When I looked out the window of a plane landing at the Rzeszów-Jesionka airport last November, the sight immediately reminded me of landing at the Baghdad airport in 2003. In both cases, there was military equipment located all around the place, substantial self-propelled radars, combat vehicles hidden under camouflage nets and American missile systems securing the airspace. Still, Baghdad's airport was not a safe place. The Polish airport near the border with Ukraine (but also with Belarus) is said to be the most important and most closely guarded place in Europe – it is through this airport that the transfer of Western aid to Ukraine takes place. To this day, Polish territory remains a strategic place for NATO forces to operate in the context of the Russia-Ukraine armed conflict, and there are no signs that the Polish authorities (and Polish society) would like to withdraw from this mission.
"Our view is clear, simple and consistent - Ukraine should be supported, and we are doing that. As we were doing even before Ukraine was invaded, and as we will continue to do. We all know very well that there are states that are truly involved in helping and states that help only symbolically or perhaps even only staging any help. Our task is to convince and show that only real, actual aid matters. Otherwise, we face a very grave prospect. (...) Our task is to support Ukraine and convince our Allies that such support makes sense." - Mariusz Blaszczak, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Defense, said on January 19th after a videoconference with defense ministers of countries supporting Ukraine.
Poland is not only at the forefront of countries supporting Kyiv with weapons but is also calling for the formation of a coalition against Russia
The Polish Minister of Defense, speaking of countries that only "symbolically" support Kyiv, probably meant Germany (the far-right locates all its aversion to EU structures in Germany) which delayed the decision to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and consent to re-export these machines from other European countries, including Poland, for several weeks. Mateusz Morawiecki's government has been boasting since the beginning of Russia's full invasion of Ukraine that Poland is among the world's top countries supporting the Ukrainian military. According to the data provided by the Ukraine Support Tracker of the independent think tank Kiel Institute for the World Economy, from February 24 to November 20, 2022, Poland was indeed in fourth place with the declared amount for armaments for its eastern neighbour, worth EUR 1.82 billion. The United States was, by far, the largest donor of military aid, at over EUR 22 billion, followed by the United Kingdom with EUR 4.13 billion. The third largest donor is Germany - EUR 2.34 billion. For comparison, the European Union declared support worth EUR 3.1 billion.
Declarations are one thing, real aid is another, but even in this respect, it is difficult to accuse Poland of any shortcomings or delays – it delivers 100% of the promised weapons and does it quickly and efficiently. Warsaw supported Kyiv with arms deliveries even before the war began. During the first year of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Poland provided Ukrainians with more than 300 of its Soviet-era T-72 tanks and modernized PT-91 tanks. It was also ready to hand over its MiG-29 fighters, for which it did not receive the Allies' consent. Polish equipment of the latest generation is also used on the battlefield in Ukraine: portable anti-aircraft missile systems Piorun, 155mm self-propelled howitzers called Krab, Warmate kamikaze drones and Grot automatic rifles among others.
„I said it today, and I will repeat it tomorrow as well,” – Blaszczak said a day before a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group in Ramstein in January. „I mean President Andrzej Duda's proposal regarding Poland's readiness to hand over a company of Leopard 2 tanks. But in a broader coalition of countries. Why does this coalition matter? Because no adult can have illusion that a company of tanks will cause the war to be won. Ukraine should be supported by the transfer of tanks in the strength of at least a brigade, and perhaps more. Therefore, this coalition of countries is necessary to realistically support Ukraine.”
Poland had a leading role in convincing Western allies to greenlight tank deliveries for Ukraine
Less than three weeks after Berlin agreed, under pressure from Poland and others, to greenlight the delivery of German-made tanks to Ukraine, Kyiv’s troops are getting a crash course in using the Leopards at a military base in Świętoszów (west of Poland, near the German border). The Ukrainian tank crews are coming from units fighting in the east of the country. The intensive training lasts up to 10 hours a day, including weekends, the Polish military said. With a massive Russian operation already building in eastern Ukraine, Polish instructors said they had compressed the course for operating and maintaining the machines — which usually takes up to a year — into a couple of months. A Polish instructor, Senior Staff Warrant Officer Krzysztof Sieradzki, said the Ukrainians are so motivated to learn everything fast that the instructors “have to hold them back and transfer knowledge to them in small batches.”
