If there’s one nation that understands Ukraine’s torment, it’s Poland, which welcomes President Joe Biden on Friday as part of his emergency mission to shore up NATO’s defenses following Russia’s brutal invasion.
In the United States, Biden’s warnings that democracy is under siege from menacing autocrats can seem remote, even after former President Donald Trump’s US Capitol insurrection and attempt to steal the 2020 election.
But in Poland, which neighbors Ukraine, freedom is fresh enough to still be a novelty. In a tortured 20th-century history, the country — torn between East and West — was repeatedly conquered, was ruled by foreign tyrants and saw millions of its people purged or driven as refugees from homes destroyed by warfare.
Poland again finds itself on the front line of conflict. It’s on the dividing line between states in the NATO club, to which it now belongs, and President Vladimir Putin’s Russian orbit, which includes another Polish neighbor, Belarus. Poland has opened its borders to more than 2 million of the nearly 3.7 million Ukrainians who have fled Putin’s onslaught, and the war came close to its borders with a Russian strike on a base in western Ukraine earlier this month.
Like Ukraine, Poland lived for decades under Moscow’s Communist iron fist. Like Ukrainians, Poles are often gritty, are deeply suspicious of Russians and have fighting for their freedom and sovereignty ingrained in their DNA. Unlike Ukraine, one of the founding republics of the Soviet Union, Poland made it to the West after decades under the Warsaw Pact umbrella. And in addition to being in NATO, it’s a member of the European Union, albeit one that has had tensions recently with Brussels over its own flirtations with populist nationalism.
As Putin’s threat mounted in recent years, Poland hosted rotations of US troops and jets. In February, before Putin invaded Ukraine, Poland was one of the nations to which Biden ordered 3,000 troops to bolster the alliance’s eastern flank. If the war in Ukraine spills over into a broader conflict between Russia and the West, a frightening prospect, there’s a good chance it could happen in Poland.