When Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski came to Kiev in the early days of the Maidan revolution, he brought with him a catalogue of lessons from Poland's history. He brought 1939 and a promise that Ukraine would not be left alone at the doors of an impotent west. He brought 1981: the early days of martial law and the fear of Russian tanks. He brought the knowledge that political transitions engender dangerous expectations that new leaders will erase the legacies of past regimes, and he hoisted Mazowiecki's ‘thick line’ into the political discourse in Kiev.
One of the most important of these lessons comes from Poland’s market liberalisation in the early 1990s. Under former Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz, Poland was one of few post-Communists states to undergo a successful, if painful, economic transition. This experience provided one of the key tools of the Eastern Partnership initiative, and Poland’s diplomatic efforts are now partly channelled toward supporting the process of decentralisation in Ukraine. When Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country, it seemed that this would be the most challenging step in Ukraine’s political transition. It was clear that Poland was well-placed to support this process.
But Ukraine is buckling under a threat that did not feature in the imaginations of the protesters in Kiev or the diplomats supporting them. Ukrainian society is being divided along artificially drawn boundaries. Crimea has joined a growing club of protectorates, whose experiences with Russian annexation have fallen into what Polish journalist and historian Ryszard Kapuścinski calls ‘history’s undercurrent’: that steady flow at the bottom of the river of time that is less noticeable than its gushing surface, but whose movement underpins historical trends. In Ukraine's east, Putin is inciting thugs and far-right groups to violence in the hope of destabilising the Ukrainian government before its upcoming election.
On its own, this presents a considerable test for Polish diplomacy. But the shadow of Putinism that hangs over Ukraine’s political transition is now creeping beyond its borders. Well-funded NGOs and think tanks—with names like the “Institute for Democracy and Cooperation”—cloak Putin's actions beneath a thin carapace of legitimacy. This propaganda uses language that is not substantively different from the west’s. Putinism, writer and television producer Peter Pomarantsev writes, "works less by oppressing narratives but by co-opting them until there is no more space for an opposition to exist in".
In Europe, Putin is methodically co-opting a narrative that has become one of the greatest threats to European unity: nationalism. Britain’s Farage, France’s Le Pen, Hungary’s Jobbik party, Germany's NDP and Greece’s Golden Dawn, among many, many others, have publicly voiced their respect for Putin's new brand of nationalism. And their power in the EU is growing.
This challenges Poland on both of its foreign policy fronts. As part of the Eastern Partnership, Poland made a commitment to support the process of state-building to signal to the Ukrainian people that they had made the right choice in siding with Europe. In Europe, it has earned the respect of its Western partners by acting as an advocate for the EU. While the success of these aims ensured Poland's leadership in Kiev, the unexpected turn of events made it unclear whether Poland could maintain this position.
On one view, Poland's foreign policy toolkit is largely economic; it lacks the firepower and political heft to be an effective constraint to Russian power now that the threat of war has crystallised. But this is a narrow view which overlooks the plasticity of Poland's economic expertise. Beyond supporting market reforms, Poland has the potential to exert significant economic pressure. Economic policies, unlike tanks, can move freely across national boundaries and strike deep into foreign territory. They can foster market growth, but they can also dismantle power structures that constrain it. It was with these tools in mind that Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk called for the creation of a common entity tasked with purchasing gas for the EU.
It is a simple proposal, which reflects Poland's existing foreign policy agenda. It counters the Russian threat by challenging Russia's energy monopoly, one of its few points of leverage against the west. And it unifies EU energy policy under Poland's leadership. Crucially, it is an economic proposal that does not face the same political consequences as more direct forms of intervention. It manages to strike hard without straying from the politics that have defined Poland's conciliatory and unifying role in the EU over the past decade.
As Poland works to muster support for this proposal, its leaders are mindful—perhaps more than their western partners—of the consequences of political isolation and autocratic rule. Addressing David Cameron in a different context two years ago, Mr. Sikorski said: “Do not underestimate our determination not to return to the politics of the twentieth century. You were not occupied. Most of us on the continent were. We will do almost anything to prevent that from happening again.” A failure to help Ukraine now would signal a weakening of this resolve.
It is clear that Poland’s activism resonates with its electorate. Beyond that, we can hope that it could also remind a wider European public of the historical reasons that their nations entered into a union: to provide security, to foster free exchange and to make the kind of political hegemony we see in the East impossible within the EU's borders. If Poland succeeds in Ukraine, this might be its legacy in Europe.