Poland’s Prime Minister Says His Country Was Right About Russia

WARSAW — Two decades ago, when Poland rallied behind the United States in the contentious lead-up to the Iraq war, the president of France chided Warsaw, saying it had “missed a good opportunity to shut up.”

Today, nobody — other than Russia — is telling Poland to keep quiet, at least not over the war in Ukraine.

With President Biden making his second visit to Warsaw since the war began last February and the Polish capital gearing up to host a summit meeting on Wednesday of leaders from nine countries on NATO’s eastern flank, Poland has found its voice.

“It is quite visible that the center of gravity has moved here to Poland and other countries in Central Europe,” the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said Tuesday in an interview.

Poland, which joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2014, is delighted to be no longer talked down to as just another “new Eastern member” of the European bloc and the military alliance by veteran Western members like France and Germany.

“I see that we are being listened to more and more on what is going on around us,” Mr. Morawiecki said. “I see that on the security challenge we are understood in a better way,”

He recalled that before President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia sent his military into Ukraine, Warsaw’s insistent warnings about the threat posed by Moscow and by Europe’s reliance on its energy supplies “were only sort of half heard.”

Since the war began, Germany has ditched its previously Moscow-friendly policies and also its heavy dependence on Russian natural gas. At the same time, Poland has become a hub for Western weapons flowing into Ukraine, a shelter for millions of Ukrainian refugees and a driving force behind European sanctions against Russia.

“All governments have admitted that my government was right with regards to Russia, to all the threats related to the Russian-German gas relationship,” Mr. Morawiecki said. He said the policies toward Russia of Germany’s former chancellor, Angela Merkel, were “completely wrong.”

In a speech in Warsaw on Tuesday, President Biden hailed Poland as “one of our great allies, praising its embrace of refugees from Ukraine and its key role in the West’s united response to Russian aggression.

“Thank you, Poland. Thank you, thank you, thank you for what you’re doing.”

Yet, while acknowledging that Poland has become a pivot around which much of that response now revolves, some foreign policy experts worry that it might not be entirely ready for prime time.

In particular, they cite its domestic political battles ahead of national elections this fall and long-running disputes between Poland’s right-wing governing party, Law and Justice, and the European Union. Those mainly involved changes to the judiciary that critics say threaten the independence of courts and the government’s insistence that Polish law trumps some European legislation.

“Polish leaders should take care not to overplay their hand,” Piotr Buras, the head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in a report this week. “Admiration in Europe for Warsaw’s accomplishments could easily turn into irritation if moral leadership becomes self-righteousness.”

There is already irritation in Germany over the Law and Justice party’s revival of the issue of reparations for World War II, a matter that Berlin considers long closed. Poland is insisting that Germany still owes more than a trillion dollars for the carnage caused by Nazi Germany.

Bashing Germany is popular with the Polish governing party’s conservative political base but has sometimes disrupted diplomatic and military cooperation between the two countries.

When Germany offered Poland Patriot air defense systems in November, the defense minister in Warsaw swiftly accepted the offer with thanks. A few days later, however, the Polish governing party’s cantankerous leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, said that while the German offer was ‘interesting,” it would be better if Berlin sent the missiles to Ukraine, a non-starter as it would involve sending German military personnel into Ukraine. The Polish defense minister quickly dropped his initial welcome for the German Patriots.

Poland’s main opposition party, Civic Platform, jumped on the muddle, accusing Mr. Kaczyinski of playing to his party’s often anti-German base and asserting that he “has gone mad.” Rzeczpospolita, a respected daily newspaper, said that the proposal to send Germany’s missiles to Ukraine instead of Poland was “shocking” and undermined “Poland’s credibility and, worst of all, its security.”

Mr. Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister, denied that domestic politics lay behind the mixed signals and said that Poland was simply trying to respond to a longstanding request from President Volodymyr Zelensky for Patriot missiles.

Roman Kuzniar, professor of strategic and international studies at the University of Warsaw and a senior Foreign Ministry official under a previous, opposition-led government, said that the war in Ukraine had clearly enhanced Poland’s role as a geopolitical player. But, he said, “this role is much less than it could have been because we are also at war with Europe” over rule of law disputes and “constantly fighting with Germany.”

Despite the bad blood, Poland played a key role in prodding Germany to agree to sending some of its Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine and to give permission to other European countries, including Poland, to send some of their own advanced German-made tanks.

“At the beginning, only we were ready to send Leopard tanks, but we were able to persuade Germany and other countries to do the same,” Mr. Morawiecki said.

He said that Poland has already sent 250 older model tanks to Ukraine and that it would send 14 Leopards as soon as Ukrainian crews finished training, as well as 60 PT-91s, a modern Polish battle tank. Some other countries, he lamented, are now dragging their feet despite previous commitments.

More surprising than Poland’s tiffs with Germany is the rift that has opened up over the Ukraine war with Hungary, whose authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, was long viewed by Poland’s governing party as a kindred spirit. They still share many of the same views on the European Union — mostly negative when it comes to issues like the rule of law and L.G.B.T. rights — and the need to defend traditional Christian values, but have diverged sharply over Ukraine.

”I completely disagree with his views on the war,” Mr. Morawiecki said of Mr. Orban, who has refused to let weapons for Ukraine pass though his territory and cozied up to the Kremlin in pursuit of cheap energy.

But he noted that Hungary has so far gone along with European sanctions against Russia, despite denouncing them repeatedly.

Behind the din generated by Poland’s highly polarized domestic political scene is a broad consensus on the need to support Ukraine. This has allowed the government to ramp up spending on the military, which is now around 3 percent of gross domestic product, far above the 2 percent target set by NATO but missed by most members of the alliance.

Mr. Morawiecki said that if weapons and other military equipment ordered by the government arrive this year. the figure would hit 4 percent. “This is going to be the highest portion of all the countries in NATO, including the U.S., as a proportion of G.D.P,” he said. The United States spends 3.3 percent of G.D.P. on the military.

Perhaps the clearest measure of how much Poland is doing to support Ukraine is the fury it has inspired in Moscow, including from Dmitri Medvedev, Russia’s former president and now deputy head of Mr. Putin’s security council.

In a splenetic post on social media last year, Mr. Medvedev denounced Polish leaders as “vassals” of the United States who only want to “swear allegiance to their overlord“ in Washington. “Now the interests of the citizens of Poland have been sacrificed to the Russophobia of these mediocre politicians and their puppeteers from across the ocean with clear signs of senile insanity,” he said.

Being a target for Russian vitriol, however, has, in the eyes of many Poles and also fellow Europeans, only confirmed the status of Poland as a country that matters.

This has not halted the Polish government’s long-running disputes with the European Union, whose executive arm last week announced that it was taking Warsaw to the European Court of Justice over a 2001 ruling by Poland’s Supreme Court that effectively challenged the primacy of European law.

The Polish court ruling stirred alarm in some quarters that Poland had put itself on a path that could one day lead to “Polexit,” a Polish version of Britain’s “Brexit” departure from the bloc.

That, Mr. Morawiecki said, is not going to happen. He called it “a complete lie” ginned up by the opposition.

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