Miracle on the Vistula

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From https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2024/feb/17/poland-russia-vladimir-putin-donald-tusk?CMP=oth_b-aplnews_d-1


Poland is again threatened by a tyrant. This time, Europe must not look away

Simon Tisdall

Donald Tusk needs to convince European leaders to act to deter Vladimir Putin from further aggression

Sat 17 Feb 2024 12.00 EST

Recent panicky talk of a third world war seems a tad overblown. Yet the specific threat posed by Russia’s aggressive, revisionist regime to eastern Europe is real and growing. As in the past, Poland is on the frontline of a battle for Ukraine that could easily spread. Scrambling to shore up defences, the UK and European Nato states must decide: is this 1920 or 1939?

As all Poles know, the Battle of Warsaw, 104 years ago this August, ended in Marshal Józef Piłsudski’s famous victory over the invading Red Army, which secured their country’s independence. They called it the “Miracle on the Vistula”, after the river linking Poland’s main cities. Vladimir Lenin lamented an “enormous defeat” for Bolshevik revolutionary ambitions in Europe.

September 1939 is remembered for the opposite reasons. Another totalitarian monster, Nazi Germany, was hammering on the door. Poles believed France and Britain would come to the rescue if they were attacked. But when Hitler invaded, an effective allied military response failed to materialise. Poland fell to fascism. Unspeakable horrors ensued. Poland recalls this two-part history, even if many in Europe do not, and has learned the lessons. It has doubled its armed forces in the past decade. Nato’s largest European land army will be equipped with the latest US-made battle tanks and missiles. And since Russia’s invasion two years ago this month, Poland has vigorously supported Ukraine.

Warsaw’s basic strategy is twofold: convince Vladimir Putin, Russia’s predatory president, that further aggression along Nato’s eastern flank, including against Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, will not prosper; and persuade west European partners that they, too, must urgently up their game.

If unsuccessful in these aims, Poland’s impressive affirmation of confident nationhood in the post-cold war period, and the economic “miracle” it has experienced since joining Nato in 1999 and the EU in 2004, will be at risk. The challenge facing the Polish people is potentially existential. The fear is of 1939 all over again. The idea of Poland taking the lead in Europe is unfamiliar, although it was the norm in the 16th and 17th centuries. Polish energy and ideas, while often misdirected under its previous hard-right government, has put lacklustre politicians in Berlin, Paris and London to shame. Visiting Kyiv last month, Donald Tusk, its newly elected prime minister, issued a bold rallying cry. “It is here, in Ukraine, that the world front between good and evil runs,” he said.

As Tusk, a former EU council president, rebuilds bridges to Brussels dynamited by Eurosceptic predecessors, Europe is getting the message. In meetings last week, he and the leaders of France and Germany revived the so-called Weimar Triangle, a political, defence and security cooperation platform with pan-European applications.

“There is no reason why we should be so clearly militarily weaker than Russia... Increasing [arms] production and intensifying our cooperation are absolutely indisputable priorities,” Tusk said. The EU should become “a military power” in its own right, he insisted. Significantly, Warsaw no longer dismisses French ideas about European strategic autonomy previously deemed harmful to Nato.

The Polish drive for unity and greater integration comes amid deepening concern among European Nato members about US disengagement, should Donald Trump be re-elected president. Trump frequently disses Nato and the EU. He threatens to “encourage” Russia to attack member states he disapproves of. He is the elephant in the room at this weekend’s Munich Security Conference.

Trump in the White House from January 2025 could deliver a lethal 21st-century stab in the back to Ukraine Washington’s transatlantic commitments remain unchanged for now. Poland will co-host this spring’s Nato exercise, Steadfast Defender 2024 – the biggest since the Soviet collapse. About 90,000 troops will rehearse a US reinforcement of Nato’s eastern flank in the hypothetical event of a Russian attack. Poland’s proactive engagement is also helping shift European security’s centre of gravity eastwards, as illustrated by last week’s visits to Poland and Bulgaria by David Cameron, the UK’s foreign secretary. But Brexit has gravely weakened British influence over Europe’s coming choices.

In contrast, the voices of Poland’s close neighbours are more widely heard. Estonia caused a stir by predicting a Russia-Nato conflict “within the next 10 years” centred on the Baltic republics and Finland. The latter’s new president-elect, Alexander Stubb, is both hawkish and wary about Russia.

Will Europe heed these historically resonant warnings from the eastern frontier? Structural tensions between Nato and the concept of the EU operating in parallel as a separate, fully fledged military alliance are unresolved. Expanded European security self-reliance is desirable and elusive. Yet thanks to Putin and Trump, the terrible twins, EU-wide defence spending is rising fast. Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary general, said 18 of 31 Nato states will spend 2% or more of GDP on defence this year, a sixfold increase on 2014 when Russia illegally annexed Crimea. Poland’s spending is nearer 4%.

Political leadership, more than resources or even Trump, is Europe’s achilles heel. The EU’s Franco-German “engine” is misfiring. Germany’s unpopular coalition, led by Olaf Scholz, faces a hard-right insurrection as next year’s federal election looms. In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s standing is much diminished. Britain has gone awol. And time is running out. Europe may have less than a year to “get its act together”, as one Polish official put it. Trump in the White House from January 2025 could deliver a lethal 21st-century stab in the back to Ukraine, shatter the transatlantic alliance, and provide his pal Putin with epic, historic revenge for the 1991 Soviet implosion he blames on the west.

To survive such a scenario, Europe may require its own political “miracle on the Vistula” – this time on the Spree, the Seine, the Tiber and the Thames. And who knows? Maybe Poland’s Tusk, having heroically slain the dragons of reaction at home, will emerge as Europe’s new Piłsudski.

Simon Tisdall is the Observer’s foreign affairs commentator