Poland is building the largest army in Europe. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

February 20, 2023   4 mins

Tomorrow, President Joe Biden will mark the first anniversary of the Russian invasion not in Berlin or Paris — but in Warsaw. There, he will turn a blind eye to Poland’s nationalist government, and pat President Andrzej Duda on the back for his leading role in supporting Ukraine. Thanks to the war, Poland is having its moment in the sun.

Since the first day of the invasion, Poland’s support for Ukraine has been unwavering. It has sent significant amounts of military equipment, including dozens of tanks, and its army is training Ukrainian soldiers to use 14 Leopard-2 tanks as quickly as possible. On the diplomatic front, it never ceases to beat the drum for its besieged neighbour. After all, Poland has an existential interest in thwarting Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions, especially with Russian troops looming across the border in Belarus.

To establish its authority at the heart of Europe, it plans to amass the largest land army in the Continent, with 300,000 troops, and has just announced a hike in defence spending from 2.4% to 5% of GDP to facilitate it. Already, it has welcomed more than 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees, more than any other European country.

Warsaw also appears to be forging a regional alliance of Nato nations in Eastern Europe. From the Baltic to the Black Sea, the “Bucharest Nine”, a group that formed after the Russia’s annexation of Crimea, are united by a traumatic history of Soviet Russian dominance and occupation. On Duda’s initiative, Biden will meet with the group, which is pushing for more Nato resources to be moved to its Eastern flank.

Balkans expert Timothy Less calls this the “new Warsaw Pact”, which rather than defending Russia’s interests, seeks to protect central and Eastern Europe from the Russians. For Less, this is a strategy that echoes the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth born in the late Middle Ages, as well as the Intermarium, a fanciful plan by Polish leader Józef Piłsudski to form a superstate from the Baltic to the Black Sea after the First World War. Behind each of these alliances was a fear of bullying neighbours over the centuries — Prussia, the German Reich, Austria-Hungary and, of course, Russia.

Poland’s Eastern European alliance, according to Less, “would marginalise France and Germany, threaten the predominant position of the EU in Europe and galvanise its seeming slow-motion decline”. It’s a vision that will appeal to Eurosceptics across the Continent: a new era in which the US gradually moves its military resources from Germany to Poland, a growing hub of power and influence.

Alas, the tale of Franco-German decline is almost as old as the EU. While Poland might have impressive military ambitions, its politics is still riddled with contradictions. Its hardline nationalism comes across as immature and foolish, as seen in its provocative games with its largest trading partner, Germany, and the entity that has allowed it to flourish, the EU.

Since the Law and Justice party (PiS) came to power in 2015, it’s never missed a chance to vilify Germany. When a popular German tabloid, Fakt, reported that Duda had pardoned a convicted child abuser in 2020, the Polish President accused its owner Axel Springer of meddling in Polish elections.

Other criticism is entirely justifiable: Poland points to decades of Germany cosying up to Russia, as symbolised by the now-destroyed Nord Stream pipelines, which deliberately circumvented Poland and Ukraine, and delivered Germany with an endless supply of cheap Siberian natural gas. But let’s not forget that, until recently, Poland itself was also dependent on Russian hydrocarbons.

Poland is too proud to admit Germany’s role in its economic success story. Its politicians may rant about the EU being a German “Fourth Reich”, but Poland’s last 20 years of prosperity are largely thanks to German growth. German GDP per capita is more than twice as high as Poland’s, with the latter acting as a relatively cheap workshop for German industrial firms within the EU free-trade area. Annual exports to Germany, at around €70 billion, are five times higher than to any other country.

Yet trash-talking Germany seems to be a necessary ingredient in the PiS’ grip on power. The latest affront came in the form of Poland’s demand for Second World War reparations. The price tag: €1.3 trillion. In October, Poland sent the bill to Germany, in the form of a diplomatic note. Of course, Poland has no legal ground to stand on: it waived its claims to reparations in 1953. But the PiS, which knows this full well, hopes to exploit the narrative of Polish victimhood ahead of parliamentary elections this autumn. It doesn’t exactly give the impression of a grown-up country taking on a new leadership role in Europe. Nor does the fact that, when the German defence minister Boris Pistorius visited Poland earlier this month to discuss weapons shipments for Ukraine, his Polish counterpart Mariusz Błaszczak refused to appear in public with him. Apparently, for a PiS politician, there’s nothing more cringe than a photo with a German.

Then there is Poland’s equally fraught relationship with the European Union. Poland is still by far the greatest net recipient of EU funding. While Germany contributed €21 billion to the EU budget in 2021, Poland received €12.9 billion, more than any other state. How does it show its gratitude? With its middle finger.

The current showdown between the European Commission and Poland is a case in point. The Commission is withholding €36 billion in post-pandemic recovery funds until the Polish government implements specific reforms of its judicial system that will nominally bring Poland back in line with EU law. In recent years, Poland has granted the executive branch increasing control over the courts, ostensibly to purge the courts of old communist-era judges.

A €36 billion cash injection would be helpful in the run up to an election. That’s why the lower house of parliament, the Sejm, approved a step to reintroduce a degree of independence to disciplinary procedures against judges, in the hope that it would be just enough to placate the EU. But President Duda refused to sign the legislation. Instead, he asked the Constitutional Tribunal to scrutinise it for its constitutionality. That court itself is considered to be under PiS control, one of the EU’s complaints.

For now, PiS is leading the polls. But its position is less than secure. Civic Platform, an opposition party led by pro-European former prime minister Donald Tusk, is nibbling at its heels and could assemble a sizeable coalition. Perhaps this is why the government is resorting to ever-more dubious tactics, such as increasing the number of polling stations in villages — an obvious ploy to attract more votes from older, more conservative rural voters.

Poland, then, may be keen to pose as the compassionate and brave saviour of Ukraine, but it remains stuck in the past, with an unhealthy obsession with provoking Germany and the EU, although it owes much of its prosperity to them both. As Piotr Buras of the European Council for Foreign Relations Warsaw office, speaking on German TV, said: “It’s both a leader and a pariah.”

Maurice Frank co-founded the English magazine Exberliner and now co-writes the newsletter 20 Percent Berlin.