Long at odds with the E.U. over its domestic policies, the right-wing government is winning allies with its staunch defense of Ukraine. Which battle matters most?

By Elisabeth Zerofsky

April 5, 2023

The New York Times


To walk through the streets of Warsaw today is to discover a civilian society in full mobilization. The windows of the giant National Bank of Poland have been tinted blue and yellow, and above the wrought-iron gates leading into the University of Warsaw, Ukrainian flags fly alongside Polish ones. Donations for Ukrainian defense efforts are collected alongside A.T.M. withdrawals, and everywhere posters promote evening concerts whose proceeds will be wired east. For a while, an electronic billboard in the center of the city flashed the legendary response of a Ukrainian border guard to an oncoming Russian naval assault, “Russian warship go [expletive] yourself!” “When Russia wages a war against neighbors, you don’t need an expert,” said Slawomir Debski, a historian and director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, which advises the Polish government. “You can go and ask a random Pole on the street, and he or she will tell you what to do.”

The head of the Polish government, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, was one of three Central European leaders to take the train to Kyiv last March, three weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to meet with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, the first heads of state to do so. The Polish president, Andrzej Duda, a more ceremonial figure, traveled to Kyiv in April, while missiles were still raining on the city. His name was the first to be etched into a plaque along the Walk of the Brave in Kyiv, dedicated to supporters of Ukraine who visit the besieged capital city. Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany and President Emmanuel Macron of France chose, instead, to organize a call with Vladimir Putin that March, announcing afterward that Putin did not appear willing to end the war.

Virtually everyone in Warsaw, right up to Duda, mentions these contrasting actions. They lament the wasted breath of the French and the Germans — Duda likened it to requesting a phone call with Hitler — and the Poles’ unheeded warnings about Russia. For decades, Polish officials vociferously opposed the German energy deals with Russia that would carry Russian gas directly to Germany, bypassing the countries in between. As far back as 2004, they advised against the construction of the Nord Stream pipelines that connect Siberian gas to the Baltic coast of Germany. In 2006, the Polish defense minister at the time, Radoslaw Sikorski, compared the Nord Stream pipeline deal to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact just before World War II, suggesting that Russia saw it as a way to divide and weaken the European Union and NATO. An open letter to the Obama administration signed by leading Central European figures in 2009 cautioned that “Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics.”

“We in the region interpret the war as a process, not an event,” Jaroslaw Kuisz, editor of the left-leaning magazine Kultura Liberalna, told me. “This war is just another link in a chain” — the second war in Chechnya, from 1999 to 2009, the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Kuisz went on: “It is not to be ended by any kind of truce, say like what you have in Korea, that you stop the war, and it will stop there. Absolutely not.”

Poles who might normally refuse to talk politics around the table find themselves in agreement on Russia. Putin’s ultimate ends, they believe, are to set the stage for a new security architecture in the region, in which Russia can, using blackmail and force, demand concessions, first from its neighbors and then from everybody else. “So either you face this challenge and stop it or you invite more troubles in the future,” said Debski, an imposing figure with a smooth-shaved head, who was wearing an elegantly cut suit when we met last fall in his office off Krakowskie Przedmiescie, a thoroughfare in central Warsaw.

The Western European countries, wary of energy insecurity and nuclear threats, long held out hope of a cease-fire. By contrast, the Poles, along with much of Central and Eastern Europe, from Finland to Ukraine, did not believe they would be safe short of a civilizational defeat in Russia, which could only be achieved on the battlefield. Much of the rest of Europe has slowly come around — at least to the idea that an unjust peace deal is no deal at all. “You can broker something provided that both sides want to find a compromise and to prosper after reaching the deal,” Debski said about the possibility of a cease-fire. The problem, he went on, was that Putin seemed uninterested in such things. “Putin really believes that the world is flat,” he said and shrugged. “Could Copernicus find a compromise with those believing that we are sitting on the backs of big turtles?”

The shock expressed by Americans and Western Europeans last May that Russian soldiers had engaged in widespread rape and summary executions in Bucha and Irpin, leaving behind mass graves, was not shared in Poland. “Unable to defeat the Ukrainian military, they took revenge against the civilians,” Debski said. “Nothing new under the sun.” This was, he went on, part of a longstanding “culture of acceptance in Russian society that under war there are special circumstances — there are no laws, there are no limits, and if you are the losing side, you have to accept the dominance and pure power of the victorious side.” It was of a piece, Debski said, with a larger Russian political order in which “those who have the power have the right, and the law shares their interest.” Poland, controlled alternately by Russia and Germany for much of the 20th century, was subject to such rule for decades, an experience that has informed an avowal and a consensus that the only way to prevail is to refuse to be dominated.

