The Ukraine war is ultimately about Poland
When Putin talks, we should listen.
Americans never asked for a lesson in East European history, but we’re getting one. Tucker Carlson, exiled from Fox News and now broadcasting mainly on
If you’re interested, you can watch the full interview here. Mostly, it’s just Putin talking, and most of what he talks about is the history of East Europe. He’s arguing that Ukraine is rightfully part of Russia, by dint of linguistic and cultural similarity and historical relationships. He only mentions NATO expansion — a favorite hobbyhorse of Ukraine’s detractors in the West — after Tucker prompts him to talk about it, and even then only briefly.
This is a kind of imperialism that people in the U.S. are not used to thinking about. Mostly, when we Americans think of empires, we think of either the British or the Nazis — most of the fictional empires we depict in media, like the one in Star Wars, are just a mashup of those two. We therefore think of imperialists as being motivated primarily either by commercial interests and resource extraction, or by insane ideologies. But we rarely think about ethnic imperialism — an empire trying to gobble up neighboring polities because of linguistic and cultural similarity, so that it can be the ruler of a specific cultural sphere. (In fact, the British conquest of Ireland, the Japanese conquest of Korea and China, and Hitler’s annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia all had major elements of ethnic imperialism, but we tend to forget that aspect.)
Ethnic imperialism is exactly what we’re facing in Russia right now. Putin doesn’t want Ukraine’s wheat farms. Nor is he motivated by some world-conquering ideology. He simply wants Russia to rule over all the places he views as being within its historic and linguistic sphere of influence.
The question is where that sphere stops. Putin assured Carlson that he has no designs on Latvia or Poland. This rather pointedly leaves out Estonia, where 25% of the population are Russian speakers, and which Russia continually bullies despite its NATO membership. But the elephant in the room here is really Poland.
Russia vs. Poland
Poland and Russia have a long history of conflict. In the early 1600s, Poland invaded Russia and occupied Moscow. Half a century later, Russia struck back, invading and occupying part of Poland, even as Sweden crushed the Poles from the west. Russia then defeated the Swedes and fully conquered Poland in the late 1700s, ruling for a little over a century until World War 1 allowed Poland to break free. The USSR tried to reconquer the country after WW1, but was defeated. They then schemed with Nazi Germany to divide up Poland between them. After the Nazis betrayed the Soviets and were defeated, the USSR allowed Poland to keep its official status as an independent country, but in practice it was tightly controlled by Moscow. In the 1980s, Poland asserted its independence again with the Solidarity movement, which hastened the end of Russian control over East Europe as a whole.
It’s clear that this history is very much on Putin’s mind when he thinks about Ukraine. Ukraine’s name comes from a word meaning “borderlands”, and it’s clear that Putin thinks about this “border” as being the one between Russia and Poland:
Originally, the word ‘Ukrainian’ meant that a person was living on the outskirts of the state, near the fringe, or was engaged in border service. It didn’t mean any particular ethnic group.
So, the Poles were trying in every possible way to polonise this part of the Russian lands and actually treated it rather harshly, not to say cruelly. All that led to the fact that this part of the Russian lands began to struggle for their rights…[I]n 1654, even a bit earlier, the people who were in control of [Ukraine] addressed Warsaw…demanding their rights be observed…When Warsaw did not answer them and in fact rejected their demands, they turned to Moscow so that Moscow took them away [from Poland].
Putin is thinking a lot about the 1600s, and the conflict between Russia and Poland that took place in that century. He sees Poland as a natural rival for influence in East Europe, especially over Ukraine. And in a way, he’s right. Linguistically, Ukrainian lies somewhere between Russian and Polish. In fact, at one point some Russian soldiers invading Ukraine claimed to have found a version of the Ukrainian language written in the Latin alphabet. The language they were looking at was Polish.
And it’s no coincidence that Poland has been one of the most steadfast countries supporting Ukraine’s war effort against Russia, contributing a higher percent of its 2022 GDP than any country except Latvia and Estonia, and excoriating Republicans in the U.S. for wanting to abandon Ukraine.
So Putin, like many Russian leaders of the past, sees the limitation of Polish power and influence in East Europe as a priority. Poland is much smaller than Russia — it has only a quarter of Russia’s population — but it’s large enough that keeping it subjugated is a constant headache. Russia’s greatest success in subjugating Poland came when Western powers — the Swedes in the 1650s and the Nazis in the 1930s — helped pincer the country from the other side.
This is probably why Putin, in his interview with Tucker, blamed Poland for provoking the Nazi invasion by refusing to cede territory to Hitler. In Putin’s cosmology, the world is only set aright when Poland acknowledges its status as a secondary, subordinate power.
And this is a clue to why Putin decided to crush Ukraine’s independence sooner rather than later. The last three decades has seen an expansion of Polish power and autonomy unprecedented since the 1600s.
How Poland rose again
Here’s a map of the Eastern Bloc countries (USSR or Warsaw Pact) that joined the EU after the breakup of the Soviet Union, versus those that didn’t join the EU:
The countries in blue did better economically. Of the post-communist countries that joined the EU, only Bulgaria has failed to grow rapidly:
But the really stunning reversal here is between Ukraine and Poland. When communism fell in Europe, Ukraine was about 50% richer than Poland. By 2021, Poland was almost three times as rich as Ukraine.
Looking at this graph, you can really understand why Ukraine would want to escape from under the Russian bootheel, language and history notwithstanding.
