Insight Poland

Opinion: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a reckoning for Poland, and for Europe

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Warsaw, Poland – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent an understandable shockwave across Europe. Poland, too, has woken up from some of its delusions.

The public arena and collective consciousness are largely comprised of the products of our imagination. Political leaders lure us with hopes and prospects, cultural products create patterns through which we communicate, and capitalism makes implausible promises. Immersed in this swirling chain of events and illusions, we too often forget that we are asleep.

Bombs falling on our neighbour’s cities and unimaginable crimes being committed against its residents can wake us up and make us aware of that reality. At least for a moment.

Europe rises from a deep slumber

These moments and opportunities should be seized, not because they are purposeful – there can be no purpose to today’s suffering of the Ukrainian people – but because they can help us shake off some of our gullibility for the future.  

“Russian authorities are becoming civilised”. “They don’t have a choice and need to seek closer cooperation with the West”. “Putin may be bad, but he is still reasonable”. “It’s all bluff, he’s about to pull back”. “Economic relations between the West and Russia are bound to bring them together”.

There is no perfectly logical explanation for why so many people decided to believe in the veracity of these and so many other statements. Neither objective facts nor a calm assessment of the situation could back them up and legitimise them.

And yet, Western elites remained divided regarding Putin’s politics. Across Europe, politicians have openly cooperated with him, supported him, and enjoyed his support for years. Some have recovered from that slumber, but others are still resistant even today. And yet, Western countries have continued to consider Russia as country open for business like any other, disregarding warnings from the Baltic states, Poland, and Ukraine.

There were some who warned us. But the West has, as a whole, remained oblivious. It is now clearer than ever that Vladimir Putin’s place is in the docks of the International Criminal Court in the Hague, not at world leaders summits.

Europe in a state of permanent war

One of the most harmful and deceitful, albeit most widely-held sentiments is the one claiming that post-1945 Europe has known its longest period of peace.

This belief was false, overlooking conflicts that have shook the European continent during the past decades, specifically the war in Yugoslavia where more than 100,000 people died, The war in Georgia, at the edges of Europe, was not considered worthy of mention, and the annexation of Crimea and the eastern districts of Ukraine did not alter the story either. The Russian invasion of Ukraine can finally put an end to this lie.

The second mistake has consisted in equating a lack of military operations in Europe itself with the idea that Europe was at peace.

The West has not been at peace since 1945, but in a state of permanent war around the globe, mainly exporting and keeping at arms’ length (with other countries as well, including Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, etc.) military conflicts held elsewhere. But wars they still are.

All this is not in the slightest a justification for Russia attacking Ukraine. Anyone who points to American-led wars to justify Russia’s brutal assault is delirious. But having realised the proximity of this war, it is worth waking up from a more prolonged dream of European peace.

The more politics become a game of identities – reclusive, unable to seek compromise or promote dialogue – the easier it becomes to flag opponents as “evil”. We can see it not only here in Poland, but also in the UK, in Turkey, in Hungary. and elsewhere – most of whom, except for the latter, have mobilised in support of Ukraine and against the Russian invasion.

Looking at worldwide reactions, some of them like the Vatican’s have been disappointing, overly cautious, and diplomatic, while others have turned out exactly as one might have expected (such as Poland’s pro-Kremlin stooges Janusz Korwin-Mikke and Grzegorz Braun).

Today we get to build alliances with people that we never thought we would need to get along with, and criticise those who we have, time and time again, gotten along with in the past. May we remember that lesson as well.

The illusion of Polish “national vices”

It is a dream akin to Fukuyama’s pipedream about the end of history – rightly reconsidered by him a long time ago. A similarly popular and delusion-prone author in recent years has been Yuval Noah Harari. whose bestseller books have clumsily attempted to show that humanity was on course to eliminate wars. A claim easily debunked by records from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program showing that the number of conflicts has been gradually increasing since 2010.

It is the Russian invasion of Ukraine that managed to change Harari’s beliefs. In The Economist, he called it a gateway to change the direction of human history. But it would be more accurately described as a clock for those who have failed to notice trends years in the making. Maybe this time the alarm went off more audibly because it rang closer to home.

One another thing can be clearly seen today. The reluctance of Polish society to help war refugees does not follow from primal racism, xenophobia, or indifference. This is a simple diagnosis which – as any sloppily written argument – will only work in a specific context.

It fails to account for the attitude of vast segments of the Polish population. Why do Poles have en masse been against accepting refugees from Syria, North African countries, or Muslim-majority nations, and now collectively endorse accepting refugees from Ukraine?

There are several answers, but none of them is comprehensive enough to fall into the category of “national vice”.

The first one is linked to the geographical proximity of events, happening just across our border. The second one is linked to the cultural and linguistic connection between Ukrainians and Poles. The closer the events causing exile and displacement are, the more dramatic and life-shattering we perceive them.

Even for the well-organised Russian propaganda machine, active in Poland too, generating negative feelings against Ukrainians and positive coverage of the war is not an easy task. As a result, it’s impossible to unleash a barrage of pseudo-arguments on where, how, when, or why Ukrainian refugees should and could apply for international protection. Something that was all too easy in the case of Afghan or Syrian asylum-seekers.

Human misery auctioned

It is neither nationalism, xenophobia, nor prejudice that have played the principal role in triggering the fear of refugees in Poland after 2015. The main culprit wasn’t a so-called “Polish national vice”, but the methodical campaign of fear-mongering and instrumentalisation which various political circles took part in, with the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party in the lead, part of the media, and a whole spectrum of social media accounts.

These accounts partly belonged to the Russian Internet trolls who are now trying to spread and promote the pro-Russian narrative. But without the traditional government-linked media support, they are much less harmful on a wider scale.

Let us understand the present to promote more openness towards men and women refugees from all directions.

Even today some voices are doing the exact opposite: depicting Ukrainian refugees as “real refugees” who “genuinely need our help”, as opposed to “the usurpers” and “illegal economic migrants” from the Middle East and North Africa whom we should remain suspicious of.

Solidarity with refugees shouldn’t turn into a public auction of human misery.

In all these matters, the awakening might be as sudden and powerful as short-lived. We can only hope and strive for it to last. To the benefit of Ukraine first, of Poland, and ultimately, of Europe.

By Ignacy Dudkiewicz

Ignacy Dudkiewicz is a Polish philosopher, bioethicist, publicist, and the editor-in-chief of the magazine Kontakt. This text was first published in Polish, translated into English by Sebastian Ruta, and edited by Kafkadesk.