President Joseph R. Biden Jr. acknowledged as much during his trip to Warsaw in February, which marked the anniversary of the war. “We’re seeing again today what the people of Poland, and the people across Europe, saw for decades,” Biden said in the speech he delivered in front of Warsaw’s Royal Castle, the seat of Poland’s intermittently free government for four centuries, which was floodlit for the occasion in blue and yellow. “Autocrats only understand one word: No.”

Dismissed for years by European powers and the Obama administration as Russophobic, Poland now feels vindicated. “There is a sense of moral superiority, which is very strong at the moment,” Piotr Buras, director of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “That we have been right on Russia, we have been right on energy security, we have been right in warning against getting so much dependence on Russia. And we have been ignored — by the Germans and by the others. We have been proven right, and now we want to show it.”

But Poland’s aspirations to play a greater role in European foreign policy have been compromised by a longstanding conflict with the European Union. Since 2021, Brussels has withheld 35 billion euros, in grants and loans, owed to Poland from the European pandemic recovery fund, in response to the failure of the Polish government to undo the overhaul of its judicial system that has significantly weakened the judiciary’s oversight of the executive and legislative branches. The Polish government has criticized the E.U.’s move, retorting that it is now fighting wars on two fronts, fending off attacks from both Russia and the E.U.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, some E.U. officials, acknowledging the pressures on Poland, have been tempted to tread more lightly. Poland has sent disproportionate amounts of equipment and aid and is currently housing 1.3 million Ukrainian refugees, welcomed in spontaneous acts of hospitality by Polish citizens, at an estimated cost of more than 8.4 billion euros. Polish expertise on the makeup of the Russian government has been crucial for designing sanctions and for analyzing Russian war strategy. One senior U.S. official told me that it was difficult to imagine the NATO response to Ukraine achieving what it has without the role that Poland has played. But critics of the Polish government argue that the remaking of the judiciary is undermining the entire legal order in Europe and that now is the moment to hold firm, when so much of the future of Europe — and the West — depends on Poland.

One of the most successful transition stories of the former Soviet bloc, Poland is sometimes referred to — with admiration or condescension, depending on the speaker — as the “star pupil” of Western-style democracy. Since 1989, Poland has experienced the greatest growth of any former Eastern bloc nation. It is regarded as a “miracle” of market liberalization, which transformed it from a centrally planned economy to a free market one.

But in 2015, the right-wing Law and Justice Party, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, was voted into power, and Poland began to move in an illiberal direction. Law and Justice, which embraces a conservative Catholic vision for Poland, sought to assert control over the judicial system in ways that would catalyze its moral program for the country. The new Polish government quickly turned its attention to tightening already restrictive abortion laws, mounted a public-relations campaign against “L.G.B.T. ideology” and rejected its obligations as a member of the E.U. to take in a certain number of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan.

In the view of the Law and Justice Party, the West is decaying. “Immorality, homosexuality, political correctness, all the leftist progressivism — they have decided there is such a horrible tendency of the West which will destroy European civilization, Christianity, morality, family, everything,” Dariusz Stola, a historian at the Institute of Political Studies at the Polish Academy

of Sciences, told me. “If you really believe that there is a horrible threat facing Western civilization,” he said, then, according to Law and Justice, “anything you do is justified.”

Poland is often lumped together with Hungary, both said by political scientists who study the region to be in the throes of a backlash against the rapid liberalization of the past three decades. But Poland is a larger country, with a more robust private sector and civil society, which have put up a hardy opposition. Nonetheless, adherence to the “rule of law,” which protects against the arbitrary use of power, remains a major point of contention within the E.U.

