Boots on the Ground: Poland and the War in Ukraine

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Michael Johns: Where in the world were you and what were you doing there?

Oleksii Antoniuk: I was in Poland pretty much the entire mid-winter, starting from December 15th to January 14th. I spent an entire month in Warsaw and went around neighboring cities – Kraków, Wrocław. It was quite an interesting experience, seeing the country that is, we can say, partially engaged in the war given that it had accepted so many refugees and it provided so much security assistance. And it’s taking on a huge financial security burden for Ukraine’s military assistance. 

Another interesting observation that I had from living in Poland for months is how integrated and welcomed Ukrainians are there, and how far Polish citizens go to accept Ukrainian refugees, providing them with as much support as is necessary. That’s very surprising to me. Usually, when there are refugees in countries, they are congregated in refugee camps, in their own neighborhoods. In Poland, there is nothing like that. It’s as if just the population of Warsaw – where I lived – increased by 10 to 15 percent. This shows that the refugees managed to find houses. They managed to find jobs, they received support, healthcare, and schooling for their children. I haven’t heard of any single better response to a refugee crisis than how Poland responded to the Ukraine crisis. 

MJ: Well, that’s uplifting to hear. What do you think that says about Poland’s approach to the conflict? Because it seems that many Polish people are invested in the conflict, both on the home front by accepting refugees and so on, but then also by materially supporting the war on the side of Ukraine. What do you think this says about what the Polish think about their place in the region?

OA: I think that this war is a historical anomaly. Back in the day, and I’m talking about centuries ago, when Russia was invading Ukraine, Poland would say, “Oh, there’s also some space for Polish troops. Let me take a few Ukrainian regions.” Like Galicia, Volhynia, and other regions that are neighboring Poland. That has been a response for centuries, starting out with the 17th century when Poland and Russia divided the Ukrainian Zaporizhia Cossack lands and continuing through the First World War, to when in the 1920s Poland and Russia again divided Ukraine.

And what is fascinating, is that right now Poland is supporting Ukraine’s independence, as opposed to putting troops and invading Ukraine with Russia together. That’s really an anomaly. I think people in America underappreciate how much of an anomaly it is. It’s as if China and Taiwan worked together to protect another nation. That China doesn’t want Taiwan anymore, that China wants Taiwan independent, it’s as crazy of a turn. Poland as Ukraine’s ally, a supporter of Ukraine’s independence, is being taken for granted as if this is how it’s supposed to be.

The question is, why did Poland change its policy? That is a very difficult question to answer, but I think it is because Polish elites understood that an independent Ukraine is the only way to secure Polish independence from Russia, and that Ukraine in a way should become a buffer state between Poland and Russia, so Poland should make sure that Ukraine is as strong as possible. So Poland became a positive force in the region, I think, probably one of the most positive countries in terms of their effect on supporting democracy and protecting Ukraine against Russia’s fascism. And it can take on a much more central role in the EU. Poland could become the security anchor of the European Union. In many ways, it already is: the Polish military is second in the EU, second to Ukraine’s military. Ukraine is the first in terms of military strength, and Poland is the second. France and Germany are already very secondary to the EU’s security infrastructure. And Poland together with Ukraine could become even security exporters and become America’s best allies in protecting Europe from Russia, or any other security threat, because they would have the biggest military, and they care the most about defense in Eastern Europe.

MJ:  What does Warsaw think – what do Poles think – about the relationship with the United States? Because it seems that what you’re describing is a future in which Poland carries a comparatively very significant burden for European security, possibly at the same time that the nexus of EU politics starts moving eastward as Ukraine – which seems it will survive in some form or another, even in the worst potential outcomes here – becomes closer to the EU. As Poland becomes more significant in European politics, how does that change Transatlantic relations? What do Poles think their place is with respect to our country? 

OA: Poles love America. When I was there, I could see people dressed up, for example, one guy in Warsaw’s Central Square fully dressed up as an American. It’s all like American flag and singing American rock, “American Pie,” and we were like yeah, it looks about right in Poland. Poland loves America so much, and Eastern Europe in general loves America so much because America is seen as a liberator because it is the result of the Cold War that the USSR collapsed and freed the Eastern European people. America was the driving force of these changes. America welcomed Poland, Hungary, and many other countries into NATO. 

And now, Russia is not invading NATO countries, but only non-NATO countries, so Poland can rest secure knowing that America is there to protect it, even though they still recognize that they need to invest in their own defense – and they’re investing a lot. America also stands still as a beacon of liberty, free markets, and a form of capitalism that many Eastern European nations aspire to. That is not the case, surprisingly, to me, for many other countries which America helped to liberate, for instance in Africa. But in Eastern Europe, countries that experienced communism – they want to have as great markets, as much freedom, as America has. 

Another reason why Poland looks up to  America is that the values of the Polish nation, the American nation, and in the same respect the Ukrainian nation, are so similar. All these three nations value freedom above all. They recognize independent struggles because all three were established – all three states in their current form were established as the result of independence struggles. They all realize the importance of, again, free markets and innovation. And they also care about democracy. I think they will be the primary allies in the fight against authoritarianism for the defense of democracy.

MJ:  Interesting. There’s a lot to be extrapolated from that, but for the sake of time, I should ask you just one last question. It’s about life in Poland itself. What’s your favorite part about being in the country?

OA: Every part. The country is developing so fast. And you feel this dynamism when you live there. Like Warsaw, there are all the time new restaurants opening, new bars, and new interesting places. It’s so youth-driven, so dynamic. And you feel the change. You feel the improvement. Even from just living there, even if you don’t interact that much with locals, you just feel it in the air. It’s surprising to me how much. There are many places in the world where you go there and you’re like “Yes, this is stagnation,” just by looking at it. And in Poland? It’s got so much construction, so much development, people are optimistic, hopeful about the future, they are ready to change. There’s IT popping up there, and then there are huge financial structures that haven’t existed five or ten years ago, like the entire business center being built. It’s fascinating how fast. That I would say is the most surprising part about living in Poland.

MJ: Very uplifting. Thanks for speaking with us!

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