Biden’s Breakthrough in Poland
US President Joe Biden’s recent appearances in Kyiv and Warsaw could represent a turning point in the Russia-Ukraine war. The United States and its allies are now leaving no doubt that they will support Ukraine in its pursuit of a complete military victory.
Some Poles felt slighted when they learned that US President Joe Biden had stopped in Kyiv before making his appearance in Warsaw, suspecting that his planned trip to Poland was just a cover for his surprise visit to Ukraine. Such feelings are uncalled for. If anything, Poles should welcome being paired with Ukraine.
The Ukrainians are fighting a war for survival and for democracy, and Poles should be sick of the domestic populism that has damaged our own democratic institutions. We and our Ukrainian neighbors should both look forward to these struggles ending and giving way to a brighter future – one that could also include Belarus, as Biden mentioned in his Warsaw speech.
Biden also offered praise for Moldova, which has taken in a disproportionately large share of Ukrainian refugees, while also dealing with Russian soldiers squatting on its territory. Despite its troubles, Moldova has the same democratic and European aspirations as Ukraine does. More broadly, Eastern European countries’ fates are interwoven: Ukraine will be truly safe only if Belarus is free, Poland is democratic, and Moldova remains independent.
The fact that Biden journeyed to Kyiv and Warsaw – rather than to the Munich Security Conference – made a deep impression in Europe, particularly Germany. It shows that Europe’s center of gravity has shifted eastward. The Poles are increasingly in the strategic driver’s seat – at least as long as there’s a war on.
But now just imagine where Poland would be today if it had a normal government, rather than a populist, illiberal one. Poland’s influence in Brussels, Berlin, Paris, and other European capitals would be even greater, and Poland would be stronger for it – both economically and militarily.
Of course, as far as the United States is concerned, populism in Poland ceased to matter the second Russia launched a full-scale war in Europe. Concerns about the rule of law and other matters of principle were cast aside in the interest of realpolitik. Behind the scenes, US diplomats made clear that Biden would work with any Polish government that remained committed to confronting Russian revanchism – even if it was full of crooks.
It was not so long ago that Polish President Andrzej Duda hesitated to congratulate Biden for his election victory over Donald Trump; now, Duda cannot stop praising Biden. It was not so long ago that Poland’s ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), froze relations with Ukraine, demanding that it apologize for a litany of past evils (never mind that Poland itself has plenty to apologize to the Ukrainians for). But now PiS politicians are bending over backward to proclaim their loyalty and devotion to Ukraine.
I suppose we Poles should thank Ukraine for rehabilitating our image after all the damage that PiS has done to it. But will Ukraine overlook the fact that Poland’s conflicts with the European Union fueled doubts in Brussels about welcoming more Eastern European countries to the bloc?
While Russian media dismissed Biden’s Kyiv speech as a bland recitation of the usual platitudes, Western media reacted to Putin’s 2022 “state of the Russian nation” speech in much the same way. But Putin’s remarks were actually quite interesting, because he attempted to explain himself to Russians and justify why he had started the war. He promised an economic miracle, and even cleaner rivers, and announced that the state would allocate an additional 4.5 trillion rubles ($60 billion) to housing, though, according to Russia’s central bank, the budget deficit already exceeds the full-year target.
Unlike Putin, Biden was more a pugilist than a populist. He had visited Kyiv unarmed and unguarded by the US military, traveling by train for ten hours – a tediously long trip that Russia could only watch helplessly from afar. But once he was in Warsaw, Biden threatened Putin with a raised fist. Russia will not win, he declared, because America and its allies are behind Ukraine all the way.
Biden’s message of resolve will have landed decisively not just on Putin but also on his inner circle of cronies and enablers. They had been clinging to the belief that Russia could eventually win the war. As long as that outcome remained possible, Putin was safe. But following Biden’s speech, many Russian elites will be harboring new doubts.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, a previous “Putin understander,” also recently traveled to Kyiv, where she pledged to provide the government with an SAMP/T-MAMBA air-defense system, along with Spada and Skyguard anti-aircraft systems. And Representative Michael McCaul, the Republican chair of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, recently stated that he is “seeing increasing momentum towards getting” ATACMS missiles and F-16 fighter jets into Ukraine. “And in any event,” he added, “we can start training the [Ukrainian] pilots right now so they’re ready.” The delivery of long-range missiles and warplanes would change the course of the conflict, not least by giving Ukraine the means to strike Russian forces in Crimea.
Biden’s appearances in Kyiv and Warsaw represent a breakthrough. With Ukraine and the Kremlin rejecting peace negotiations, the Americans seem to have concluded that Ukraine must be furnished with the means to take back all its territory. And with Biden announcing a NATO summit in the US in 2024, any scenario other than Russia’s defeat would be an intolerable embarrassment for him personally and for the US. America is as invested in Putin’s defeat as Ukraine is – and as Poland is. That was the message from Biden’s historic trip.
This text was first published by Project Syndicate on February 23, 2023.