Since 2016, the Polish minister of justice, Zbigniew Ziobro, who leads a hard-right Catholic nationalist faction within the coalition that Law and Justice heads, has spearheaded a series of reforms to the courts, passed by Parliament, that have altered the judicial system in alarming ways: In addition to being the chief prosecutor of Poland, Ziobro is said to have considerable influence over the process for selecting members of the institution tasked with appointing judges. That influence carried over to the appointments on a new disciplinary panel for judges that he created. (The original disciplinary chamber was dismantled, following pushback from the E.U., but there have been subsequent iterations of it.) “Essentially you have the incredible power of the minister of justice and prosecutor general over the whole judiciary,” Buras, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said. “He controls the nominations of judges, he controls the prosecutor’s office and he controls the disciplinary system for judges.”

It was this concentration of power in the justice minister that caused the E.U. to declare that it would continue to withhold funds, as well as take other enforcement measures, until the Polish government complied with European law. Although the E.U. had been quarreling with the Polish government since nearly the beginning of the judicial overhaul in 2016, this marked the first time that the E.U. had to invoke such measures against a member state over its judicial policies. “Nobody had ever gone so far in such an open and obvious way,” Buras says of Poland’s judicial reforms. Laurent Pech, a professor of European law and dean of the law school at University College Dublin, told me that the “Hungarian authorities have been much smarter; they would always pretend to comply.” By contrast, the Polish authorities are “not shy about openly disregarding” E.U. requirements, he says, and have been “so fanatical in their destruction of the rule of law, that the E.U. has never been able to actually do nothing.”

But, as the E.U. attempted to hold Poland to account, Russia began its war against Ukraine. Poland quickly emerged as a political and moral leader in Europe and in the Western military alliance, persistently urging the West to send as much support to Ukraine as possible and leading by example. As other countries dithered, Poland shipped most of its stock of T-72 Soviet-era tanks, which Ukrainian troops could easily operate, and pressed others to send weapons.

“When it comes to security, defense and foreign policy,” Buras told me, Poland’s position within the European Union “has probably never been stronger than today.” Partly, this is a matter of geography. Poland would be important “even if we were an empty field,” Michal Baranowski, director of the German Marshall Fund in Warsaw, says. Poland shares a 330-mile-long border with Western Ukraine, and up to 90 percent of all Western-alliance military and humanitarian aid passes through the civilian airport outside Rzeszow, a small city in southeast Poland, about an

hour’s drive from the border. The U.S. Army is now using a section of the airfield (Air Force One landed there during Biden’s trip to Kyiv) to move heavy equipment and supplies through an expanse encircled by American Patriot missile-defense batteries, pointed toward the sky to pre-empt assaults from the Kremlin.

The Polish government aspires to double the size of its standing army and has signed a flurry of contracts for military equipment. If all orders are fulfilled, Poland will have a larger and more combat-ready ground force within five to 10 years than the Bundeswehr of Germany, a country with an economy more than five times larger; indeed, the Polish ground force would be the largest in Europe. In part, the buildup comes in response to Germany’s hesitancy in sending weapons to Ukraine, which has unnerved its Eastern neighbors. (Since the end of World War II, Germany has had a practice of avoiding military engagement in conflicts.)

As the early weeks of the Ukraine war turned to months, the perception that Germany was reluctant to help only grew, says Justyna Gotkowska, the deputy director of the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, which consults for the Polish government. It offered Poland secondhand, outdated weapons, says Gotkowska, adding, “This is not a partner treatment.” Germany and France were insisting that European countries purchase primarily from European defense companies, but the French and German industries remained at peacetime production levels, and Poland was now in crisis mode. It needed more heavy equipment than they could supply. “I think there is a lot of disillusion,” Debski, the historian, said. “It would be good to have Germany as a reliable, capable ally that we can count on, but also people view that we cannot count on German assistance. Germany will care about themselves first and foremost.”

This irritation with the Germans over defense issues has been useful to the Polish government in drumming up anti-German indignation domestically. Last October, when the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, arrived in Poland for the Warsaw Security Forum — a gathering of elected officials, military brass and policy advisers from the United States and Europe — the Polish government sent a diplomatic note to Germany demanding reparations in the amount of $1.3 trillion in compensation, mainly for G.D.P. lost as a result of the millions of Poles who died during World War II.

Although there is moral weight to Poland’s request for some reparations, it has also served a more political purpose: galvanizing sentiment around Poland’s historical righteousness. Germany’s economy is by far the largest in the European Union, and the former German defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, is now the head of the body responsible for withholding Poland’s pandemic funds. Fanning anti-German sentiment offers a way for Law and Justice to deflect blame for the blocked and much-needed E.U. relief funds and to rally some of its hard-right voters in anticipation of this fall’s election, which is expected to be close.

