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The friend in need

Without Polish support – both militarily and humanitarian – Ukraine would have had severe problems while fighting back the full-scale Russian invasion. As the level of Polish solidarity was extraordinary, the EU needs to ask itself, how this Polish example can be used to improve and strengthen the European community.

By Sergej Sumlenny

It was early February 2022, as the Russian army was massing on the Ukrainian border, when the German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock – not a pro-Ukrainian hawk yet – visited Kyiv on her way to Moscow. It was already clear by then, that Russia was ready to attack Ukraine, and that the Russian invasion would mean unimaginable war crimes, including the mass rape of Ukrainian women. While being asked in Kyiv, if Germany would send weapons to Ukraine, minister Baerbock denied it and stated, Germany would not do it “because of our German history“. The only German commitment for Ukraine, a nation that the Nazi troops tried to wipe out during the second world war, was a promise to send one field hospital and 5,000 helmets. With these means, according to Berlin Ukraine needed to defend itself from the biggest army in Europe. In its blind course to appeasing Russia, Germany even blocked Estonia from delivering to Ukraine Soviet-produced, formerly East Germany-owned 122-mm D-30 howitzers which Estonia purchased from Germany in the 1990s. Cynically, the German defense minister Christine Lambrecht defended this German position as the way to “stay on the side of Ukraine” and an attempt “to de-escalate”.

Effectively, if only Germany could have decided, Ukraine would have suffered a dramatic defeat in the very first weeks, left without arms and any other support. But for Ukraine’s luck, there were countries like the U.S., U.K., and Poland – the three nations which have provided Ukraine with massive military support in the face of the Russian invasion. Already, by early February 2022, weeks before the Russian full-scale invasion, Poland sent to Ukraine Piorun man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS). This together with the U.S. deliveries of Stinger MANPADS and Javelin anti-tank missiles, and the British support with NLAW anti-tank missiles. This was the package that stopped the Russian invaders from capturing the strategically important Hostomel airport and taking Kyiv in the first days of the war.

Actually, the Polish-made Piorun MANPADS continues to protect Ukrainian skies. The last recorded kill of a Russian Su-25 jet by the Piorun was dated February 13 2023 during the battle for Bakhmut in the Donetsk region. In February 2022, the Pioruns were of more value, and were a real life-saver for Ukraine.

But this was just the beginning. The extraordinary support continued into the following months. In May, Poland provided Ukraine with three batteries of the modern Krab self-propelled howitzers, the Polish version based on the South Korean K9 howitzer – before the arrival of the U.S. HIMARS rocket artillery in June and the German PzH2000 self-propelled howitzers in July.

Furthermore, Poland donated to Ukraine over 260 Soviet-produced and Poland-modernized T-72 main battle tanks, turning into the biggest Western supplier of tanks. During the winter of 2022-23, the Polish government exerted non-stop pressure on Germany and other countries, demanding to provide Ukraine with the most modern tanks like the German-built Leopard 2. The tanks saga culminated on December 11 in Lviv, where crowds of Ukrainians spontaneously celebrated the Polish president Andrej Duda, chanting “thank you” and taking selfies with him – pictures which are impossible to imagine with Chancellor Scholz.

The celebration of President Duda was not only caused by the latter’s promise to send the Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. It was also his firm approach towards Germany and his constant demands from the German government to greenlight the tank delivery that earned him unprecedented recognition from the Ukrainians. The people of Ukraine saw the Polish president as a powerful ally, and they knew, they needed an ally.

This was not the first time that Poland took a leading role in the EU, mobilizing the European nations against the threats to our freedom and peace. Back in 2008, it was Polish president Lech Kaczyński who understood the significance of the Russian attack on Georgia. While the leaders of Germany and France believed, in solving the problem with phone calls or recognition of certain “security demands” by Russia, the Polish president organized a trip to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, just 50 kilometers from the front lines, and held his solidarity speech together with the presidents of Estonia, Lithuania, and Ukraine, and the Prime Minister of Latvia. Kaczyński’s statement was clear and unfortunately absolutely true namely “Today Georgia, tomorrow Ukraine, the day after tomorrow – the Baltic States and later, perhaps, time will come for my country, Poland”, he said, while holding his speech on the central square of Tbilisi.

In contrary to Kaczyński’s move, the German way of dealing with an aggressor was less than impressive already in 2008. It was best expressed by the politics of Angela Merkel, one of the European leaders who stayed in power untypically long, having been re-elected three times and remaining the German chancellor for 16 years, always preferring the way of inaction to the way of action. In April 2008, during the Bucharest NATO summit, Merkel effectively blocked any chances for both Georgia and Ukraine to start the process of NATO integration. Many believed, that the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008 was enabled by this very decision, having signaled to Vladimir Putin that the collective West would remain neutral in a case of a Russian-Georgian war.

