Might Poland Be at Risk of Shooting Itself in the Foot?

Poland’s reckless foreign policy may trigger another war in Europe that could cause Poland to lose its sovereignty

Poland appears to be firmly set on further escalating military and diplomatic tensions with Russia and has all but severed all of its ties with Russia.

In March, Warsaw forced Russia to scale back its diplomatic presence in the country by 45 people while also taking steps to prevent the Russian Embassy from using its bank accounts. In April and May, Poland intends to stop importing Russian coal altogether. The country has also pledged to block its oil and gas imports from Russia by 2022.

In the meantime, Poland has become a central international logistics hub used for shipping arms and sending foreign mercenaries to Ukraine, which is at war with Russia. It also plays host to a rapidly growing strike force that is being amassed on the Poland-Ukraine border while pushing for deploying a NATO peacekeeping force in Western Ukraine which is to be made up of mostly Polish troops. Official representatives of NATO, the US, and Germany have been categorically opposed to this idea. Neither Washington nor Berlin are interested in a dramatic escalation of tensions that might lead to a military confrontation with Russia. And yet, some experts do not rule out the possibility that Poland might be willing to go it alone in an attempt to retake the parts of Western Ukraine that used to belong to Poland before 1939 and thus set the historical record straight from Poland’s perspective. But there’s a risk that Poland’s ill-considered actions and the steps it has been taking to incite a significant war may have the opposite effect leading to yet another partition of Poland and an end to Poland’s statehood.

Poland’s involvement in the Ukrainian crisis is understandable. Since the beginning of Russia’s campaign in Ukraine, Poland has been the primary destination for the Ukrainian refugees running away from the hostilities. Official estimates suggest that close to 2.5 million Ukrainians have already crossed the Polish border, with millions more gathered in Western Ukraine. On the one hand, millions of destitute Eastern Slavs pose a serious challenge to Poland, whose population of about 40 million is not shy about expressing its nationalist sentiments.

Poles and Ukrainians have a long and complex history spanning centuries. Poland has not forgotten the terrible massacres perpetrated by Ukrainian nationalists in Volhynia, resulting in over 50,000 Poles getting brutally killed. This runs counter to Ukraine’s currently dominant narrative that honours the vicious murderers and criminals behind the massacres as national heroes, with monuments dedicated to them and streets being renamed in their honour. In other words, Warsaw is running the risk of potentially harbouring millions of people hostile to Poland inside its borders and in areas under its purview. This becomes apparent from looking at the writings, images and videos posted and shared on Polish social media. Furthermore, the situation is bound to worsen due to the ongoing humanitarian and social crisis compounded by the adjustment challenges faced by the refugees trying to adapt to their new position and the ever growing influx of more people.

It appears, however, that the combination of anti-Russian revanchism coupled with a possible opportunity, according to some in Warsaw, to take under its control and annex Ukraine's Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk regions could lead to Poland accepting the risk.

So far, other member countries of NATO and the United States have been opposed to the idea of supporting a Poland-led peacekeeping mission to Ukraine under the alliance's auspices.

The continued buildup of US troops on Poland’s Eastern borders, President Biden's March visit to Poland, and active interactions with the British intelligence in Ukraine may be pointing out that Washington and London are aware of Poland’s aspirations. Moreover, they do not intend to interfere with the Polish leadership’s most daring plans, thereby goading Poland to take the initiative and start acting on its own.

Poland could, indeed, forgo Russia’s warnings and opt for acting decisively.

In Poland’s history, there was a period between WWI and WWII when the country exhibited aggressive behaviour towards its neighbours. In the 1920s and 1930s, it included oppression and persecution of Ukrainians and Belarusians of the Orthodox faith residing in the areas ceded to Poland following its wars with the Ukrainian People's Republic and the Soviet Union. In the 1930s, Poland took active steps to prepare for a battle with the Soviet Union. It was egged on to do so by Britain and France on the one hand, and Germany, on the other. It had been implicated in colluding with the Third Reich and in taking part in the partitioning of Czechoslovakia by occupying the latter’s Teszyn region with Germany’s approval.

However, Poland did not get to benefit from its aggressive policy. After Poland lost its independence, the Soviet Union annexed Western Ukraine and Belarus. The whole of ex-Poland became a zone of fighting between the Soviet Union and Germany and the leading site for implementing the Nazis' "final solution to the Jewish question".

After the war, Poland got large swaths of Germany’s industrially developed Silesia, Prussia, and East Prussia, which more than made up for its territorial losses in the east. It helped ease the "trauma" of World War II. So now Poland appears to be prepared to take risks in Western Ukraine. It may try to pull its NATO allies into the conflict and, as a consequence of a major European war, return its lost lands in the east and take possession of Kaliningrad with the surrounding area (formerly Koenigsberg and East Prussia) that had never been a part of Poland.

However, one might think that Poland has lost a grip on reality as it did before World War II, blinded by its nationalist revanchism. Abandoned by its US and UK allies (who will not support Poland and hold it accountable for its gamble), Poland may become the scene of a confrontation between major powers. An attempt to grab land from or partition neighbouring nations could backfire and ultimately lead to Poland's partitioning itself and losing its sovereignty.

The country's future will be determined by current conditions rather than by the ambitions of Poland’s elites. It may well turn out that in many parts of Poland, the size of the Ukrainian and Russian populations will exceed the size of the Polish people there, in which case it would perhaps be ruled more expedient to cede these territories to, say, Ukraine.

It is also possible that other parts of Poland, inhabited mainly by Polonised Germans, may be given a "consolation prize" to a "Prussian Republic". Given the geopolitical upheavals currently taking place before our eyes, such a scenario becoming a reality is hardly too improbable to imagine.

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