Journalists on Polish public television have, since last summer, been lambasting the Germans but also the French and Western Europeans in general as cowards and irresponsible idiots. “It’s a very strong anti-Western European narrative, like almost a civilizational backlash against Western Europe,” Buras says. Jakub Jaraczewski, an analyst at Democracy Reporting International, told me that on Polish public media, “they’re hitting a very similar beat to Russia,

basically saying that the West is weak and cowardly” but with one difference: that “Poland is the brave strong country.”

For two decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Poland raced to catch up to and integrate into a West that it always considered its rightful place. Now that the country has largely arrived, and especially given the strategic realignment on defense brought on by the war in Ukraine, Poland has signaled that the power dynamics are changing.

“There is a very interesting nexus between this moral-superiority emotion and the problems we have internally with the rule of law and Europe,” Buras says. Indeed, Sebastian Kaleta, a deputy minister of justice, told me: “We proved from last year that we are reliable, that we were right, that German policy was bad for Europe. And now we are punished for that by the European Union.” In a blog post marking the anniversary of the Russian invasion, Buras wrote that, before the war, “Western European capitals would lecture Warsaw on E.U. values from their moral high ground.” But now, “the tables have turned, and — for Poland’s leaders — it feels good.”

Von der Leyen, the head of the E.U. Commission, comes from the same German political party and the same generation as Angela Merkel, the previous chancellor. According to Pech, the professor of European law, there were echoes of Merkel’s approach to Russia in von der Leyen’s dealings with the Poles — a tendency, arising in part from historical guilt, “to always set aside enforcement, to always prefer dialogue.” Von der Leyen seemed ready last summer to release the 35 billion euros owed to the Poles, providing they took steps toward changing their judicial system, given their role in supporting Ukraine, but some of the E.U.’s deputy commissioners and other high-ranking officials — from the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and the Czech Republic — rebelled against her. In an unusually bold act of disagreement, three deputies sent letters of dissent. That, Pech says, is indicative of the level of the threat Polish judicial reforms pose to the rule of law. (Pech has provided legal advice for judges’ associations that have sued the E.U. for being too soft on Poland.)

In one instance, Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, submitted E.U. rulings to the Polish Constitutional Tribunal, which ruled that the E.U. treaty’s standard definition of judicial independence was unconstitutional in Poland. “If you’re not a lawyer, I suppose it’s difficult to understand the dramatic significance of this,” Pech says, “but it’s like saying that we have the right to become an autocracy and continue being entitled to E.U. funding.” Pech added that the “Polish ruling coalition is very strongly against Putin, and yet what they’re doing internally is very Putin-like in terms of dismantling checks and balances.”

The takeover of the judiciary by Ziobro, the justice minister, has had a direct effect on how the government operates. In 2017, a hearing was held on whether the Law and Justice speaker in the lower house of Parliament followed legal protocols when he called a vote on an important piece of legislation. The presiding judge ruled against the party. The judge was investigated, suspended and his criminal immunity lifted. He was reinstated at the end of 2022, after the E.U. court ruled that Poland’s judicial disciplinary system was incompatible with E.U. law and as the Polish government was seeking to secure the pandemic funds. (Kaleta, Poland’s deputy minister of justice, maintains that the judge was prosecuted because he shared confidential information but

that he was exonerated in Poland’s supreme court — that it was an example, in other words, of how well the Polish justice system works.) Since last summer, Law and Justice has made several attempts to comply with E.U. demands, but these have been derailed by party infighting.

What’s happening in Poland fits into a broader pattern across Europe and beyond, where rule-of-law troubles often accompany a broader assertion of institutional control by a single party or party faction. In Israel, the government’s plans to reconfigure the judiciary echoed Poland’s: a right-wing coalition beholden to its most extreme members trying to alter the system for judicial appointments. One Polish government official even claimed on TV that the Israeli government had consulted with Poland.

When Law and Justice came to power in 2015, Jaroslaw Gwizdak had been president of a district court, which deals mainly with civil cases and family and labor law, in Katowice, south of Warsaw, for two years. He was a reform-minded judge and had hoped to make Poland’s judicial system, which was created under Communism, more transparent to the public. When Gwizdak was elected in 2013, court presidents were appointed by other judges. Subsequently, Ziobro, the justice minister, altered the rules so that he personally made the appointments. The changes that ensued, which were ostensibly to make the system more democratic, were “mainly personnel changes,” Gwizdak said. The party had control of the Parliament as well as the ministry of justice, “so you are the almighty, you have all the capacity to change,” Gwizdak said. “And you are changing sometimes just the nameplates.”

