By Michał Stec (published in cooperation with the Jagiellonian Club think tank)
Russia’s attack on Ukraine reshapes the international system, with the war forcing a revision in thinking about the architecture of security in Europe. Poland has an opportunity to find itself at the centre of the new order, with its consistent long-term policy towards Russia, strategic location, and considerable help to its neighbour leading to a significant improvement in the country’s image in the eyes of its Western allies.
Three million refugees in two months
With the outbreak of war in Ukraine, one of the darkest geopolitical scenarios for Poland became a reality. As a NATO frontline state, the burden of the huge wave of refugees from war-torn Ukraine fell on its western neighbour. Around 3 million refugees have so far crossed the Polish border, mostly women and children, instantly triggering justified concerns about the possibility of accommodating such throngs of people in need.
Before 24 February, Poland was seen as a country unwelcoming to foreigners, mainly owing to its refusal to admit several thousand migrants from the Middle East as part of the EU’s permanent relocation mechanism. Yet the exam on solidarity towards refugees from Ukraine has been passed with flying colours – ordinary Poles have hosted Ukrainians in their homes, footed the bill for rental costs, and organised material aid at a grassroots level.
The concerns of Western media have proved unfounded, as even before the war Poland began to prepare the infrastructure needed for receiving large numbers of refugees. ABC news reported on these preparations, while also emphasising the supposed anti-refugee attitude of the Polish authorities.
Just before the outbreak of war and in the first days of the war, Polish military, humanitarian and medical aid was already flowing into Ukraine. The intensification of the conflict brought increased help through official government channels as well as from Polish society, resulting in reports of a new “Solidarity” and a “Polish humanitarian empire”.
Bartosz Brzyski writes that Poland’s activity in terms of the scope and scale of aid sent to Ukraine has eclipsed that of other Western countries. And this has not escaped the attention of the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, whose correspondent praised the efforts of Poles offering transport, accommodation and food to Ukrainians arriving in their country.
The positive image of an empathetic Polish society also dominated the picture painted by the Western media. Deutsche Welle wrote of the exemplary approach of Poland, which not only opened the way to Ukrainians for safe refugee from the war, but did considerably more – introducing a special law just a week after the outbreak of war (before the EU) offering open access to the labour market, social benefits and medical care with the same rules as those applying to Poles.
As the author of the article notes, in just two days Ukrainian refugees were granted some 123,000 PESEL Polish national identification numbers. The BBC was another media outlet to recognise the gigantic efforts of Poland’s “army of volunteers”, who headed to railway stations with meals and first-aid items and prepared places for Ukrainian arrivals to sleep and rest.
The most important Middle Eastern outlet, Al-Jazeera, also noticed the unprecedented scale of the help delivered by Poles. The agency’s report describes the stories of people welcoming families from Ukraine under their roofs as well as those helping in everyday situations such as exchanging currency. Such headlines became widespread in the international media.
Celebrities and politicians
Western politicians also recognised Poland’s humanitarian stance, with visits to Warsaw and the railway station in Przemyśl, close to the Ukrainian border, becoming standard. Solidarity with Poland and Ukraine was expressed in Warsaw by US Vice-President Kamala Harris, followed by President Joe Biden. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are among the other world leaders to have visited Poland’s capital.
Some Western politicians have also attempted to bask in the glow of solidarity with refugees despite their pro-Russian views and support for Vladimir Putin. Matteo Salvini, the former deputy prime minister of Italy, who several years ago posed for photos in a T-shirt bearing the Russian president’s image, was one of those who appeared in Przemyśl.
Celebrities are also participating in spreading the positive image of Poland. The actor Sean Penn spent several dozen hours walking from Ukraine to Poland, describing his observations online. In Poland he met with volunteers, lavishing them with words of praise.
Penn also established cooperation with the authorities of Krakow through the CORE organisation that he founded. The agreement encompasses material and financial support for the city, earmarked for helping Ukrainian refugees.
Another American actor, Liev Schreiber, cooked barszcz for Ukrainians in Przemyśl. Although some might see posing for photos at reception centres as flashy publicity stunts, there is no denying that celebrities are helping to spread the message about Russian atrocities and the tragedy of Ukrainian families, while also reinforcing the positive image of Poland around the world.
A logistics hub
Poland’s image is an important tool of soft power in international politics, but it also plays an auxiliary role with respect to the hard factors determining the importance of NATO. The country’s frontline position has made it a logistics hub for the alliance, through which arms and supplies are transported to Ukraine. Practically every delivery of ammunition, weapons and medical equipment has left for Ukraine from Poland.
Importantly, Poland also did not abandon the role of logistics hub even when Russia ostentatiously bombed the Ukrainian military base in Yavoriv near Lviv. Just 20 kilometres from the Polish border, it was used as a training ground for Polish, Ukrainian and multinational NATO units.
The attack has more symbolic than strategic significance, but despite it, Poland did not cease arms supplies to Ukraine. Unlike Hungary, for example, Poland allowed transport of military and humanitarian aid. This resulted in threats from Russia, which, especially in the first weeks of the war, openly criticised Poland for its support of Ukraine.
Capital or security
Poland’s stable position in the Euro-Atlantic community is confirmed by announcements of further American investments in the country. In early March, Google declared that it was buying the Warsaw Hub buildings and office complex for €582.7 million.
The tech giant will be creating a cloud technology development centre in Poland as well as making its campus available for start-ups in the Praga district of the Polish capital. This will be used for providing material and legal aid to Ukrainian refugees.
The e-commerce platform eBay, which previously failed in the Polish market, has also announced a major comeback. It has now decided to offer an improved profile in Polish and implement its own payment service for Polish buyers. The company wants to become one of the biggest e-commerce platforms in the country, and within a few years intends to develop a distribution centre and begin working with Polish suppliers.
Google and eBay’s investments in Poland provide a clear signal to foreign investors that big capital is safe in the country, which is a good place for developing their operations.
It is worth noting that such large companies pay particular attention to political risks when moving into countries. We can assume that they consult with the US authorities before entering a market, confirming that the funds being invested will have American security guarantees attached over the coming decade and more.
Being on the frontline is an opportunity
Frontline states in other corners of the globe are able to develop the innovativeness of their economies, benefiting from the American nuclear umbrella and security guarantees. The countries in question are, of course, developed economies such as South Korea, Taiwan and Israel.
Their seemingly cursed location and unregulated situation in the neighbourhood should act as a deterrent to investors. But the opposite happens – each of these countries is a technological pioneer and a strong, innovative economy resistant to the unstable international environment.
We must not forget, however, that South Korea, Taiwan and Israel give their allies something more than a strategic position in an inflammatory region of the world. Above all, they possess large military capabilities and are technologically advanced, which makes a major contribution to the alliance with the United States. Poland can take their lead, offering Washington something more than a strategic location alone.
The position of a strategic ally of the world’s biggest superpower demands sacrifices and taking on a large burden, especially in wartime. Poland is passing the test during the current armed conflict, displaying a large amount of solidarity towards Ukraine as well as a decisive, pro-Western approach open to working together with its allies
In the future, this could bring Poland tangible benefits. Above all, it will allow us to play a key role, taking part in decisions on the architecture of the security system in Europe.
The original Polish version of this article can be found here. Translated by Ben Koschalka