Poland on the front line of new conflict

Poland, which borders Russian and Ukrainian territory, is the most vulnerable EU member to the Crimean crisis

Poland, which borders Russian and Ukrainian territory, is the most vulnerable EU member to the Crimean crisis

ANKARA – The crisis in the Crimea is reviving Polish fears of Russian expansionism, prompting one think-tank director to brand Moscow’s explanation for its Ukrainian intervention as being akin to Hitler’s justification for invading Czechoslovakia in 1938.

Poland, which borders the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and shares a 500 kilometer border with Ukraine, is the EU member most vulnerable to the conflict between Moscow and Kiev. Now Polish defence sources have told Anadolu Agency that “Poland cannot allow world leaders to turn away from Ukraine”.

The crisis has thrust Poland into taking a central role in trying to defuse the conflict. The NATO member was involved in mediating a doomed deal between the former Ukrainian government and its opponents on February 21. Polish Defense Minister Radoslaw Sikorski was caught on film warning one opposition leader that if he did not support the deal, the Ukrainians “will all be dead”.

The deal failed to stick. President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country’s capital and his security personnel abandoned their posts. Yanukovych was soon to be found in Russia. A new interim administration was formed in Kiev with a presidential election now due to take place on May 25.

Just after Yanukovych’s removal, when the world thought Ukraine’s situation would settle down, Russia militarily intervened in the Crimea. Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, defended his decision, saying “ultranationalist forces” in Ukraine were threating Russian citizens and the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine.

Poland immediately called a meeting of NATO ambassadors, citing Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty which states that “the parties will consult whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of any of the parties is threatened”.

Fears were heightened earlier this month when 150,000 Russian troops and battle tanks took part in military drills near the Polish border, in Kaliningrad, according to Russian news agency ITAR-TASS.

The Poles have historical reasons to fear their eastern neighbor including: Russia’s invasion of Poland in September 1939; the mass execution of Polish officers in Katyn, Russia in 1940; and the Soviet failure to support Polish fighters during the Warsaw Rising of 1944.

Speaking exclusively to Anadolu Agency, a Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs source said: “For 25 years we have been living in an illusion of a relatively peaceful world. We have debated on social politics and civil rights and now our neighbor has been attacked.”

“The integrity of Ukraine is not only the right of the Ukrainians, but it is also a guarantee of peace in the region, even for Poland,” he said.

A Polish Defense Ministry source, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that despite the escalating tension, Poland was not expecting an attack from Russia but that “Poland cannot allow world leaders to turn away from Ukraine”.

This is backed up by Dr Marcin Zaborowski, Director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) think-tank, who stated that the intervention of Russian forces in the Crimea was "illegal and violates international laws and is unconstitutional".

“Of course Poland is concerned,” he said, “Russia has intervened in another country’s land.” He said the intervention is a threat to Poland, but more for the Baltic countries – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – which have significant Russian minorities.

“Russia is sending a message. The decision of its intervention is a threat to countries in which Russian minorities live,” said the PISM director.

Dr Zaborowski claimed that history is repeating itself: “This may sound harsh, but Putin’s explanation of the decision to intervene in Ukraine to protect the Russians and Russian-speaking population, is like Hitler’s motive to intervene in Sudetenland in ethnic minorities' interests,” he stated.

Poland has been to the forefront in pushing the European Union to adopt closer ties to Ukraine. Its government is on record as saying it wants to see a democratic, stable, non-corrupted Ukraine become a member of the EU, which would reinforce Poland’s security.  

The country is concerned history may repeat itself; it now finds itself on the front line of a new regional conflict which has some uncomfortable echoes of the past.

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