In 2017, Gwizdak’s term was up, and he decided not to run again. It is rare in Poland for a judge to leave the service, because positions are well paid, secure and powerful. But Gwizdak felt that he wouldn’t be able to do his work under the judges who were taking over. His successor, a former apprentice, was in office for six months before Ziobro replaced him. From 2017 to 2018, more than 150 judges were replaced by Ziobro appointees, according to a Polish judges’ association.

These personnel changes turned out to be crucial to the ruling party’s larger agenda of instituting its “catalog of values,” Gwizdak told me. Ziobro hardened the criminal code, putting prisoners to work and increasing the frequency of life sentences. He even spoke wistfully of the death penalty, which is strictly prohibited in the E.U. Now, Gwizdak says, there is “a very thin red line between harsh treatment, the penal policy and torture.” Kaleta, the deputy minister of justice, argues that the new judicial-appointment system in Poland is similar to that of Spain, Germany or even the United States. “We are debating the same topics for five years,” Kaleta said. “And look at the outcome: There are no political prisoners, there is nothing similar to undemocratic countries in Poland right now.”

Sometimes, in the background of the dispute over judicial appointments, Gwizdak says he would hear members of the ruling party refer to themselves as the “third generation of the Armia Krajowa,” the Polish resistance movement during World War II. “For the Law and Justice people, that’s the idea of how to refresh the ideas and the values of the state, using that patriotic vocabulary,” he says. They cast themselves as the legitimate heritors and rightful stewards of the Polish nation, which, they believe, was mismanaged by liberal elites during the transition from

Communism and now must be set on the proper course. “So you have the patriots against the Communists,” Gwizdak said, describing the government’s narrative, “and they are the patriots.”

As part of its campaign of “refreshing” the Polish state, the government also directed its attention to museums. Stola, the historian at the Polish Academy of Sciences, previously served as director of Warsaw’s Polin Museum. In collaboration with historians around the world, it laid out the 1,000-year history of Jews in Poland, through the catastrophe of World War II. Stola recalled welcoming President Duda to the museum in 2016. “I guided him through the core exhibition, he was happy,” Stola told me. “And less than a year later, they are no longer happy. They criticize — it’s anti-Polish.”

Stola’s contract was up for renewal in 2019. He won the competition to nominate the next director, but the Ministry of Culture, which was ultimately responsible for finalizing the appointment, stalled. Stola decided to cede the directorship to his former deputy, rather than risk the government’s taking over the institution by putting its own political appointee in place. This is what had happened at an important World War II museum in Gdansk and a host of others around the country, including the Museum of Art in Lodz, which, under its previous director, achieved a remarkable degree of international status, bringing in works from the Pompidou Center and MoMA and sending Polish artworks for exhibitions at these same museums. In some instances, when the government failed to exert sufficient control, it simply started a parallel institution and directed government financing to it instead. “They don’t understand the idea of public-but-autonomous institutions,” Stola said. “They believe that when they control something, they make it better.”

In the media, much of which is publicly funded, the transformation has been even more glaring. “It was shocking how fast and how radical the change was,” Kuisz, the editor of Kultura Liberalna, told me. “The journalists from the fringes of the media, those who were not even invited because their viewpoints were so extreme, ridiculous, not professional, all of a sudden they got mainstream programs.” (Kuisz’s magazine survived but has had difficulty raising funds.) Buras described the transformation in even starker terms. “You have public television, which is fully controlled by the government,” he says. “And here is no exaggeration, it’s like Sputnik or like Russian television. There is basically no difference.”

The significance of these institutional changes in Poland is not lost on defense allies like the United States. “We are at a moment where a vigorous defense of democracy is an important thing to practice,” Mark Brzezinski, the U. S. ambassador to Poland, told me. “And we see these things as interdependent with each other: the military dimension, the democracy dimension, the humanitarian dimension, the values dimension.”

