Will the Ukraine War Return Poland to Europe’s Democratic Fold?

Europe and Poland need each other more than ever.

By , the editor in chief of Kultura Liberalna and a senior lecturer at the University of Warsaw’s Faculty of Law and Administration, and , the political editor of Kultura Liberalna and a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen shakes hands with Polish President Andrzej Duda at a press conference in Konstancin-Jeziorna, Poland, on June 2.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen shakes hands with Polish President Andrzej Duda at a press conference in Konstancin-Jeziorna, Poland, on June 2.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen shakes hands with Polish President Andrzej Duda at a press conference in Konstancin-Jeziorna, Poland, on June 2. WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images

What a difference a war makes. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Poland was considered the black sheep of Europe. The illiberal government under the ruling Law and Justice party trampled on the country’s democratic constitution, subordinated the public media, and attacked women’s and minorities’ rights. Poland became an outcast within the European Union, which launched various infringement proceedings against the Polish government for violating the bloc’s rules on democratic governance.

The government in Warsaw seemed happy with this state of affairs. To Polish voters, tensions with Brussels could be spun into proof of their country’s uncompromised self-determination. Other European populists found an open door in Warsaw: Last year, for example, France’s then-presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and other like-minded leaders joined Law and Justice party head Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Warsaw to denounce an alleged Brussels power-grab that threatened to turn the EU into a “superstate.”

Russia’s war of annihilation against Ukraine has forced a rethinking about the European order, and Poland has emerged as a vital element of the puzzle. Immediately after the start of the invasion, Warsaw stepped up to help Ukraine. To the surprise of many, it welcomed an estimated 4 million Ukrainian refugees with open arms—about 10 percent of Poland’s population and the largest number of relocated people in the country since 1945. Warsaw also gave significant military and other aid to Kyiv, including nearly 2 billion euros’ worth (or almost $2.1 billion) of tanks, modern artillery, anti-aircraft kits, strike drones, surveillance systems, and other equipment. In the country’s southeast corner, Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport has turned into a global hub for arms deliveries and other equipment headed to Ukraine. Very quickly, Poland emerged as Ukraine’s third-most important supporter after the United States and Britain. The country has also seen a major upgrading of support from other NATO members as part of efforts to better secure the bloc’s eastern flank. As a result, the country’s prewar isolation has melted like wax in the sun.

What a difference a war makes. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Poland was considered the black sheep of Europe. The illiberal government under the ruling Law and Justice party trampled on the country’s democratic constitution, subordinated the public media, and attacked women’s and minorities’ rights. Poland became an outcast within the European Union, which launched various infringement proceedings against the Polish government for violating the bloc’s rules on democratic governance.

The government in Warsaw seemed happy with this state of affairs. To Polish voters, tensions with Brussels could be spun into proof of their country’s uncompromised self-determination. Other European populists found an open door in Warsaw: Last year, for example, France’s then-presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and other like-minded leaders joined Law and Justice party head Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Warsaw to denounce an alleged Brussels power-grab that threatened to turn the EU into a “superstate.”

Russia’s war of annihilation against Ukraine has forced a rethinking about the European order, and Poland has emerged as a vital element of the puzzle. Immediately after the start of the invasion, Warsaw stepped up to help Ukraine. To the surprise of many, it welcomed an estimated 4 million Ukrainian refugees with open arms—about 10 percent of Poland’s population and the largest number of relocated people in the country since 1945. Warsaw also gave significant military and other aid to Kyiv, including nearly 2 billion euros’ worth (or almost $2.1 billion) of tanks, modern artillery, anti-aircraft kits, strike drones, surveillance systems, and other equipment. In the country’s southeast corner, Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport has turned into a global hub for arms deliveries and other equipment headed to Ukraine. Very quickly, Poland emerged as Ukraine’s third-most important supporter after the United States and Britain. The country has also seen a major upgrading of support from other NATO members as part of efforts to better secure the bloc’s eastern flank. As a result, the country’s prewar isolation has melted like wax in the sun.

Yet the Kremlin’s attempt to destroy Ukraine’s fledgling democracy has also reminded European politicians that respect for democracy is not a mere abstraction. As Europe unites over its support for Ukraine, hopes are therefore high that Poland not only aligns with the rest of Europe strategically but also finds its way back onto the liberal democratic path.

Being so close to an increasingly aggressive Russia has been a bucket of cold water for Poland’s ideologically heated heads.