Looking back into recent history, one asks, what was the reason, that the Polish leaders tended to be repeatedly right in their estimates of the Russian threat, and the German leadership tended to be repeatedly wrong? Why did a significant part of the German elites prefer to address Poland as a lesser state, teaching the Poles from the alleged heights of the German moral superiority and not even noticing their own arrogance?

One can say, it was some sort of a well-established tradition among the German elites, to just ignore the countries of central and eastern Europe. While participating in political discussions in Berlin, one regularly heard the expressions like “our neighbor Russia” from German politicians – as if Germany still borders the Russian Empire. As a consequence of this snobbish perception of world politics as a great game of the greater powers over the heads of the “lesser nations”, the Polish (or the Ukrainian, or the Baltic) perspective was in the best case ignored, in the worst case ridiculed and misinterpreted.

We remember how German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in his interview with the Rheinische Post newspaper in early February 2022, just a few weeks before the full-scale Russian invasion, the construction of the Nordstream 2 pipeline may not be objected to as it is a “bridge” between Moscow and Berlin. The gas pipeline, therefore, was important for Russia, a sort of way to compensate Moscow for the suffering caused by Germany in the second world war.

In this strangled logic, a Russian neo-imperialist gas project, aimed to undermine the security of Ukraine and Poland was preferred by the head of the German state over the legitimate security interests of both European democratic nations, which suffered massively from German atrocities. Unfortunately, this was not the only case. The German historical responsibility was constantly shifted towards Moscow, at the costs of Warsaw and Kyiv.

Even dealing with lesser, and local threats, which did not directly affect Moscow’s interests, political Berlin preferred to act against Polish and European interests, when the opposite action required to accept that the Warsaw perspective could indeed be right. The best example of such behavior was the border conflict caused by the Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenka in 2021. As for the Polish government, it was clear that the thousands of migrants artificially pushed by Lukashenka towards the EU border could not be treated as regular refugees, so Berlin requested Warsaw to accept them. As the ruling coalition was about to change in Berlin, both the former chancellor Merkel and the new chancellor Scholz sharply criticized Poland for protecting the EU outer border from an aggressive penetration planned and organized by the Belarusian regime. In November 2021, the major German magazine “Der Spiegel” emphasized this German criticism of Poland in a cartoon, picturing a frightened family of refugees, caught in the crossfire by equally evil Polish and Belarusian soldiers.

The concept of “xenophobic” Polish society was deeply rooted in the German political discussion as a tool to ridicule almost any Polish action. That is why in 2022, Poland’s decision to open its borders to Ukrainian citizens accepting at least 1.5 million of refugees, caused shock among some commentators. The conservative “Die Welt” newspaper ironically commented, that the German media “react surprised” as “they fail to recognize the difference between providing protection to refugees from a neighbor country and (to allow) immigration from another continent via the asylum process”. The fact, that the Poles massively supported Ukraine, did not fit into a picture of a “xenophobic” and “rejecting” Warsaw. Putting it deliberately harshly, one was surprised that the Poles acted in a humane and generous way.

Unfortunately, even now, almost one year after the full-scale war on Ukraine, the German political elites are not ready to accept their neighboring state Poland as fully different from Germany. It was shocking to witness, that in February 2023 leading security expert Giorgio Franceschini from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a think tank affiliated with the most progressive and reasonable German Green party, openly called Poland’s government “fascistoid”, although acknowledging that cooperation between Poland and Germany is needed in the field of international security.

From the perspective of European security and resilience to Russian military threats, such a short-sighted perspective of the German elites is extremely unfortunate. The tradition of ignoring Warsaw and prioritizing Moscow has already played out as a bad joke with Berlin. As Germany is still not ready to fully accept Poland as an equal player – and challenges a way more experienced and wiser power – it works against European interests. In this constellation, it is Berlin that undermines the EU and European solidarity, and not Warsaw. This is a concept that is still absolutely alien to German political discussion. Still, as Poland has clearly learned how to act decisively, and to visibly enjoy being the new leader of the European fight for freedom and peace, this will not be a dramatic problem for Europe, but just a reshaping of the political balance and creating new centers of influence and power.

As a German citizen, I feel sad that my country has missed the clearly offered chance to lead. As a European, I am happy that this vitally important leadership has been taken on by a responsible and brave nation.

Sergej Sumlenny, 42, is a founder of European Resilience Initiative Center in Berlin. He was a country director Ukraine and Belarus for a German Heinrich Böll Foundation in 2015-2021, and worked at business consulting before. He has a PhD in political science and an LL.M in European law.

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