How Poland has become ‘the frontline of the NATO alliance’

President Biden's visit to Poland Friday spotlights that country's importance to the military and humanitarian effort in Ukraine. Since the start of the invasion of Ukraine no nation has become more important to western efforts to repel Russia. Stephen Mull, former U.S. ambassador to Poland and now the vice provost for global affairs at the University of Virginia, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Biden's visit to Poland today spotlights that country's importance to the military and humanitarian effort in Ukraine.

    For more on that, we turn to Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Poland has long considered itself a front-line state against Russia. And since Russia launched its war in Ukraine, no country has become more important to Western efforts to repel Russia's invasion and to help millions of Ukrainian refugees.

    To talk about Poland's role, I'm joined by Stephen Mull, the former U.S. ambassador to Poland from 2012 to 2015, during Russia's first invasion of Ukraine. He is now the vice provost for global affairs at the University of Virginia.

    Stephen Mull, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    How important has Poland become in the U.S. and NATO's efforts to respond to Russia's invasion?

    Stephen Mull, Former U.S. Ambassador to Poland: Well, good evening, Nick. It's good to be with you.

    Poland, of course, has always been the most strategically important country on NATO's eastern flank since it joined in 1999. But during the current invasion of Ukraine it has become central to the whole crisis, first of all because of the long border it shares with Ukraine.

    It has a very uncomfortable front-row seat for the invasion going on. And it makes our Polish allies very nervous. They share a 330-mile border with Poland. And not only that, but that Polish border is the principal conduit for the increasing numbers of weapons that the United States is sending to the Ukrainian armed forces.

    And, going the other way, it's the main conduit for more than two million refugees that have fled the fighting in Ukraine. So, as the conflict moves closer to the west of Ukraine, which it seems likely to do, it's going to be increasingly in a critical spot that we need to pay close attention to.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So let's first consider those weapons shipments that, as you say, many of which are going through Poland into Ukraine. Russia vows to hit, to target that weapons supply line that goes through Poland.

    Why is Poland willing to take the risk?

  • Stephen Mull:

    Well, it is a big risk for our Polish allies, but they're willing to take it because they think it's probably the lesser of two evils, the other evil being next in line to be attacked by the Russians.

    So it is an existential security interest for Poland to make sure that the Russians are stopped and ideally removed from Ukraine. And they're willing to risk just about anything to contribute to stopping the Russian advance towards its own borders.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The other part that you mentioned, of course, are the refugees flowing from Ukraine into Poland.

    Human rights organizations in the past criticized Poland for not allowing enough Middle Eastern refugees, but Poland has opened its arms, society and government to these Ukrainians who are coming into the country. Why?

  • Stephen Mull:

    Well, I think there are a couple of key differences between the refugee crisis that happened with Belarus last summer and fall and what's going on right now.

    The Polish government believed that those refugees from the Middle East and from Central Asia that were coming through, through Belarus primarily to the Polish border were being sent as a means of destabilizing Poland's relationship with the rest of Europe and were, in fact, being weaponized by the Belarusian authorities, probably with Russian government support.

    Ukrainians are fleeing from Poland and Ukraine's common adversary, Russia, which, of course, has a centuries-long history of occupying and dominating Poland. Furthermore, the Ukrainian community has been quite large in Poland over the past few years. Between a million and two million Ukrainians have become an essential part of the Polish economy even before this invasion started.

    It's a community that's assimilated very well into Polish society. They're essential to the Polish economy's operations, particularly in the service sector. And, finally, Poles feel a real moral obligation to help their Ukrainian neighbors because they believe they have that common adversary and they believe that they need to help them to make sure that, when they are in trouble, others will help them too.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The European Union has accused Poland's ruling party, the Law and Justice Party, of eroding judicial independence. The Law and Justice Party has also been criticized for eroding media freedom and LGBTQ rights.

    Is Warsaw's democratic backsliding being papered over because of Poland's importance to the war?

  • Stephen Mull:

    Well, those are concerns that the Biden administration definitely has had about the human rights situation in Poland. There has been some democratic backsliding in Poland.

    But now that this crisis has happened, it's almost as if the house next door to Poland has suddenly caught fire, and while Poland certainly needs to maybe correct the dry rot that's going on in its own house, putting out the fire next door has suddenly become a much more dangerous threat to democracy, not only in Poland, but really throughout all of Europe.

    So, concentrating on the most urgent emergency that's on Poland's front doorstep right now doesn't mean that we're less concerned about the other problems that you mentioned.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, finally, Poland is pushing for a permanent presence of U.S. and NATO troops, who up until now have been rotating into Poland back to back.

    That permanent presence would go against promises that NATO made to Russia in the late 1990s. Why is Poland pushing for a more enduring, guaranteed U.S. deployment?

  • Stephen Mull:

    Well, they believe that since the end of the Cold War and since Poland's accession to the NATO alliance, that they, in effect, have become the front line of the NATO alliance and the key to security for the entire alliance.

    So they believe that that requires moving the U.S. military presence that had existed in Germany and other places to the west, required moving those troops farther to the east, where the threat most likely will originate. And, in fact, the past month, we have seen they're right. That is where the threat, primary threat to NATO is originating.

    In fact, I think it's likely the increased numbers of U.S. troops we have seen in Poland are there for the foreseeable future.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador Stephen Mull, thank you very much.

  • Stephen Mull:

    Thank you.

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