The US president will visit Poland for the second time in less than a year. As well as seeking to reinforce good ties between Washington and Warsaw, he is expected to deliver clear messages to Ukraine and Russia.
Pierogi — tasty filled dumplings — may not be as popular in the United States as pizza, but the traditional Polish dish remains a fixture of American cuisine. That’s no surprise, since more than 9 million of the 331 million residents in the US have Polish roots, something that contributes to the close relationship between the countries.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine last February, that close relationship has become even closer. When US President Joe Biden arrives in Poland this week, his second visit to the country in less than one year, the visit will be seen as an expression of the tight bond between the two nations. Although scheduled to arrive on Monday, he instead made a surprise appearance in Kyiv, his first time in the Ukrainian capital since Russia’s invasion.
The US ambassador to Warsaw, Mark Brzezinski, was effusive in an interview with Polish broadcaster TVN ahead of Biden’s visit. “This is a historic moment. Never before has an American president visited Poland twice in the same year,” he said, adding that “President Biden is concerned about Poland and its security.”
Brzezinski compared Poland’s support of Ukraine to the mobilization of US society after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II.
Poles fought for America’s independence
Poland and the US are connected by a long and colorful history that reaches back to the founding years of the United States.
Polish General Tadeusz Kosciuszko played an important role in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). After that, during the 19th century, the US was a common destination for Polish immigrants fleeing poverty and political unrest. Many Polish Jews also journeyed to the “Golden Land,” as it was referred to by the Eastern European Jewish community.
Following the end of World War I, US President Woodrow Wilson’s strong support of Polish independence helped make it a reality after 123 years of partitions.
Poland felt betrayed by Warsaw Pact
But after World War II, the far-reaching decisions of the so-called “Big Three” — comprised of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin — were regarded by Poland as a betrayal. They resulted in a loss of around 20% of Polish territory.
Poland, which was considered by the West to be within the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, was then locked for decades behind the Iron Curtain and became a member of the defense treaty known as the Warsaw Pact in 1955.
It was the founding of the Polish trade Union Solidarity in the 1980s that brought Poland back to the attention of much of the so-called free world.
“The United States was an early supporter of the Solidarity movement in Poland, which played a huge role in the liberation of the Eastern Bloc,” said Sean Monaghan, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an expert in Eastern European politics.
Thanks to President Ronald Reagan’s tough course against Moscow during his two terms in office from 1981 to 1989, he was able to gain tremendous popularity in Poland.
Siding with the US during the Iraq War
After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War, Poland made efforts to gain US favor. In 1999, the country became a member of the NATO military alliance and acquired US weapons and defense systems.
However, Poland long felt itself to be a second-class member of the alliance. That is because, with an eye to Russian sensitivities, NATO restricted its military presence on its eastern flank .
During the Iraq War, which began in March 2003, Poland sided with the US, risking its close relationships with Germany and France. The US secretary of defense at the time, Donald Rumsfeld, hailed Warsaw’s move, describing Poland and other Eastern European allies as the “new Europe,” relegating Germany and France to the status of the “old Europe.”
When President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, the relationship between Warsaw and Washington became even closer. Trump relocated US troops from Germany to Poland, strengthening the US military’s presence in the country. Polish President Andrzej Duda offered Washington a permanent military base in Poland, which he wanted to name “Fort Trump.”
Biden reaffirms US-Poland relationship
The election of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States was seen as an obstacle to US-Polish relations by the government in Warsaw. Members of Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) had hoped to see Trump elected to a second term, since he was believed to have more in common with them than his Democrat successor.
Unlike other EU heads of state, Duda waited to congratulate the new president until after Biden took his oath of office in January 2021, rather than doing so directly following his election in November 2020.
But the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24, 2022, pushed all of those issues into the background. Weeks after the war broke out, Biden traveled to Poland to visit US troops stationed there, whose numbers were increased to 10,000 soon afterward.
The economic relationship between the two nations also received a boost as Poland started reducing its dependency on Russian energy and purchasing more gas from the US.
Biden’s second visit
Now, on his second trip to Poland since Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden has two important messages. The first is to reiterate that the US will support Ukraine in the fight against Russia for as long as necessary. The second is that if Russian President Vladimir Putin attacks so much as a centimeter of any NATO member’s territory, it will be considered an attack on NATO as a whole, bringing all of the obligatory consequences of mutual defense along with it.
Even if the visit has roused some skepticism, and perhaps even envy, on the part of some Western partners that wonder why Poland seems to be getting preferential treatment, Eastern Europe expert Sean Monaghan said he sees it as a logical move.
“As one of Ukraine’s neighbors, Poland is now a country on the front lines,” he said.
Before Biden’s trip, Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director Williams Burns have all visited the country.
Biden is also expected to visit Ukrainian refugees in Poland, as he did during his last visit. He is set to meet with leaders of the Bucharest Nine, comprised of the Central and Eastern European NATO countries Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia.
Last year, during an address at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Biden caused quite a stir by going off script and saying that Putin “can’t remain in power.” The White House insisted back then that Biden did not intend to cause a “regime change” in Moscow.
Biden’s speech this time around, which is expected to be a highlight of the visit, will thus be under close scrutiny.
This article was originally published in German.
Author: Ines Pohl, Jacek Lepiarz