By Kinga Romanska, Senior Polish Media Analyst
“Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.” John Lennon
What happened to Lennon was he got shot. What happened to Poland was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This was not in the plan. It might have been always a fear, but now it raises a whole series of security, economic and humanitarian challenges for Ukraine’s neighbouring countries. And the war in Ukraine is within earshot of the Polish border today.
Social media has also brought the conflict much closer – regardless of geographical location – and made it feel more real. Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania are all part of NATO and feel their security is guaranteed by NATO. Many of these countries have a history of experiencing fear rooted in repeated Russian invasions over the centuries. And although most people trust the NATO alliance and the EU, others have been on edge and are getting extremely nervous about the potential for the conflict to spill over into their own territories.
The Polish media in Warsaw - the dailies Gazeta Wyborcza, Wirtualna Polska, TV - Polsat News and TVN24 - all reported on Polish President Andrzej Duda’s meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday March 10 to discuss the situation in Ukraine. “Poland is counting on Canada's support in the event that we are unable to deal with the refugee crisis,” said Duda pointedly. Barely a week later, that event is here.
NATO and the MIG29s
As a Polish media analyst, I’ve observed how people’s concern increases the closer the war gets to their borders. It’s one thing to see the war on TV, it’s another to actually hear the war and explosions from your own home. On Sunday morning, instead of the morning news, Poles were awakened by the sound of explosions, as Russians shot at the military training ground in Yavoriv, Ukraine. Russia’s strike on the centre less than 25 kilometers from the border shook the confidence of Poles living nearby.
Deutsche Welle Polish’s Jacek Lepiarz poses the question that started the unrest: Will Poland provide Ukraine with MIG-29 fighters? The authorities in Warsaw wish for Putin's defeat but do not want to be his target, writes Christoph von Marschall in the Berlin-based daily Tagesspiegel.
In the German paper Die Welt, Philipp Fritz and Christoph B. Schlitz also write about the "unclear situation" regarding Polish fighters for Ukraine. According to the authors, the Polish leadership is "cautious" and does not want to become a party to Russia's war against Ukraine. Poland wants NATO as a whole to make a common decision regarding MIG29s. However, neither the EU nor NATO believes that the Polish MIG-29s would significantly affect the course of military operations. "There is only one problem: nobody wants to tell Ukraine that," a high-ranking EU diplomat told the editorial office of Die Welt.
Polish mass media remains unconvinced that the issue has been diffused. On Polsat TV, Poland’s second largest television channel, Dorota Gawryluk and Juliusz Sabak from Warsaw daily Defence24 agree that Poland and its 28 MiG-29 planes remain on the political and media battlefield. Polish airports are already being used. If Russia was looking for a pretext to accuse Poland of involvement in the war in Ukraine, it does not need to look far. Today, Sabak says, the actions of the US administration seem to be an attempt to transfer to Poland both the costs and the responsibility for supporting Ukraine with this transfer of MiG-29 fighter planes. Ukraine must be helped without weakening Poland.
On TVN24 in Warsaw, Monika Olejnik interviewed the former director of the NATO Information Office in Moscow, Robert Peszcz, and former Polish ambassador to Washington, Ryszard Schnepf, about the war in Ukraine and NATO. When asked when the world will realize that Russia has crossed the red line, Schnepf replied: “I'll be brief and it may sound brutal. There is no red line and there will be no red line”. He said that despite the unity, the West is mentally not prepared to confront the brutal determination of Vladimir Putin and his army.
The nervousness reaches Canada, where Wojciech Michal Wojnarowicz says on CJMR 1320 AM Radio 7 Zycie in Mississauga that to think that sanctions will stop Putin’s aggression is naïve. The helplessness of the West means Putin goes on. The US troops have relocated two Patriot air defence batteries to Poland – is this a signal of a possible Russian aggression against Poland soon?
Polish TV channel TVN reported that from the moment Vladimir Putin's troops entered Ukraine on February 24, there was an increased and unprecedented interest in obtaining a passport in Poland. Residents of both large cities and small villages stood in gigantic queues to apply. People want to be prepared for a possible escape from war. Rzeczpospolita, a Polish nationwide daily newspaper, also noted a rising interest in military service in Poland, in response to increased defence spending.
As Karol Wasilewski wrote for the weekly Polish TVP magazine “the bigger and stronger Ukraine is, the further we are from Russia.”
Katarzyna Pełczyńska-Nałęcz, the former ambassador of Poland to Russia, writes in Poland’s daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza that if Ukrainians lose, “The iron curtain will fall on our eastern border”. She writes that people are coming to realization now that life will get difficult: prices will go up, healthcare and schools must be shared with over a million refugees. This is the moment people might start questioning if all their sacrifice to help a neighbour is worth it. And this is the moment to stop and think what this war is really about? Because if Ukrainians lose, Russia will build a totalitarian system there. Not two, but 10 million or more people will flee from Ukraine. And Ukraine’s neighbouring countries borders will be surrounded by a Russian army armed to the teeth.”
But wait, since this was written, less than three weeks ago, the number of refugees has grown past 3 million already.
The War Refugees
This war is causing a massive influx of refugees into the European Union, and it will spread all over the world, especially Canada. More than 2.8 million people have fled Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s invasion, according to the UN refugee agency, the vast majority seeking refuge in Poland, which has taken in more than 1.7 million refugees so far.
Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia, Romania and other countries around the world are also receiving Ukrainian refugees, but Poland tops the list of refugee destinations, and with it the Polish Diaspora, which comprises Poles and people of Polish heritage or origin who live outside Poland. It is also known in modern Polish as Polonia, the name for Poland in Latin.
Why is Polonia so important to the Ukrainian refugees in Poland? This is why:
This is the map of Polonia (darker means more population)
Map of the Polish people around the world. (The map might include people with Polish ancestry or citizenship)
And the following is the map of the Ukrainian Diaspora on the same scale
The Ukrainian expatriate communities met the refugee challenge head on, but close behind was the Polonia network.It’s been a massive mobilization of ordinary citizens to a migrant cause. Private citizens and volunteers have been offering help including transportation and their own homes to those whose lives have been shattered by war. The solidarity is beautiful but most of these refugees are women and children, and there are concerns about their safety.
The neighbouring countries that are naturally taking the most refugees right now, are counting on the rest of the world to step in. Many of those fleeing their country might prefer to stay in Europe but Ukraine’s neighbouring countries are not currently equipped to handle the volume of refugees that are arriving and are likely to arrive on their borders in the coming weeks.
While Canada has one of the world’s largest Ukrainian diaspora communities, at 1.3 million people, it has a similar number of Poles at just over a million.
Both in Poland and in Canada, the media is not exactly happy with the way the Polish refugee crisis is being handled.
In the Warsaw daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, Anita Karwowska and Waldemar Pas say volunteers are doing all the work. Even cancer drugs are being purchased with volunteers’ money. For the moment, the organization of humanitarian aid has been mostly addressed by individuals and ad hoc initiatives. Janina Ochojska, member of the European Parliament, said to the European Parliament: “I want to make you aware that it is not the government but Poles who are hosting the Ukrainian refugees.” Prof. Witold Klaus, President of the Board of the Legal Association, expects most of the people from Ukraine will stay in Poland due to linguistic closeness, the large Ukrainian Diaspora and the hospitality of Poles.
While TVN24’s Tomasz Pupiec reports on Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki praising the Polish government for coordinating and arranging aid for refugees from Ukraine, the problem is that volunteers and non-governmental organizations do most of the work themselves and at their own expense. The government is not providing transportation from the Ukraine border to cities and towns. However, the Polish government says it’s handling the situation just fine.
Will the Polish community in Canada share the refugee load?
Many Polish-Canadians have already been helping Ukrainian refugees, by participating in various fundraising activities or sending money to relatives in Poland to help host Ukrainian families at their homes. Many people want to help as much as they can. Some have even travelled to the Polish-Ukrainian border to deliver supplies.
Canadian Polish newspaper Wiadomosci describes the story of Michał Bogusławski, a sailor and traveler known in the Polish community, who flew from Canada to help refugees at the border. Bogusławski spent a week in Poland, traveling with his friend Darek back and forth between the Polish-Ukrainian border and various cities, driving refugees, comforting them and giving away money that he collected from people in Canada. Bogusławski notes that most refugees didn’t want to accept the money. They don’t want the money; they want their country back. Watching the war on TV does not reflect this tragedy, he says. When you are among the refugees, you feel their despair, fear, you hear their sobs – this tragedy is overwhelming. Immigration consultant Maria Krajewska, said on CJMR 1320 AM Radio 7 Zycie Mississauga this week, that she is starting to receive inquiries from people wondering how they can bring Ukrainian immigrants to Canada. They want to host them or even offer a job.
If Ukraine falls, it will be a tragedy for the Ukrainian people. But it will also be a profound threat to Poland, democracy and international order. That is the lesson history has taught us and we cannot ignore it. We have to confront the uncomfortable reality that our freedom cannot be taken for granted (or can be taken away just like that).