Putin: after Ukraine, Poland?

Tucker Carlson, the former Fox News reporter and potential future vice president to Donald Trump, recently traveled to Russia to interview Vladimir Putin. This fascinating interview comes at a time when Donald Trump has reaffirmed his desire to dismember NATO, and even let Putin invade Europe. Should we expect an invasion of Poland by Putin, 80 years after Adolf Hitler?

The meeting between Putin and Tucker Carlson

It is not surprising that Putin chose Tucker for this purpose, although he has refused interviews with other Western media outlets. Over the past two years, Tucker has focused almost monomaniacally on spreading anti-Ukraine narratives.

In this interview, Putin states that Ukraine is legitimately part of Russia, due to linguistic and cultural similarities and historical relationships. He only mentions NATO expansion when Tucker prompts him to talk about it, and then only briefly.

Putin, the ethnic imperialist

In short, Putin recalled an essential fact, but one that we tended to forget: if Russia invaded Ukraine, it was above all because of a ethnic imperialism. We believe that the imperialists are primarily motivated by either commercial interests and resource extraction.

But we rarely think about ethnic imperialism: an empire that attempts to engulf neighboring polities due to their linguistic and cultural similarity, in order to be able to rule over a specific cultural sphere.

Putin doesn’t want Ukraine’s wheat farms. Nor is he motivated by an ideology of world conquest. He simply wants Russia to rule over all the places he considers to be within its historical and linguistic sphere of influence.

The question is where this sphere ends. Putin assured Carlson that he had no designs on Latvia or Poland.

He thus leaves Estonia aside25% of whose population is Russian-speaking and which Russia continues to intimidate despite its membership in NATO.

Poland, the long-time enemy

Poland and Russia have a long history of conflict. In the early 1600s, Poland invaded Russia and occupied Moscow. Half a century later, Russia responded by invading and occupying part of Poland.

Russia then defeated the Swedes and completely conquered Poland in the late 1700s, ruling for just over a century until The First World War allowed Poland to liberate itself.

The USSR attempted to reconquer the country after World War I, but was defeated. She then plotted with Nazi Germany to partition Poland. After the betrayal of the Nazis and their defeat, The USSR allowed Poland to retain its official status as an independent country, but in practice it was tightly controlled by Moscow.

It’s clear that this story is very present in Putin’s mind when he thinks about Ukraine.

Putin thinks a lot about the 1600s and the conflict between Russia and Poland that took place during that century.

He considers Poland as a natural rival for influence in Eastern Europe, particularly with regard to Ukraine. In a way, he’s right.

A new war in sight?

And it’s no coincidence that Poland was one of the countries that most supported Ukraine’s war effort against Russia, by devoting a higher percentage of its 2022 GDP to it than any other country except Latvia and Estonia.

Putin, in his interview with Tucker, even blamed Poland for provoking the Nazi invasion by refusing to cede territory to Hitler.

A look back at the end of the USSR

When communism fell in Europe, Ukraine was about 50% richer than Poland. In 2021, Poland was almost three times more rich than Ukraine.

One can really understand why Ukraine would want to escape from the Russian fold, despite the language and history.

EU membership offered Poland a golden market. It could benefit from market access and investments from Europe, while retaining control over much of its own economic policy.

Poland took the opportunity to shed the legacy of communism, using foreign direct investment, particularly from Germany, to transform itself into a manufacturing power.

Beyond FDI and market access, Poles are very aware of the fact that their diversion from Russian-style institutions to European institutions helped them prosper.

Poland prospered…far from the Russians

Culturally, Poland has benefited from a social consensus emphasizing emphasis on the “return to Europe”.

Communism was considered a historical aberration and a foreign (Russian) imposition.

Polish society was ready to make the necessary sacrifices to join the EU and thus obtain the symbolic status of a “normal” European country.

These sacrifices included the adoption and implementation of Western institutions and practices (strengthening the rule of law, implementing modern banking, financial and educational systems, reducing corruption, etc.). The process proved successful and contributed to even faster growth.

Basically the fall of the USSR – qPutin called ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century’ – allowed Poland to escape Russia’s sphere of influence for the first time in centuries, moving from a sort of contested border to a European nation in its own right.

It is obvious that thePoland’s economic success represents a direct threat to Russian domination of Ukraine. Poland’s wealth is probably one of the reasons why the Ukrainians insisted so much on joining the EU.

Poland prepares for war

The protests that prompted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanokovych to flee the country in 2014, and which sparked Russia’s initial invasion, all concerned EU membership.

American experts like to say that Putin fears that Ukraine’s potential economic success could challenge Russian power, but the example of the Polish success already goes in this direction.

If EU membership allowed Poland to escape Russia economically, NATO membership offered it a similar boon militarily.

For the first time in its history, Poland’s western borders are completely secure. And under the protective umbrella of American security guarantees, it is free to exercise its strategic autonomy.

There is a synergy between these two elements: Poland’s remarkable economic growth supports its strategic independence. Even as Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States hesitate to increase their defense budgets, Poland is embarking on a major strengthening of its defense.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, the government of the day embarked on a mission that Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak described as allowing Poland to have “Europe’s most powerful land forces” by acquiring massive firepower and more than doubling the size of its armed forces.

Few hesitated when Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in January that the unfolding war in Ukraine meant that “we had to arm ourselves even faster” and raised the target to 4% of GDP, while hinting that it could even be increased to 5% over the next decade.

Poland: a power for Russia to crush?

Given its smaller population, Poland cannot hope to match Russia’s total military spending, even with a higher GDP per capita.

But Russia’s experience in Ukraine shows that any attempt to conquer a much better armed Poland would be dangerous, even without taking into account NATO aid. Poland will also be able to support the Ukrainian resistance against Russia and strengthen the defenses of Estonia and the other Baltic countries against a possible future invasion.

In other words, even if Ukraine falls, the fundamental conflict between Putin and the West will not diminish, because it is actually Poland.

Poland’s success, backed by the West, represents the main challenge to Russia’s dominance over what Putin sees as its legitimate sphere of influence. As long as Poland remains rich, strong and independent, Putin, remembering the 1600s, will always feel a direct threat to Russia.

Poland: a power for Russia to crush?

Poland’s accession is the reason why only the dissolution of NATO itself – or its effective dissolution, through a refusal to respond to a request for mutual assistance under Article 5 – represents Putin’s only hope of dominating Eastern Europe in the way he imagines.

Polish leaders of course know that this could happen, not least because of Germany’s chronic inability to do anything and the Trumpist movement’s antipathy towards NATO.

This is why they are growing their army so quickly; they know that Article 5 is not an invincible magic shield.

Will Poland need nuclear weapons?

The obvious next step for Poland would unfortunately be to acquire nuclear weapons.

NATO sometimes shares nuclear weapons with officially non-nuclear states such as Germany. Poland requested to join this program and obtain nuclear weapons on its own soil.

But if NATO refuses, or if Trump is re-elected and seems to want to abandon NATO, we would not be at all suresurprised to see Poland begin to pursue its own nuclear weapons program.

In fact, credible reports indicate that the country’s leaders told NATO they would go nuclear if Poland was not admitted in the 1990s. If NATO guarantees prove fragile, this project could be put back on the table.

After three hundred years, Poland has finally freed itself from Russian rule and, like Ukraine, it does not seem willing to give up this freedom at any price. The Americans, including many Trumpists who think that leaving Ukraine to Putin would end the conflict in Eastern Europe, should therefore come to their senses. As long as Poland is fully independent, economically prosperous and militarily powerful, Putin will feel that Russia’s position as master of Eastern Europe is not assured.

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