Interview with Dr. Aleks Szczerbiak is a Professor of Politics & Head of the Department of Politics at the University of Sussex.
1. What is your perspective on the Ukraine situation from the Polish perspective?
As neighbours of Russia, Poles tend to see the invasion as a part of a process of Vladimir Putin’s ongoing campaign of destabilisation of Eastern Europe to re-instate Moscow’s regional hegemony. Poland sees this as beginning with the conflict in Chechnya, continuing through the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, and support for separatists in the Donbas, culminating in the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. Poles thereby view the defence of Ukrainian independence as helping to prevent a possible domino effect in central and Eastern Europe. For Poland, therefore, the Russian war aggression in Ukraine is seen simply as an individual act of aggression but as a defining geopolitical moment in international politics. As a consequence, the war has increased Poles’ sense of insecurity and raised the political salience of security issues (both military and non-military).
What do you think of the Polish support of Ukraine? Is there room for improvement?
Poland has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies, and it is difficult to think how it could have supported Ukraine much more. Poland’s centrality to the West’s response has allowed Warsaw to raise its diplomatic and military profile as a key regional player. Its critical geographical location, together with the fact that it is NATO’s most prominent member and top defence spender in the region, means that Poland has become pivotal to the alliance’s security relationship with Moscow. It has been one of the main hubs for channeling military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. It is at the forefront of efforts to persuade the Western international community to develop a common, robust response to the Russian invasion and ensure that sanctions are maintained extended. In some cases, this has even involved taking unilateral action ahead of agreement on measures by the EU and other international organisations, such as in the case of imports of Russian coal on which Poland had been heavily dependent in recent years.
How would you assess the Polish response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis?
Poland has been a prime destination for refugees fleeing the conflict, with more than 3 million people crossing its Eastern border. The response of the Polish government and society to the Ukrainian refugee crisis has been overwhelmingly positive - and the country has clearly derived a great deal of international moral and political capital as a consequence. It is worth bearing in mind that even before the war broke out, around one million Ukrainians were living and working in Poland, some fleeing the conflict in the Donbas but mainly economic migrants filling skill shortages in certain sectors (indeed, some of these have returned to Ukraine to join the fighting). Despite the substantial challenges raised by the large influx of Ukrainians during increasing economic turbulence, Polish support for welcoming Ukrainian refugees remains very high. However, one area where Poles have shown some concerns is whether all social and welfare benefits should be available to Ukrainian migrants on the same basis as they are to Polish citizens.