It doesn’t seem so long ago that Poland was regarded as the problem child of the EU, a “dirty Remainer” whose constitutional tribunal ruled that fundamental parts of EU law do not trump its national constitution. How different things are now, with Poland assuming the role of bastion of Western defence – a key nation in the front line of the battle against Putin’s Russia. Warsaw has consistently been at the forefront of support for Kyiv: diplomatically, military, but also morally, as it copes with the largest number of Ukrainian refugees.
Andrzej Duda, the Polish president, is currently on what he describes as a “diplomatic offensive”, holding talks with Nato leaders to stiffen support for Ukraine in advance of President Biden’s visit to Poland next week, marking the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion. Duda’s talks in London on Thursday and Friday with Rishi Sunak and the King will have been preaching to the converted. But this trip was also a missed opportunity: we should have emphasised the need for a new special relationship between London and Warsaw. A new axis in European diplomacy and defence.
At this weekend’s Munich Security Conference, conversations with Chancellor Scholz of Germany and President Macron of France will flow less smoothly. Warsaw has been openly critical of both leaders for being willing to talk to Putin (which is like talking to Adolf Hitler, says Duda), and for their general reluctance to provide strong concrete support for Ukraine. Duda’s recent announcement that he was prepared to send German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine whether Berlin agreed or not was just the latest diminution in their relationship.
More importantly, it showed that Poland does not need the EU’s two main powers. No, it wants to become a power of its own. And it has every right to pursue that. Warsaw can reasonably claim to have acted as a catalyst for Western Nato unity in the wake of Russia’s aggression. Far from suffering “brain death” as President Macron described Nato only three years ago, the alliance is alive and very much kicking with traditionally neutral Sweden and Finland lining up to join.
And Poland will soon become an indispensable European military power in its own right. The country aims to create Europe’s largest land army: 300,000 combat troops up from its current 114,000. The Polish armed forces are being modernised at pace. The defence budget is set to reach 4 per cent of GDP from its present 2.4 per cent. Poland has roughly three times as many main battle tanks as the UK (647 to 227), and has on order hundreds of new US Abrams tanks and 1,000 K2 tanks from South Korea.
Naturally, then, Biden’s visit will be the first time a US president has come twice within one year. Beyond signalling the high importance now attached to US-Polish relations, there will also be the occasion of a summit of the so-called Bucharest Nine, the eastern flank of Nato.
Biden can expect to be pressed to provide air support to counter the anticipated Russian aerial onslaught this spring. While the US president will probably maintain some ambiguity over any precise commitment, he will almost certainly endorse Poland’s lofty ambitions to be a leading Nato player and laud the country’s commitment to a substantial increase in defence spending. Washington has for decades complained about the failure of European governments to meet the agreed Nato commitment to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence. Poland, aiming to move to 4 per cent, will go from being an EU problem child to top of the Nato European class.