Dispatch from Warsaw: Poland’s military and economic rise is coming just in time, as the West wobbles

WARSAW, Poland—After ten days in Warsaw, I’m struck by Poland’s rise, politically and militarily—even amid the dangers the country faces from Russia and Poles’ intensified post-debate doubts about the steadiness of the United States.

Poland’s strategic consensus—in support of Ukraine, opposed to Russia’s aggression, pro-NATO, and committed to its alliance with the United States—is solid, notwithstanding second-order (and avoidable) sniping between the governing coalition and the rightist opposition that controls the presidency. That’s more than can be said for France or, for that matter, the United States.

Poland’s dark assessment of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been vindicated. But the Poles are not indulging in declinist pessimism or Ukraine fatigue. Poland’s best analysts, including those within Warsaw’s top-notch Center for Eastern Studies, are more optimistic about the course of the war in Ukraine than I have heard in a long time. They don’t foresee easy Ukrainian success, but their bottom line is that time is no longer necessarily on the Kremlin’s side—if the West keeps up the pressure. Relative success for Ukraine is possible, the analysts maintain, if—though only if—the West keeps backing Ukraine by delivering more weapons with fewer conditions, tightening economic pressure against Russia, and generally pushing back on Putin’s imperial ambitions. (I’d come to Poland for the Atlantic Council’s “Warsaw Week” events and a Warsaw University conference on how to deter Russia.)

In a good precedent for Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, Poland’s military spending started to rise sharply under the previous government, and that trend has continued under the current one. Newly purchased heavy equipment, tanks, and fighter aircraft are arriving to replace tanks and aircraft that Poland sent to Ukraine shortly after the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022.

The France-Germany-Poland ‘Weimar Triangle’ grouping . . . suddenly seems eclipsed by French and German domestic politics.

But the West, the key institutions of which Poland joined at great effort, is no longer looking as sure as Poland had counted on. The June 27 debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump came as a shock to the Poles, who, like many, had not expected such a poor showing from Biden. The next day, many Poles were more openly contemplating the increased possibility of a second Trump term and weighing Poland’s options if the former president were to return to the White House. Trump’s more critical statements about NATO and friendly statements about Putin alarm many in Warsaw. But Polish politicians on both sides of the country’s political divide have good relations with many US Republicans both inside and outside Trump world, including Trump himself. They are now considering how to use these relationships to advance Poland’s customary “free world first” strategy.

Polish President Andrzej Duda, associated with the rightist former government, has had good relations with Trump and met with him in New York shortly before the US Congress finally voted to resume assistance to Ukraine, reportedly encouraging Trump not to oppose it. Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski, part of the centrist ruling coalition, has his own extensive ties with the US right and is also using them. Other leading Polish political figures, such as the Marshall (Speaker) of the Sejm Szymon Hołownia, are doing or preparing to do the same: reach out to Republicans in and around Trump world, especially during the July 9-11 NATO Summit in Washington, to urge a more Reaganite and less neo-isolationist US approach should Trump succeed Biden. How much they will succeed is not clear but, given that much of Trump world seems to regard the high-defense-spending Poles favorably, they will likely get a hearing, and it seems smart to try.

It’s not just across the Atlantic that Poland faces new challenges exacerbated by politics. The Poles had invested a lot in a newly rejuvenated relationship with French President Emmanuel Macron, who has become notably tougher on Russia in recent months. But France’s first-round snap parliamentary elections on June 30 and the possibility of a hard-right (and potentially soft on Putin) French government have weakened Macron and complicated this new alignment.

While Poles on both sides of the political divide had been frustrated by Germany’s long and fruitless courtship of Russia, the more centrist Polish government that came to power late last year has been more willing to work with Berlin, especially with the staunchly pro-Ukraine Green Party that controls the German foreign ministry. But June’s European parliamentary elections weakened the Greens and strengthened Germany’s Putin-friendly, far-right Alternative for Germany party. The France-Germany-Poland “Weimar Triangle” grouping, which some Poles had thought might emerge as a pillar of European strategic strength vis-à-vis Russia, much on Polish terms, suddenly seems to have been eclipsed by French and German domestic politics.

Between Russia’s war of aggression to the east and political storm clouds to the West, Poland has a lot to deal with. But its capabilities are far greater than they were. Since its peaceful overthrow of Moscow-backed communist rule in 1989, Poland has enjoyed a steady and remarkable rise in economic and now military terms. Its rise at home and its strategic clarity about Russia, now vindicated, have placed Poland in the first rank of European powers for the first time in centuries. And just in time, as it turns out.

Daniel Fried is the Weiser Family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, former US ambassador to Poland, and former US assistant secretary of state for Europe.

Further reading

Image: People are celebrating the 25th anniversary of Poland joining NATO in Krakow, Poland, on March 12, 2024. There are currently 32 member states in NATO. Poland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on March 12, 1999. On the occasion of the anniversary, a ceremony is taking place on the Main Square, with the participation of the Polish army and a military band. (Photo by Klaudia Radecka/NurPhoto)