Ukraine’s military and their NATO backers hope the German-made tanks will be a crucial part of a campaign to push Russian forces out of the cities and towns where fighting has been centered in recent weeks. The Leopards, which move as swiftly backward as they do forward, are considered particularly useful for urban combat. „At the moment, we are very short of armored vehicles and I hope that when we get to the front line with this equipment, it will save a lot of lives of our soldiers and bring us closer to victory,” – one of the Ukrainians training at the Polish base said. Another group of Ukrainian troops began their training on Leopard 2 tanks in Germany, and a third group is being trained in Britain on that country’s Challenger 2 tanks. Poland’s president Andrzej Duda, who went to Świętoszów (where Poland’s 10th Armored Cavalry Brigade and a U.S. armored cavalry combat group are stationed) on Monday February13th, voiced hope the tanks would help Ukrainian forces “in a much more efficient way to defeat the enemy.” He said the Ukrainian trainees have come straight from the front line. “You can see in their faces that these people have gone through terrible things, but they are determined to defend their homeland.”
Duda especially thanked Germany for allowing the German-made tanks to be made available to Kyiv and for its own contribution.
Poland had long been pressuring its allies for a long time to greenlight Western main battle tanks to Ukraine, ultimately wearing down resistance from the United States and Germany, where leaders worried about the possibility of further escalating the conflict. Poland and several other countries lobbied Berlin to give them permission to re-export their own Leopards. After Britain last month became the first to commit to sending Western tanks, Germany agreed. Eventually, Berlin has pledged at least 178 Leopard 1 tanks and 14 Leopard 2s. Poland has pledged 14 Leopard 2s. Other contributing countries include Canada, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, while Britain has pledged Challenger tanks and the U.S. its M1 Abrams battle tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.
Britain, Poland and Germany are racing to deliver their tanks this spring or early summer; and instructors hope to complete their training of the Ukrainian troops by the end of March.
Poles do not doubt that their country should continue to arm Ukrainian soldiers, but they are increasingly vulnerable to Kremlin propaganda
A survey by IBRIS (from December 2022) on behalf of "Rzeczpospolita" daily newspaper shows that 77.5% of Poles favour handing weapons and armament to Ukrainian soldiers, 18.3% are against it, and only 4.2% of Poles have no opinion. The supporters of the ruling coalition of right-wing parties (97%), the opposition (82%) and the undecided (88%) are mostly supportive of such help. The most significant number of opponents of sending weapons to Ukraine is among the voters of the extreme right nationalist movements (31%).
In a January public opinion poll – this time for the right-wing website wpolityce.pl – the transfer of weapons and tanks to Ukraine is supported by 61% of Poles, 20% are opposed to military aid, and 19% have no opinion.
What is worrying, however, are other surveys, which show that the number of people who share the theses of Russian propaganda is growing (according to the Warsaw Enterprise Institute). More and more Poles believe that refugees from Ukraine are, in fact, economic migrants and that because of the World War 2 Volhynia massacre, perpetuated by Ukrainians, we should support Kyiv only if it meets certain conditions. The surveys conducted in September 2022 and January 2023 examined the attitude of Poles to eight theses considered consistent with the Kremlin's message promoted abroad. It turns out that in January, as much as 41% of respondents "strongly agree" or "rather agree" with at least four of the statements. This is an apparent increase compared to September 2022 survey, when the number was 34%. Most of the respondents agree with the thesis that Poland cannot afford refugees. This is the opinion of 63% of those polled, compared to 60% last fall. The number of people convinced that refugees from Ukraine are, in fact, economic migrants, has increased by 6 percentage points to 41%.
The number of people who believe that Poland should not help Ukraine until it repents for its crimes in Volhynia and condemns Bandera has increased to 30% (an increase of 5%). Also, the percentage of respondents who believe that Russia should not be irritated because it has nuclear weapons increased (from 35% to 40%), while 36% of the respondents – 4% more – think that peace should be achieved at all costs, even at the expense of Ukraine's territorial concessions to Russia.