Indeed, some recent signals from Warsaw seem to meet those expectations. Since the start of the war, Poland seems to have suspended its illiberal populist alliance with Hungary until further notice. Kaczynski has openly criticized Orban’s pro-Russian sympathies. In the debate over an EU-wide embargo of Russian natural gas, Warsaw took the side of its EU partners, whereas Budapest has been zigzagging between Russia and the West. Right now, it would also be difficult to imagine Le Pen touring Warsaw with head-of-state honors like in the past. The government’s EU bashing has taken a back seat to the pressures of geopolitical reality—above all, Poland’s fear of Russian neo-imperialism and heightened need for Western support.

But while these signs look hopeful, Poland’s return to the liberal path is not so easy. Yes, Warsaw’s geopolitical interests are now much closer to those of Washington and Brussels than in recent years. Fears of Russian attempts to recolonize Eastern Europe, which happened repeatedly during the past three centuries, are collectively shared by the government and society—and not just in Poland. The Baltic states, for example, share Poland’s conviction that Russia poses the primary threat to their sovereignty and statehood. This post-traumatic sovereignty, as we name it, shapes their domestic and foreign policies far more than any nationalist dissent from EU institutions. According to an April Zymetria opinion poll, 84 percent of Poles expressed fears that military action could spill over into Polish territory.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that this could automatically bring the current Polish government to embrace liberal democracy. Poland’s domestic political path will remain complex, perhaps comparable to countries in southeast Europe, such as Serbia.

If Warsaw now defines its interests to be in line with those of Brussels, that is not the same as sharing its EU partners’ values. Kaczynski and his acolytes are unlikely to be born again as liberal democrats but will remain what they have been so far: sovereigntists using their power to illiberal ends. They may now have greater appreciation of Western institutions as guarantees of Polish sovereignty in times of danger, but they will not be convinced by the current war to change their views on the rule of law, respect for women’s and minority people’s rights, or the role of the public media—the main spheres where liberal democracy in Poland has been damaged since 2015. The public media, in particular, has been subservient to the government since 2015 and continues to broadcast politically illiberal content without interruptions.

Moreover, Warsaw is still attempting to build its sovereigntist alliances. With Hungary for a time being discredited due to its fervently pro-Russian orientation and following a failed attempt to create an axis with post-Brexit Britain, a potential partner is now seen in Kyiv. Members of the Polish government have already expressed their wish to build a strong Polish-Ukrainian alliance that could dominate Eastern Europe independent of the EU. Their hope is to build this alliance on nationalist and anti-Western sentiment, even if Kyiv is mostly oriented toward the EU today.

Still, Warsaw may be forced by events, including those unleashed by Russia’s war, to inch closer to the European democratic mainstream. The Polish government knows that the country cannot stand alone against Russia—not even in alliance with Ukraine. And Poland’s tight relationship with NATO isn’t enough because the current challenges are not only military. Polish inflation has soared to more than 15 percent, and the vast number of Ukrainian refugees poses an obvious challenge for the country’s education system, public institutions, and social cohesion. In this situation, it is very difficult to imagine that Warsaw could be so obstinate in its desire to flaunt EU standards that it loses access to post-pandemic EU funds, which Brussels has temporarily blocked in its response to Poland’s rule-of-law crisis. Although the Polish government may still be trying to outwit the European Commission and tell its voters that it won’t fulfill the EU’s expectations, it risks facing a backlash among Polish voters during national elections next year if it does not do what the EU requires for Poland to obtain the funds.

In the current faceoff with its EU partners, Warsaw will reluctantly return to the table so that Western unity is maintained. Being so close to an increasingly aggressive Russia has been a bucket of cold water for ideologically heated heads. Although it won’t turn Poland’s ruling politicians into flawless liberal democrats any time soon, it will likely take the edge off some of their policies. The Polish sheep hasn’t suddenly turned from black to white—but it seems to be taking on a shade of gray.

Jaroslaw Kuisz is the editor in chief of Kultura Liberalna, a senior lecturer at the University of Warsaw’s Faculty of Law and Administration, and a policy fellow at the University of Cambridge.

Karolina Wigura is the political editor of Kultura Liberalna, an assistant professor at the University of Warsaw’s Faculty of Sociology, and a Richard von Weizsäcker fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy. Twitter: @KarolinaWigura

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