Poland 2022: Between Challenges and Opportunities

By Robert Czulda

The ongoing war in Ukraine is undoubtedly one of the most important and serious events for Europe after the end of the Cold War.

It is also a key issue for Central and Eastern European states. They fear a possible escalation of violence beyond Ukraine.

However, major geopolitical events often bring not only challenges, but also some opportunities.

Poland has been trying to draw some conclusions from the crisis and turn it to its own benefit as much as possible.

Some Polish commentators believe that this is possible and that Poland is now facing a great chance to boost its geopolitical power.

The first potential profit is related to the major influx of people – largely young women and children, who left Ukraine and came to Poland.

According to official data provided by the Polish Border Guard, since February 24, the day of the beginning of Russia’s aggression, over 4.6 million refugees from Ukraine have crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border.

Roughly 2.7 million returned home.

Many of them will not want to return to a Ukraine made poor and heavily damaged by the war.

Poland is attractive to many Ukrainians due to its open labor market, domestic security, a similar culture and language, as well as a large Ukrainian diaspora and a proximity to the homeland.

Poland, which has a population of 38 million, has been increasingly suffering from a very difficult demographic situation. Fertility rate is just 1.4.

The population of indigenous Poles has been systematically shrinking, which results in growing problems on the labor market and in the social system.

The influx of Ukrainians is considered by some as a great opportunity – even before the war, the Polish economy was struggling with a shortage of workers.

The opportunity, however, may be a challenge at the same time – there are many commentators noting that the influx of Ukrainians poses a threat to the Polish national identity and will generate social and political frictions

There has been a very difficult history for both nations dealing with each other and the most divisive issues have been never solved.

Many analysts emphasize that new geopolitical perspectives are opening up for Poland.

Since independence in 1989, Poland has been ignored as an international player.

This has resulted from many factors, including its own economic weakness, but also from Germany’s policy, which tried to increase control over Poland. After 1989, Germany dominated the Polish media, the economy and the financial sector, including the banking sector.

An illustration of ignoring Poland was to omit it from two European forums related to Ukraine: the Minsk Protocol (mediated by France and Germany) and the Normandy Format (Germany, France, Russia, Ukraine).

As a result of the outbreak of the war on Ukraine, Poland was given a chance to act on its own.

This possibility was increased thanks to the German policy, which in practice does not support Ukraine. Berlin has lost its leading position.

Moreover, Poland is now increasing its energy independence. There are real challenges such as with regard to the supply of coal.

In addition, Poland has enhanced its military cooperation with the United States which has enhanced its overall importance within NATO Europe.

All bilateral disagreements between Poland and Ukraine (both historical and based on economic grounds) after February 24 became irrelevant (at least for now). Moreover, Poland became an important voice for Kiev in the European Union and NATO.

Speaking of the latter, Poland sincerely welcomes Sweden and Finland in the Alliance. Their decision to join NATO is also a result of the Ukrainian War and a good news for Warsaw.

The increasing importance of Poland may only be temporary, but the Polish government hopes that the position will be strengthened permanently.

Warsaw invariably counts on a long-term cooperation with the United States and the United Kingdom, which are most interested in weakening Russia.

In order to achieve their goal, Warsaw hopes, they need to boost Polish power and its position vis-à-vis Russia.

But this possibility is challenged by several prospective developments.

First, at some point the Western states could well be more interested in rebuilding relations with Russia than to contain it.

In such scenario Poland will be seen as an obstacle hindering this process. In such a situation, for example, Germans and the French will increase its campaign against Poland (for example through the instruments of the European Union) to neutralize Warsaw’s influence.

From the perspective of Poland’s defense, it is crucial that the greatest challenge – the Russian military – lost some of its warfighting capabilities during the war in Ukraine. Each destroyed tank and a killed soldier increases the security of Poland but also of the Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia. The Balts are the most vulnerable NATO member states.

Nevertheless, Polish decision-makers are aware that this is just a temporary weakness and Russia will not abandon its imperial aspirations.

Second, Poland is clearly focused on enhancing its military capabilities, but the economic impacts of COVID and the war could clearly undercut these efforts.

The Ukrainian War is far from over and that the final outcome could still be favorable for Russia.

In order to boost its deterrence capabilities, Poland announced its desire to increase its military to 300 thousand soldiers (including 50 thousand in the Territorial Army). By 2030 Poland expects to spend 2.5% of its GDP on defense. At least two new divisions are planned to be formed and deployed to central Poland.

Poland will also get new hardware, including those produced locally (the KRAB 155 mm self-propelled howitzers, new British-designed MIECZNIK multirole frigates, the RAK 120 mm self-propelled howitzers etc.). Purchases in the United States include the PATRIOT air/missile defense systems, the F-35 jets, the ABRAMS tanks and the HIMARS mobile rocket systems.

Recently Poland announced a desire to procure more equipment from South Korea, which is already a supplier of suspensions used by the KRAB howitzers – designed and manufactured locally in Poland and used in combat by the Ukrainian Army. A shopping list in Seoul includes the K-21 armored fighting vehicles, the K2 tanks (in the PL variant), as well as the FA-50 light combat aircraft.

However, such large ambitious procurements generate further problems – financial. In other words, it will be a major burden on the Polish economy, which is now suffering from a record inflation.

Can the challenges be dealt with in order to be able to enhance Polish security and its role in Europe?