Polish-Americans Are Skeptical of a Russian Military Threat to Their Homeland

Polish troops train on US weapons systems (U.S. Army Europe Images)

Polish troops train on US weapons systems (U.S. Army Europe Images)

A month ago, a Polish Club at Columbia University hosted an open movie screening of Warsaw 44, a war drama directed by Jan Komasa about the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Full of slow motion images, dramatic pictures and popular sad songs, the film left the audience speechless; some viewers even cried. In the discussion that followed, someone in the audience asked: What if someone attacked Poland again?

Hypothetical questions like that have not been rare for Polish-Americans recently. A year after Russia took over Crimea and as the tension builds between Russia and Ukraine, Poles on this side of the Atlantic are starting to worry that maybe this is just the beginning—and Russia has intentions to grab more than just this piece of land.
In Poland, the fears are becoming expressed publicly, and although Polish officials reassure their countrymen that as a member of NATO and EU, Poland has nothing to worry about, some public figures still speak up about such a possibility.

“Why would Russia invade Latvia, or Estonia? It would take them half a day, and no effect. Invasion of Poland would be much more spectacular,” said Aleksander Makowski, former intelligence officer of the Polish People’s Republic (the official name of Poland from 1944 to 1989) on the Polish news channel TVN24.

There are also reports—one in the New York Times most notably—of new paramilitary groups, which are attracting young volunteers in the country, preparing for a possible Russian invasion.

A random survey of Polish Americans and Poles living in New York showed that the alarm isn’t as potent here, despite the audience’s reaction to the film screening. New York City is home to 55,361 Poles born in Poland, according to the U.S. Census.

“There is no direct threat for Poland from Russia, because unlike Crimea we don’t have a significant Russian minority, so there is no motivation for the potential invasion,” said Bartek Walentynski, a Polish graduate student at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs. He added that Poland “belongs to the West” and as such is protected by international structures. “Any attack on Poland would be attack on the West,” he said.

Not everyone is as placid. “Considering the history of Russian aggression, of course, I am concerned,” said Krzys Haranczyk, a Polish-American and a former cultural affairs director at the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York, an organization promoting Polish-American intellectual and artistic exchange. “With that said, I don’t think Putin would be so bold as to attack a member of the EU and NATO.”

Joanna Dabrowiecka, who has lived in the United States for the past 15 years agrees that Russia does not have an incentive to attack Poland. “Russia is trying to harm us economically, but they cannot do much with it. The Russian ruble is weakening, crude oil prices too, so I think [the Russians] are more concerned with their own problems. Any attack on their neighbor, with whom they actually have some common interests, would make no sense,” Dabrowiecka said.

Stephen Szypulski, a Polish-American student of Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies at the Harriman Institute shares similar views: “Do I think that the Ukrainian conflict remains a threat? Absolutely. But, do I necessarily believe that Poland should be portrayed as the next war zone for the Russian military? Not as much,” he said.

Szypulski returned from a research trip to Ukraine and Poland a few weeks ago and says he “understands well that Poles’ fear and anxiety about their close proximity to Russia and Ukraine is very real.” He points out, however, that the Baltic countries and Moldova “also have a very real threat facing them as well, so I don’t believe it’s necessarily just an issue of Poland.”

Some Polish-American activists, including Gregory Fryc, who has lived in New York for 22 years, believes, on the contrary, that history favors a possible Russian invasion. “Russia has always been and probably will be a threat to the sovereignty of Poland, because of its geography and its history,” Fryc says. At the same time he admits that an immediate military attack on Poland “would not be logical” as Poland is a part of NATO. But, he added, anything is possible. “The situation in Ukraine proved that Putin’s actions are unpredictable,” he added.

After all, Fryc says, Russia is trying to weaken Poland economically, referring to last year’s Russian embargo on Polish fruits and vegetables.

“We have to understand that we already are fighting the war, but a different one. One way for Putin to weaken our militarization is by harming our economy,” said Fryc, who is involved in several Polish-American organizations in the U.S. . “The people who grew up here, learned from their parents, that when Russia starts to wave with a sword, it means something.”

One year ago, on March 18,Vladimir Putin signed a bill that led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia. The contract followed the months of bloody conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists.