WARSAW — As the United States mounted warnings of a Russian attack and Western allies called for unity against aggression, the leaders of two NATO members bordering Ukraine headed for a rally in Madrid this weekend called ‘Defending Europe’.
But instead of tackling the Russian threat on Europe’s eastern border, the meeting attended by Polish and Hungarian prime ministers Mateusz Morawiecki and Viktor Orban focused on what populist leaders cite as their most pressing threats: immigration, demographic decline and the European Union crisis.
Even as the two NATO members rely on the alliance for their security, the urgency in Madrid of issues that have long driven a wedge between them and the United States and the European Union has highlighted just how domestic political concerns remain at the forefront of their calculations.
The meeting, which brought together populist and mostly pro-Kremlin standard-bearers from across Europe, also underscored how these policies have clouded what the US sees as a clear case of intimidation by the Russia, a nuclear-armed autocracy, versus Ukraine, a vibrant, if very dysfunctional, democracy.
Mr. Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, travels to Moscow on Tuesday to meet President Vladimir V. Putin. France’s far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, a staunch Kremlin supporter, was also present at the two-day conclave, as was Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, which has long called for an end to EU sanctions on Moscow for its 2014 annexation of Crimea and military incursions into eastern Ukraine.
A statement released after the Madrid rally made no mention of Ukraine, although it deplored “aggressive Russian actions on Europe’s eastern border”. Rather, he insists on the need to form a united front in favor of “family policies”, Christianity and the exclusion of immigrants. The European Union, according to the statement, has become “detached from reality”, leading to “demographic suicide”. ”
Poland is a country with a long and traumatic history of Russian aggression. His joining a rally focused on attacking the European Union in 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-led missile defense facility. But, enraged by EU criticism of its restrictions on judicial independence, LGBTQ rights and other issues, the ruling party has increasingly turned its fire on Brussels.
“Polish foreign policy has been completely subservient to domestic needs and is now about ending interference from the European Union,” said Roman Kuzniar, a professor at the University of Warsaw who advised the previous pro-European government. from his country.
While tiny Baltic states have sent arms to Ukraine and worked to forge a united front against Moscow, Poland, the largest and most militarily powerful country in the region, has “been very passive and has not nothing serious to say,” added Professor Kuzniar.
After weeks of dithering, Polish authorities said on Monday they would offer “defensive weapons” to Ukraine. Prime Minister Morawiecki, who is visiting the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on Tuesday, expressed his “unwavering support” for Ukraine against “Russian neo-imperialism” which, he said, threatened to “destabilize” the European bloc.
Jacek Bartosiak, the founder of Strategy and Future, a research group, defended the government’s caution, saying Poland had too much at stake in Ukraine to risk hasty moves. Poland, he said, “is the most important piece of the puzzle in the game being played around Ukraine.”
Understanding Russia’s relationship with the West
Tension between the regions is rising and Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly willing to take geopolitical risks and press his demands.
The blurring of foreign policy with domestic policy mirrors a similar phenomenon in the United States, where the Republican right has challenged the Biden administration’s support for Ukraine and questioned whether Russia might be a more worthy cause.
Few Poles express sympathy for Russia. But there is also deep mistrust of Ukraine, the western part of which belonged to Poland before World War II, especially among nationalists who consider the massacre of tens of thousands of Poles to be genocide. by Ukrainian nationalists during the conflict.
“Anti-Ukrainian sentiment is the ABC of Polish nationalism,” said Marek Swierczynski, security expert at Politika Insight, a research group in Warsaw. “Everything in Poland these days has become so politicized,” he added, noting that law and justice have been reluctant to embrace Ukraine too closely because “part of their base might turn against against them”.
Hostility to Russia typically crosses political divides, but has been overshadowed by hostility to Brussels, the ruling party’s favorite pet peeve.
Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of law and justice and de facto leader of Poland, regularly rants against the European bloc, saying in December that it was becoming a German-led “Fourth Reich”, but said nothing publicly on the Ukrainian crisis.
Liberal critics of Mr Kaczynski note that his emphasis on defending traditional Christian values against what he sees as decadent intrusions by the European Union is almost indistinguishable from the Kremlin’s favorite propaganda trope. .
But while siding with the Kremlin in Europe’s culture wars, Europe’s nationalist populists are bitterly divided over whether to reject or embrace Mr Putin, a rift that has hampered their efforts to make common cause. At the rally in Madrid, which followed a similar event in Warsaw in December, Mr. Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister, insisted that a reference to Russian aggression be included in the final declaration. Ms Le Pen objected and issued her own statement which made no mention of Russia.
George Simion, the leader of a right-wing Romanian political party, called the meeting a ‘disaster’ because of divisions over Russia, which he sees as a threat blocking his own pet political cause, the union of Romania with neighboring Moldova, a territory seized by Moscow in 1940.
Poland’s high-profile presence at such a gathering has caused dismay among critics of law and justice, particularly opposition leader Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister who has stressed the awareness of Ukraine and close relations with the European Union.
Denouncing the Madrid meeting as “anti-Ukrainian and pro-Putin”, Mr Tusk had urged the Prime Minister not to attend. Among the parties present was a far-right Estonian group whose leader campaigned for the elections with the anti-immigrant slogan: “If you are black, come back!”
Mr. Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, has a long history of dealing with Moscow and bickering with Kyiv, particularly over its policy towards ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine. Like Law and Justice in Poland, his Fidesz party has built its political brand around the fight with the European Union, from which the two countries have received billions of dollars in aid but which serves as an easy punching bag in national political battles. .
Understanding the escalation of tensions over Ukraine
Facing a tough election in April, Mr Orban went further than any other European national leader in reaching out to Moscow and demonizing the European bloc.
His opponents urged him on Monday to cancel his Tuesday visit to see Mr Putin for talks over gas contracts and the expansion of a Russian nuclear project in Hungary.
Peter Marki-Zay, the standard-bearer for an unusually united opposition camp in the April elections, said the trip to Moscow meant that “Hungary has betrayed its Western allies” and “betrayed the millennial dream of western integration country”.
Aside from the Baltic states, which have been unwavering in their support for Ukraine, Europe’s formerly communist eastern fringe has sent mixed messages, pledging loyalty to NATO, which now includes most of the former members of the defunct Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, but sometimes expressing distrust of Ukraine.
In the starkest break from NATO’s stance of solidarity with Ukraine, Croatian President Zoran Milanovic, who joined the alliance in 2009 with Poland, said last week that Ukraine should never to be admitted to NATO, a point of view that Moscow warmly shares. In the event of a Russian attack on Ukraine, the president said: “Croatia must get away from it like fire.”
His comment, however, was driven less by the Ukraine crisis than by domestic political wrangling with Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, who belongs to a rival political party and has expressed strong support for Ukraine. 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 its separation from Yugoslavia during the early Balkan Wars. of the 1990s.
The history of past wars weighs heavily on governments in 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 rival earlier memories of how Ukrainian soldiers helped Poland defeat invading Soviet troops in 1920 on the banks of the Vistula River near Warsaw.
“Our history is very difficult,” said Mr. Swierczynski, the Polish security expert.
Benjamin Novak contributed reporting from Budapest and Anatol Magdziarz from Warsaw.