EU membership offered Poland a golden bargain. It could get market access and investment from Europe, while retaining control over much of its own economic policy. Poland took advantage of this to shake off the legacy of communism, using foreign direct investment — especially from Germany — to transform itself into a manufacturing powerhouse:
Beyond FDI and market access, Polish people are very conscious of the fact that their turn away from Russian-style institutions and toward European ones helped them to prosper. This is from Europe’s Growth Champion, by Marcin Piatkowski:
Culturally, Poland has benefited from a social consensus emphasizing the “return to Europe.” Communism was treated as a historic aberration and a foreign (Russian) imposition. Hence, a large majority of society wanted the country to join the European Union (EU)…Polish society was willing to make the necessary sacrifices to join the EU and thus achieve the symbolic status of a “normal” European country. These sacrifices included the adoption and implementation of Western institutions and practices (strengthening of the rule of law; implementation of modern banking, financial, and educational systems; reduction of corruption; etc.). The process turned out successful and contributed to a positive feedback loop leading to even faster growth.
Basically, the fall of the USSR — which Putin has called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century”, allowed Poland to escape Russia’s sphere of influence for the first time in centuries, going from its own sort of contested borderland to being a fully European nation.
It’s obvious how Poland’s economic success represents a direct threat to Russian domination of Ukraine. Poland’s wealth is probably a big reason that the Ukrainians pushed so hard to join the EU — the protests that scared pro-Russian president Viktor Yanokovych into fleeing the country in 2014, and prompted Russia’s initial invasion, were all about joining the EU. American pundits like to talk about how Putin fears potential Ukrainian economic success as a challenge to Russian power, but the example of Polish success does something similar already.
If EU membership allowed Poland to escape Russia economically, NATO membership offered it a similar bargain on the military front. For the first time in its entire history, Poland’s western borders are entirely secure. And within the protective aegis of American security guarantees, it is free to exercise strategic autonomy. Strong support for Ukraine is part of that.
There is a synergy between these two; Poland’s remarkable economic rise is supporting its strategic independence. Even as Germany, the UK, and the U.S. dither over increasing their defense budget, Poland is embarking on a major defense buildup:
In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of its neighbour Ukraine in February last year, the then government embarked on a mission that the defence minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, described as providing Poland with “the most powerful land forces in Europe” by acquiring massive firepower and more than doubling the size of its armed forces…
Few demurred when the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, declared in January that the course of the war in Ukraine meant that “we must arm ourselves even faster” and pushed the target up to 4% of GDP amid hints that it might even have to rise to 5% over the next decade.
Poland’s smaller population means that it can’t hope to match Russia’s overall military spending, even with its higher per capita GDP. But Russia’s experience in Ukraine shows that any attempt to conquer a much better-armed Poland would be a dangerous proposition, even without factoring NATO assistance into the picture. Poland will also be able to support Ukrainian resistance against Russia and beef up the defenses of Estonia and the other Baltics against a possible follow-up invasion.
In other words, even if Ukraine falls, the fundamental conflict between Putin and the West will not diminish, because it’s really about Poland. Poland’s Western-backed success represents the major challenge to Russia’s domination of what Putin sees as its rightful sphere of influence. And as long as Poland is wealthy and strong and independent, Putin, with the 1600s still fresh in his mind, will always feel like Russia is under direct threat.
Russia’s smarter apologists in the U.S., such as John Mearsheimer, probably understand this. When Mearsheimer talks about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine being motivated by NATO expansion, he frames it in terms of Russian fear that Ukraine would eventually be admitted to NATO. This results in him looking rather foolish, since NATO membership wasn’t on the table for Ukraine. But what he’s probably really thinking about, even if he doesn’t want to say it out loud, is Poland’s admission to NATO in 1999. It was Poland’s membership that represented a major, long-term shrinkage of Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, and which helped Russia’s traditional rival to reconstitute its power.
Poland’s membership is why only the dissolution of NATO itself — or its effective dissolution, via a refusal to answer a request for mutual aid under Article 5 — represents Putin’s only hope of dominating East Europe in the way he imagines. Poland’s leaders, of course, know that this could happen, especially given Germany’s chronic lack of ability to do anything at all, and the MAGA movement’s antipathy toward NATO (and, increasingly, toward Poland). This is why they’re building up their military so rapidly; they know that Article 5 is not an invincible magic shield.
The obvious next move for Poland, unfortunately, would be to go for nuclear weapons. NATO sometimes shares nuclear weapons with officially non-nuclear states like Germany; Poland has requested to join that program and get nukes on its own soil. But if NATO refuses, or if Trump gets reelected and looks likely to abandon NATO, then I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Poland start pursuing its own nuclear weapons program. In fact, there are credible reports that the country’s leaders told NATO they would go nuclear if Poland didn’t gain admission back in the 90s. If NATO guarantees look shaky, that plan could be back on the table.
After three hundred years, Poland finally won its freedom from the Russian yoke, and like Ukraine, it doesn’t seem inclined to give up that freedom at any price.
So Americans who imagine that letting Putin have Ukraine would put an end to the conflict in East Europe should come to their senses. As long as Poland is fully independent, economically successful, and militarily powerful, Putin will feel that Russia’s position as master of East Europe is insecure. In fact, until Russian leaders learn to respect and get along with Poland, I fear that conflicts like the present one will repeat themselves.