Baltic Sea

For some of Ukraine’s neighbors, “defending Europe” has a different meaning

WARSAW — As the United States stepped up warnings of a Russian attack and called on Western allies to unite against the aggression, leaders of two NATO members bordering Ukraine headed over the weekend for a gathering titled “Defend Europe” to Madrid.

But instead of addressing the Russian threat to Europe’s eastern borders, the meeting, attended by Prime Ministers of Poland and Hungary Mateusz Morawiecki and Viktor Orban, focused on what populist leaders cite as their most pressing threats: immigration, demographic decline and the European Union.

Even as the two NATO members rely on the Alliance for their security, urging in Madrid on issues that have long driven a wedge between them and the United States and the European Union has highlighted the extent to which domestic concerns remain in the country Calculations are paramount.

The gathering, which brought together populist and largely pro-Kremlin flag-bearers from across Europe, also underscored how much these policies have blurred what the United States sees as a clear case of bullying by Russia. a nuclear-armed autocracy against Ukraine, a vibrant if highly dysfunctional democracy.

Mr Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, travels to Moscow on Tuesday to meet President Vladimir V Putin. France’s far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, an outspoken Kremlin fan, was also at the two-day conclave, as was Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, which has long called for an end to European sanctions against Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and military incursion into eastern Ukraine.

A statement issued after the Madrid meeting made no mention of Ukraine, although it lamented “Russian aggressive actions on Europe’s eastern borders.” Instead, she stressed the need to form a united front in favor of “family policies,” Christianity, and anti-immigrant policies. The European Union, according to the statement, has “detached itself from reality” which has led to “demographic suicide”. ”

Poland is a country with a long and traumatic history of Russian aggression. That she would join a gathering focused on attacking the European Union at a time of crisis on its eastern border has highlighted just how much the ruling party sees Brussels as a threat.

Poland regularly denounces Moscow and supports the presence on its territory of around 4,500 American troops and a US-operated anti-missile defense system. But outraged by the EU’s criticism of its restrictions on judicial independence, LGBTQ rights and other issues, the ruling party is increasingly turning its fire on Brussels.

“Polish foreign policy has been completely subordinated to internal needs and now revolves around stopping European Union interference,” said Roman Kuzniar, a professor at the University of Warsaw who advised his country’s former pro-European government.

While tiny Baltic states have been sending arms to Ukraine and working to forge a united front against Moscow, Poland, the region’s largest and militarily most powerful country, “has been very passive and had nothing serious to say,” Professor Kuzniar added.

After weeks of hesitation, Polish authorities said Monday they would offer Ukraine “defense weapons.” Prime Minister Morawiecki, who is traveling to the Ukrainian capital Kiev on Tuesday, expressed his opinion “unwavering support” for Ukraine against “Russian neo-imperialism” which he said threatened to “destabilize” the European bloc.

Jacek Bartosiak, the founder of the Strategy and Future research group, defended the government’s caution, saying Poland has too much at stake in Ukraine to risk hasty gestures. Poland is “the most important piece of the puzzle in the Ukraine game,” he said.

The muddle of foreign policy through domestic policy mirrors a similar phenomenon in the United States, where the Republican right has questioned the Biden administration’s support for Ukraine and whether Russia might be a more worthy cause.

Few in Poland express sympathy for Russia. But there is also deep skepticism about Ukraine, the western part of which was part of Poland before World War II, especially among nationalists, who view the massacre of tens of thousands of Poles by Ukrainian nationalists during the conflict as genocide.

“Anti-Ukrainian feelings are the ABC of Polish nationalism,” said Marek Swierczynski, security expert at Politika Insight, a research group in Warsaw. “Everything in Poland is so politicized these days,” he added, noting that Law and Justice was reluctant to embrace Ukraine too tightly because “some of their base might turn against them.”

Hostility towards Russia generally permeates political divisions, but has been overshadowed by hostility towards Brussels, the ruling party’s favorite bugbear.

Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of Law and Justice and Poland’s de facto leader, regularly rails against the European bloc, claiming in December that it is becoming a German-led “Fourth Reich,” but has not commented publicly on the Ukraine crisis .

Mr Kaczynski’s liberal critics note that his emphasis on defending traditional Christian values ​​against what he sees as decadent European Union interference is almost indistinguishable from the Kremlin’s own pet propaganda.

But while siding with the Kremlin in Europe’s culture wars, nationalist populists across Europe are bitterly divided over whether to reject or embrace Mr Putin, a rift that has complicated their efforts to make common cause. At the Madrid gathering, which followed a similar event in Warsaw in December, Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki urged that a reference to Russian aggression be included in the final declaration. Ms Le Pen disagreed and made her own statement, which made no mention of Russia.

George Simion, the leader of a right-wing Romanian political party, described the meeting as a “disaster” because of disagreements over Russia, which he sees as a threat blocking his own pet political cause, Romania’s unification with neighboring Moldova, territory captured from Moscow in 1940 .

Poland’s high-level presence at such a meeting sparked consternation from critics of law and justice, particularly opposition leader Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister who stressed its involvement with Ukraine and close ties with the European Union.

Tusk had denounced the Madrid meeting as “anti-Ukrainian and pro-Putin” and urged the prime minister not to attend. Among the parties present was a far-right Estonian group whose leader has campaigned for elections with the anti-immigrant slogan: “If you’re black, go back!”

Mr Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, has long been friends with Moscow and has been at odds with Kiev, particularly over its policy towards ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine. Like Poland’s Law and Justice, his Fidesz party has built its political brand around the struggle with the European Union, from which both countries have received billions of dollars in aid but which serves as a light punching bag in domestic political struggles.

Faced with a tough election in April, Mr Orban has gone further than any other European leader in turning to Moscow and demonizing the European bloc.

His opponents on Monday urged him to cancel his Tuesday visit to meet Mr Putin for talks on gas deals and expanding a Russian nuclear power project in Hungary.

Peter Marki-Zay, the flag-bearer of an unusually united opposition camp in April’s elections, said the trip to Moscow meant “Hungary had betrayed its Western allies” and “betrayed the country’s thousand-year dream of Western integration.”

Aside from the Baltic states, which have given steadfast support to Ukraine, the formerly communist eastern periphery of Europe has sent mixed messages, pledged loyalty to NATO, which now includes most former members of the defunct Soviet-led Warsaw Pact but which sometimes backs down Report word Distrust of Ukraine

In the most abrupt break with NATO’s solidarity position towards Ukraine, President Zoran Milanovic of Croatia, which joined the alliance in 2009 along with Poland, said last week that Ukraine should never be admitted to NATO, a view shared by Moscow will. In the event of a Russian attack on Ukraine, the President said: “Croatia must get away from it like a fire.”

However, his comment was driven less by the crisis over Ukraine than by domestic squabbles with Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, who belongs to a rival political party and has been a strong pro-Ukraine advocate. The prime minister issued a statement this week noting that Ukraine deserves support as one of the first countries to recognize Croatia as an independent country after it split from Yugoslavia during the Balkan wars in the early 1990s.

The history of past wars weighs heavily on governments across the region, where gratitude for past support collides with bitter memories of betrayal, often by the same people.

In Poland, Poles massacred by Ukrainian nationalists during World War II compete with earlier memories of how soldiers from Ukraine helped Poland defeat invading Soviet troops on the banks of the Vistula River near Warsaw in 1920.

“Our history is very difficult,” said Polish security expert Swierczynski.

Benjamin Novak contributed reporting from Budapest and Anatol Magdziarz from Warsaw.