War in Ukraine makes Poland America’s ‘essential’ ally – POLITICO

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WARSAW — When Polish President Andrzej Duda met his US counterpart Joe Biden last June, it was a hasty elbow rub during a NATO summit in Brussels.

Back then, the nationalist Polish government’s pro-Trump stance, its efforts to bring the media and courts under tighter political control, and its attacks on LGBTQ+ minorities made Poland something of a pariah among liberal democracies.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed that.

Biden will be in Warsaw on Friday to meet with Duda and other senior officials; Vice President Kamala Harris was in town two weeks ago, and a week earlier it was Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s turn.

“The presence of the American leader in our country at this difficult time is an extremely important signal confirming the strategic Polish-US relations,” said Duda in a national address Thursday evening, adding that the two countries are bound by “common values”.

Poland is now considered an important NATO ally in the confrontation with Russia. Historically marked by hostilities with Russia, it has taken in more than 2 million refugees from Ukraine and has a military of over 120,000, reinforced with Allied help.

Poland is “an important partner as we work to remain united in the coming weeks and months,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday announcing Biden’s visit.

This is an unusual position for Poland.

“Relations with the United States have changed dramatically,” said Katarzyna Pisarska, chair of the Casimir Pulaski Foundation, a Warsaw-based foreign policy think tank. “Poland has become ‘the’ strategic partner in the region for the United States.”

Warsaw’s relations with Washington have been rocky in recent years. Briefly intrigued by former President Donald Trump, Poland’s right-wing leaders hoped the capricious president would station US troops permanently in Poland – with Duda unofficial suggesting that such a base should be called Fort Trump. Nothing came of this plan.

Despite their ideological similarities, the Trump administration fell out with Warsaw when US Ambassador Georgette Mosbacher read the Polish government outrage over its attacks on TVN, an independent anti-government television station owned by the US Discovery Channel

That didn’t stop Duda from hedging his post-election bets when he congratulates Biden “on a successful presidential campaign,” but also added, “while we await the nomination from the Electoral College.”

In the US, there was also resentment of anti-LGBTQ+ campaigns launched by Duda and other politicians to bolster their support among far-right voters.

These tensions, and Poland’s long-standing conflict with the European Union over the rule of law and judicial independence, meant that Warsaw was marginalized and unable to play a major leadership role in warning the US and the rest of the EU of the Russia-originated crisis to take risk.

A new leaf

That changed late last year, when the US began issuing strident warnings about the risk of a Russian attack on Ukraine.

In January, Duda was invited to a video call with Biden along with the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, NATO and the EU.

Just two weeks before the Russian invasion, Duda scrambled to lessen tensions with the EU and proposed legislation that would dissolve the Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Chamber. This is a key issue in the rule of law as the chamber is seen as a means of punishing judges who do not comply with political demands. The bill hasn’t passed yet, but it’s moving through Parliament. There is a feeling that Duda is trying to distance himself from the more right-wing elements of the governing coalition.

The White House noticed that.

“In recent months, President Duda has taken several positive steps to improve the quality of Poland’s democratic institutions, which is a testament to the strength of the transatlantic relationship and our shared values,” a senior Biden administration official said this week. “We hope that these first steps will represent a renewed commitment to strengthening democratic institutions and the rule of law in Poland.”

Poland is now a frontline state in the clashes with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Given the situation, the government is clearly prioritizing defense and security in the relationship,” said Alina Polyakova, president of the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis. “Poland is the indispensable ally for European security. Other problems and concerns have only receded into the background. When push comes to shove and there is a direct military threat to NATO, we need Poland. It doesn’t mean all is forgiven, but it does make it very clear where the priorities lie.”

The new and warmer relationship wasn’t without its hiccups.

A effort at hand Soviet-era Polish MiG-29 fighters to Ukraine became a communications disaster, with Warsaw, Kyiv, Washington and Brussels all sending out conflicting messages. The deal is dead for now.

There was also dismay at a surprise proposal by Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party and Poland de facto Ruler, during a visit to Kyiv earlier this month, that NATO is deploying a “peacekeeping mission” to Ukraine to end the war. That was decisively shot down by the US, NATO and other allies.

A seat at the table

But there is no question that Poland has gone from being a marginal player to a key member of the western alliance. She is urging the EU to block all energy imports from Russia – a joint effort with the Baltic countries – and pushing for a ban on transport. Warsaw, along with other allies, is sending arms and supplies to Ukraine.

The government aims to increase defense spending from 2.2 percent to 2.5 percent of GDP, putting it at the top of NATO’s spending league.

In addition, more than 100,000 refugees arrive from Ukraine every day. Leaders from around the world are praising Poland’s response, and the US has announced it will take in up to 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing the war.

That pushes earlier tensions far into the background, but they are not entirely forgotten.

“US officials at all levels continue to express our concerns about the independence of the judiciary, media freedom and respect for the rights of members of minority groups, including the LGBTQ+ community, in Poland,” a US official said. War in Ukraine makes Poland America's 'essential' ally - POLITICO

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