Prof. Małgorzata Zachara-Szymańska: Poland’s reaction to the Russian aggression had an impact on the prevailing mood in the Western community

‘The whole point is to leverage the auspicious moment in Polish-American relations to drive a co-operation model in which Poland sees tangible benefits. In the past, it rarely happened, even though our country was more than ready to fully back the American partners’ – says Prof. Małgorzata Zachara-Szymańska from the Jagiellonian University’s Institute of American Studies and Polish Diaspora.

How much have Polish-American relations changed in the space of the last dozen months?

They did shift. But whether the emergent model is going to hold long term will be decided by factors other than those which have made Poland a state that is a robust reference point for the United States at the moment – in Europe and in the region alike. The US found a natural interest in Poland due to Russia’s aggression of Ukraine. Several factors have a bearing on how the role of Poland is being envisioned as regards the ongoing war, including whether the Ukrainian people will prevail. Another issue is to what extent Poland can help and to what extent it can become a buffer zone keeping the ‘old Europe’ away from the part of the continent where at the moment the war is being waged.

The Polish-American relations are very cordial at the moment.

That’s true. They have always been essential for Poland. This stemmed from both historical circumstances and the fact that everyone cares about having good relationship with the world’s greatest power. Yet how the Poland’s position waxed and waned overtime in the constellation of US interests has depended on a particular administration, specific events, and the overall tone inside the Beltway. These things used to change a lot.

As for the US policy towards Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries, is – and was – it always strictly utilitarian?

There can be many interpretations. Some people would answer: yes, all their gestures are purely pragmatic in nature and are a function of the US superpower policies as they wish to retain the dominant position in the international arena – which is no longer easy. On the other hand, the overtones related to a set of values and to the need for building a particular vision of the world ring very clearly in that country’s diplomatic practice. If Americans declare that values will matter in their alliance-building politics and strategy, it makes sense to believe them. The White House and the Capitol have every reason, both utilitarian and symbolic, to keep their word.

You mentioned that the future of Polish-American relations is going to be decided by factors other than those which led to the current relationship tightening. What factors do you mean?

The current visibility of Poland in US politics is a result of the crisis in our region. Over time, it is what we can muster following this crisis that matters.

What will the future course of events hinge on?

The first quantum leap is going to be when and on what terms the war in Ukraine ends. And there are a few scenarios, all of them imaginary for now. Open debate on this topic is not taking place. The Biden administration was really outspoken about the need to negotiate at the outbreak of the conflict, and this line of thinking still exists. Yet, as time goes on, the American side and the whole West is focusing more and more on how to provide Ukraine with enough help to let it keep fighting. In fact, the West’s endgame is unknown. Is it about Ukraine returning to its pre-2014 borders, as President Zelenskyy clearly states? On the other hand, Ukraine’s continued struggle depends entirely on the amount of help granted to it by its allies.

Is it possible to put a temporary or complete stop to the conflict?

If the open armed conflict was stifled, it would be a chance to start rebuilding Ukrainian economy, unblock the airspace and seaports. An immense space for enhancing the potential of Polish-Ukrainian co-operation would arise then. And this is a historic opportunity for Poland as on the basis of co-operation with Ukraine it could build the core of this part of Europe. This, in turn, would end up influencing the way the US treats Poland. However, a conflict could merely be frozen – and Russia is very adept at putting its conflicts on hold. Poland would then become a state whose role in the region’s security architecture is growing, but at the price of mounting threats and constant uncertainty.

What would the crawling-war scenario mean in terms of the US engagement into Ukrainian affairs? Could the narrative pushing tough opposition to Russia soften in that case?

I am wondering this myself. A question appears whether the United States can afford to freely admit that their tough opposition was crushed. I believe there would be no such stark message. The White House – no matter which administration is in charge of it – is going to talk about the need to stifle warfare, but the notion that anyone is making allowances for Russia won’t be shouted from the rooftops. In this conflict, the image of Western states, the image of the US is at stake, the latter much tarnished by the disastrous final act of costliest war in American history – the Afghan war. For now, Ukraine won’t be coming back to its pre-war state, when – despite the Donbass warfare – the country operated as normal. It’s now on life support from the military and humanitarian aid. And sooner or later it will be a burden for the Western states – this topic is now entering the election campaign in the US and elsewhere.