There are also opinions that the war in Ukraine is a liberal conspiracy of the Western elites, the same ones who planned the Covid-19 pandemic (34% in January; 31% in the September survey), or that if it weren't for NATO's expansion to the East, Putin would not have attacked Ukraine (26% in January; 24% in September 2022).
In this year's survey, respondents were presented with two additional statements. 52% of respondents agreed or rather agreed with the thesis that "helping Ukraine will not end and we will be entangled in many years of armed conflicts", and 40% agreed that "an Ukrainization of Poland is currently taking place, which is destroying our culture and society". It can be concluded that Russian propaganda is increasingly shaping the attitudes of Poles, although people's moods are probably also affected by other factors, such as growing uncertainty about the future or the deteriorating economic situation in the country. One way or another, the number of people who share the views promoted by the Kremlin or are in line with Russian interests is growing.
Poland is arming itself and pushing itself more and more boldly in the international arena, trying to become an important player in both the European Union and in NATO
In early February, the US State Department approved the sale of HIMARS launchers to Poland (the Ministry of Defense applied for permission to purchase these launchers in May 2022). Most of them will be mounted on Polish trucks. "The great reinforcement of the Polish artillery is getting closer. The US government has approved the sale of almost 500 HIMARS launchers to Poland. We will also buy ammunition. We are starting price negotiations," wrote Deputy Prime Minister Mariusz Błaszczak on Twitter.
"The Polish Army was neglected, disarmed and reduced for many years. Many units and training centers were liquidated. Russia's aggression against independent Ukraine has caused drastic changes in the geopolitics of our region. We know that freedom is not given once and for all, and in the face of danger, you need to be able to defend it," said Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who visited the 18th Mechanized Division in Siedlce, in eastern Poland, a few weeks ago. "This division is one of the examples that we are rebuilding and modernizing the Polish army, creating new military units and encouraging service in the Polish army. We buy the best equipment and regularly conduct exercises with allies as part of NATO. Arming the Polish soldiers, increasing the strength of the Polish army, strengthening the presence of NATO troops on the territory of the Republic of Poland – these are the highest, absolute priorities for us. Every centimetre of Polish soil is and will be safe", said the head of the Polish government, Mateusz Morawiecki.
The budget for 2023 adopted by the Parliament provides EUR 20 billion for defense spending this year, making it nearly 4% of GDP. This is an increase of over 160% compared to the expenditure on armaments in 2015. Since then, the number of soldiers in the Polish Armed Forces has also increased – from 95,000 to over 160,000, including over 30,000 non-professional soldiers of the Territorial Defense Forces. According to the government's announcement, by 2035 Poland wants to double the size of the country's armed forces.
With a major war within its borders, Europe is more about hard power now than before. Therefore, the Russian invasion of Ukraine confirmed Poland’s belief that arming and tightening cooperation with the USA and NATO is the only right direction for it – the volume of purchases of new defense systems makes Poland a country that you must talk to when discussing security and peace. Paradoxically, the war in Ukraine also gave Poland a chance to strengthen its image as a trustworthy ally and to build a leadership position. When Poland and the Baltic states have driven the moral argument to support Ukraine from early days in the war, Europe’s traditional leaders, France and Germany, appeared paralyzed. A year later it was vocal pressure from Warsaw that was crucial to the decisions, after weeks of wrangling and resistance, to give Western tanks to Ukraine.
“The center of Europe is moving eastward” - said the chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz last year in Prague. It is hard not to see that a Central and Eastern Europe that takes security seriously has an impact on whole continent. The balance of power in Europe is shifting, away from “Old Europe,” which valued and cultivated its ties to Moscow, to the newer members to the east and north, with their raw memories of Soviet occupation and their reluctance to give away their reestablished sovereignty to Brussels. It's hard to imagine that the post-war Europe of the 21st century is one where the voices of Central and Eastern Europeans are not being listened to more and taken more seriously in the councils of Europe. Especially in a situation where Germany and France were confronted with the failure of their traditional policy of trade and diplomacy with Russia.
So the legitimate question arises whether Europe can and should be ruled from Berlin and Paris? It is not surprising that Poland and other countries of Eastern and Central Europe want to take advantage (often quite aggressively) of this dilemma.