Rule-of-law experts maintain that it is precisely now, during the war, when the Polish government needs money, that standards must be upheld, especially given the very stark contrast offered by Russia. Polls ahead of Poland’s parliamentary elections this fall show that the Law and Justice Party, which has been in power since 2015, may not pull off a third victory. As a result, the E.U. will most likely not disburse the pandemic-relief funds to Poland while awaiting the results. “Literally the only thing that works with the Polish government is money,”

Jaraczewski, the analyst at Democracy Reporting International, told me. “And in a paradoxical way, the worse the situation is with the war, and the greater the economic impact is on the country, the stronger the argument the E.U. has.”

For centuries, Poland was a regional power, and it has long harbored a sense of what might have been were it not for the horrors of the 20th century. Now, secure as a member of NATO and confident in its economic success, the country hopes finally to prosper. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the former commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe, who is now a senior adviser at Human Rights First, told me that “the center of gravity of real power in Europe is shifting to the east” — to Poland, Finland, Sweden, Romania and the Baltics — “in terms of who the U.S. can count on but also who’s having more and more influence on what goes on.”

The airport in Rzeszow, the town in southern Poland that has become the primary hub for transporting aid to Ukraine, has been transformed from a humdrum regional airfield into a makeshift international military base. In November, U.S. soldiers in uniform and sizable men wearing black soccer-club jackets from Lviv milled around at a coffee stand. Polish troops in green berets stood guard outside a gated entryway for loading matériel, and a Holiday Inn Express across the street seemed to be operating as a 24-hour pizzeria for British logistics specialists.

For all that Rzeszow represents a new seat of Western military power, the West’s ability to respond to Russian aggression still relies on unity of purpose. And last fall, the Polish government rejected the German defense ministry’s attempt to set up a repair center on Polish territory for the weapons that it had sent — at that point mostly artillery systems — to Ukraine, because the manufacturer insisted on using only German technicians. The announcement followed a tirade from Ziobro, the Polish justice minister, about Germany’s seeking a “colonial government” in Poland that would carry out Germany’s will. The Germans were forced to go to Slovakia instead.

“I think you can make a case regardless of how you vote that a Poland that pulls its weight within the E.U., that is not looking for trouble but is actually one of the solution seekers, would be a more powerful Poland,” Baranowski, of the German Marshall Fund in Warsaw, says. “Then you actually have this configuration where Poland and Germany can become a real engine of Europe’s thinking on the East. And this is beautiful for the Americans, because this double engine is the only real answer to the question of, Can Europe fend for itself?”

A senior U.S. official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, told me that he didn’t think Europe was quite there yet, though he agreed that U.S. thinking on security was shifting eastward. “Unfortunately, last year’s events have proven the analysis of some NATO allies to be prescient,” the official said. “And of course, defense thinking and strategic planning inevitably takes into account resources. So I think capabilities buy influence and expand the role that the Poles are seen to have.” The United States now has its first permanent military installation in Poland in the city of Poznan. “We are meshing together with the Poles in a way that is truly historic in this relationship,” Brzezinski, the U.S.

ambassador, said. “I cannot tell you how the Poles have been waiting for years and years and years.”

Poland’s style of leadership perhaps came into its own this winter. Aggravated by Germany’s refusal to send its powerful Leopard 2 tanks, which would give Ukrainian troops an advantage on the battlefield, Poland said in January that it would send some of the Leopards it had, if Germany would lift the tightly monitored export controls on German military equipment. The Germans continued to waffle, but a round of moral embarrassment by the Poles and a pledge by the United States to send its own tanks compelled them to give in, and they finally agreed to send Leopards from their own stocks.

“There was a kind of skepticism about Ukrainians’ ability to defend themselves, particularly in Washington,” Debski, the historian and foreign-policy adviser, said, of the war’s early stages, “this consideration of whether it’s worth it to arm Ukraine, because, you know, they have no chances against Russia, and our help will only prolong Ukrainian suffering.” In Warsaw, he said, “I think there was no doubt that Ukrainians would fight, they would fight long, and they are quite capable to meet the challenge of Russian aggression.” But that, he pointed out, was the lesson of Ukraine for Poland: “Nobody will defend you unless you defend yourself,” Debski said. “What changed the situation worldwide? That Ukrainians start shooting back. And that changed the dynamic of the whole politics here in Europe.”


Elisabeth Zerofsky is a contributing writer for the magazine who has reported across Europe and the United States. Her last feature was on the Claremont Institute’s influence on the American right.