How much could the GOP’s return to the White House modify the US policy towards Ukraine?

The United States’ commitment to defending Ukraine enjoys bipartisan support in America, since it’s more about thwarting Russia than about Ukraine being any strategic territory for the American politics. In the short term, that is within the first year of operation for the new administration, if it turns out to be Republican, there will be no significant change. Yet, there is a certain difference in how the Democratic Party and the Republican Party see the global role of the US. The Biden administration sees it as a great extension of a sweeping vision that’s driven by democratic values and human rights issues, which is what has been the pivot of the US ethos and role in the world, whereas the Republican Party focuses less on the foreign policy. Among the Republicans, what is now preoccupying is the idea to first of all heal the United States – its inner social and political fabric. They don’t see particular advantages for the country in external engagement. And this is dangerous. We do not know what practical dimension this will have or in what perspective, but the signal is being sent.

How can the situation of Poland be pictured in the scenario of a prolonged conflict in Ukraine?

The emphasis will be laid on bolstering Poland’s military potential, which after all Poland has been doing for years. And this is the right strategy. It has always been right – even in the atmosphere of European states’ opposition to investing in military equipment. We have always lived in the shadow of revanchist Russia. Now we can remind Europe, ‘Didn’t we tell you so?’ The problem is that among the European partners Poland’s voice might not carry particularly well just this moment. Meanwhile, the co-operation with the US in the military domain, in the domain of production transfer, and perhaps a wider military production, will carry on. The whole point is to leverage the auspicious moment in Polish-American relations to drive a co-operation model in which Poland sees tangible benefits. In the past, it rarely happened, even though our country was more than ready to fully back the American partners. The offset of the century in 2004 is worth a mention, with its ambiguous results, as is the level of military engagement in the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions, supposed to translate into investments in the region. And they never came.

And what is the role of Poland in shaping the US policy towards the war in Ukraine?

The Polish reaction to the conflict in Ukraine had an impact on the prevailing mood in the international Western community, on the way this conflict is understood and conceptualised. The first newspaper headlines appearing after 24 February read that Russia attacked Ukraine. But just a few weeks later the media would proclaim that a struggle for the Western civilisation and for democracy was raging. A sea change in language, an about-turn in interpreting these events. Poland from the start strongly stood for treating this as much more than a local conflict, marginal from the great powers’ point of view. She committed to military aid from the get-go. The policy left no doubt as to the willingness to follow no other scenario but the one where Ukraine is given every support and lent a hand in its struggle. And this was by no means an obvious scenario in the first days of war. Only after a few weeks did it seem obvious, once Biden’s diplomatic offensive started to be successful. Poland spoke that language right from the start.

The Polish support for refugees turned out to be stellar, too.

That’s true. It was a novelty and broke a huge taboo. Because it is no surprise to anyone that the problem with all sorts of migrants, including war refugees, does strike at the heart of the rhetoric of values that European states and the US like to marshal. I mean the people who cross the borders, legally or illegally. And no one quite knows how to handle these people. No place found good, enduring, systemic solutions. Over a few weeks after the Russian invasion began, Polish society demonstrated that there are moments when pragmatic indications and concerns, and there were major concerns, need to be put aside. Polish solidarity with Ukraine couldn’t have been a more perfect union! For quite some time this attracted the world’s attention and strengthened Poland’s international brand in the eyes of the allies in the long run. These stills and photos from the Polish-Ukrainian border build a symbolic capital of great value.

Małgorzata Zachara-Szymańska, PhD, DSc, Prof. at the Jagiellonian University’s Institute of American Studies and Polish Diaspora, will be a guest of the Krynica Forum 2023.

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