasion has displaced tens of millions this time, killed or wounded hundreds of thousands, and reduced most of Ukraine to rubble. Ukrainians mobilized and have obtained enormous help from the West. But for years, Poland has warned America and the rest of Europe about Putin’s intentions. It has outspent other NATO members, as have its three Baltic neighbors. For instance, tiny Estonia, with 1.5 million people, has given more aid and weaponry to Ukraine, per capita, than any country in the world — a total that is twice the amount France has contributed. “We want to create a precedent so that other countries will not have any excuses why they cannot provide Ukraine with the necessary weapons to win the war," read its statement.
Poland also led opposition to the 2011 German-Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline scheme — which was the infrastructure version of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and Russia. The pipeline aimed to divide and conquer the inzwischenlander. In 1939, Germany wanted land, resources, workers, and Ukraine’s vast store of black earth, the world’s richest soil while Russia wanted Poland and the Baltics. In 2011, the Nord Stream 2 deal was designed to give Germany cheap Russian natural gas in order to undercut neighboring competitors and Russia would earn enormous profits, control Europe’s energy, and be able to bypass the Ukrainian gas pipeline system to pave the way for its invasion.
Nord Stream 2 was cancelled by Germany immediately after the invasion, then blown up in September by unknown saboteurs. But Germany and France have been laggards in the fight against Russia. Germany has vetoed Ukraine’s admission to NATO and dithered over sending tanks until its hand was forced this week, thanks to pressure from Poland, the Baltics, European Parliament, NATO, and the United States. Along the way, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki issued a stern public ultimatum: “We will create another coalition if Germany does not agree to Leopard [tank] supplies. We will not just watch Ukraine bleed. It now depends on Germany whether they want to join the mission and stop Russian barbarism, or whether they choose to silently observe and go down in history as those who were on the wrong side.”
Germany relented but the incident, along with Nord Stream 2, has diminished its stature within the alliance and across Europe. Its ambivalence toward Russia, and the coziness of its Social Democratic Party leaders with Putin, has altered Europe’s moral leadership. Poland has taken on Austria and Hungary for pandering to Putin. Polish President Andrzej Duda recently attacked Austria’s Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, a former chancellor, for suggesting that Europe’s “security architecture will have to take Russia into account in future,” and attacked him for criticizing Poland for blocking Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov from attending a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Poland and the Baltic states also submitted a formal protest against Hungary for trying to water down sanctions on Russia.
This leadership fills the vacuum left by Europe’s other “giants”. The French are preoccupied with the cost of baguettes and retiring from work at 60 years of age. Britain has responded with weapons and pronouncements and tanks. “We want to be sure that Ukrainians will win and that it will happen soon, as it is the best way to save as many lives as possible,” said British Foreign Minister James Cleverley. But Brexit alienated Europe and its economy flails.
By contrast, Poland’s commitment and sacrifice during these dark days is exceeded only by Ukraine’s. After Russia invaded, more than 9.2 million Ukrainian refugees, mostly women and children, went to Poland. About 2 million have stayed and the rest have been placed in countries across Europe. Nearly 1 million Ukrainian children are now enrolled in Poland’s schools and Warsaw provides housing, spending money, clothes, jobs, healthcare, transportation, and incomes to these refugee families.
Poland is the economic powerhouse among the so-called “meantime lands”. It has 36.7 million people, slightly smaller than Ukraine with 43.7 million, but its GDP of $679 billion is second only to Germany’s in Central Europe. Once the Iron Curtain fell, its wealth swelled as a result of European Union oversight, institutional reforms, and investment as Ukraine languished under the heel of corrupt politicians, propped up by rigged courts and elections, dirty money, and Russian influence. This glaring economic and social disparity vis a vis Poland has been the driving force behind Ukraine’s desire to join Europe.
Today these two Slavic comrades-in-arms -- ethnically cousins -- have forged a strong bond in the face of another existential threat from Russia. Each has a unique identity, and different religion, but their languages are similar enough to be understood by both sides. (In the 15th and 16th centuries most of Ukraine belonged to Poland. In the 17th century, Poland and Russia fought over Western Ukraine and in the 18th century, Poland was partitioned and Western Ukraine was transferred to Russia.)
Once Russia is defeated, they will represent an important bloc within the European Union. Eventually, Putin’s removal will also result in a popular uprising that will topple Belarus’ oppressive dictatorship, adding another 9.34 million Slavs. (In 2020, Russia brutally cracked down on Belarus’s burgeoning revolution.) But as is, Europe’s “in the meantime” nations led by Poland will no longer be traded and violated. United, and within Europe, they will represent a moral, powerful, and unstoppable force.