If there’s one country that understands Ukraine’s torment, it’s Poland, which will welcome President Joe Biden on Friday as part of his emergency mission to bolster NATO’s defenses after Russia’s brutal invasion.
In the United States, Biden’s warnings that democracy is under siege by impending autocrats may seem distant, even after former President Donald Trump’s US Capitol uprising and an attempt to steal the 2020 election.
But in Poland, which borders Ukraine, freedom is fresh enough to be a novelty. In a haunted 20th-century history, the country — torn between East and West — was repeatedly conquered, ruled by foreign tyrants, and saw millions of its people purged or expelled as refugees from war-ravaged homes.
Poland is once again on the frontline of the conflict. It sits on the dividing line between states in the NATO club, to which it now belongs, and President Vladimir Putin’s Russian orbit, which also includes another Polish neighbor, Belarus. Poland has opened its borders to more than 2 million of the nearly 3.7 million Ukrainians who fled Putin’s attack, and the war came close to its borders with a Russian attack on a base in western Ukraine earlier this month.
Like Ukraine, Poland lived for decades under the communist iron fist of Moscow. Like Ukrainians, Poles are often brutal, suspicious of Russians and have the fight for their freedom and sovereignty rooted in their DNA. Unlike Ukraine, one of the founding republics of the Soviet Union, Poland reached the West after decades under the Warsaw Pact umbrella. And in addition to being a member of NATO, it is a member of the European Union, albeit one that has recently had tensions with Brussels over its own flirtations with populist nationalism.
As Putin’s threat increased in recent years, Poland received rotations from US troops and jets. In February, before Putin invaded Ukraine, Poland was one of the countries Biden ordered 3,000 troops to bolster the alliance’s eastern flank. If the war in Ukraine spills over into a wider conflict between Russia and the West, a terrifying prospect, there’s a good chance it will happen in Poland.
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