Ukraine, NATO, and the Polish Problem

Poland has been one of the most assertive proponents of Ukraine’s entry into NATO and of NATO’s escalating involvement in the war, from providing tanks to providing fighter jets. As Ukraine’s chances of rapid entry into NATO have faded and their chances of victory in the war are falling apart, there has been talk of the threat that Poland could intervene more directly to bring Ukraine into NATO or NATO into Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko recently very publicly discussed the threat they perceive of Poland occupying Western Ukraine and the threat posed by Polish troops massing on the Belarusian border.

Several analysts have also suggested that there have been discussions on Poland uniting with Western Ukraine, drawing the remaining parts of Ukraine into NATO, or moving militarily into Western Ukraine or against Belarus, drawing Russia into an Article 5 triggering response and NATO into the war in Ukraine.

Putin spoke very publicly on July 21 of the Polish military moving into Western Ukraine “for the subsequent occupation of these territories” where “they will stay . . . for good.” Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko referred to the strategy as the “piece meal” absorption of Ukraine into NATO. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Polish President Andrzej Duda have met often. They have reportedly spoken a number of times “about a union between the two countries that would eliminate the border between Poland and western Ukraine” and about their “comprehensive integration.”

Former NATO secretary general Anders Rasmussen has said that if NATO doesn’t welcome Ukraine, Poland could take unilateral military action.

Hans Petter Midttun, a security analyst and former Norwegian naval officer has said that “Poland might become NATO’s spearhead. . . . It is building military power to do – if needed – what the U.S. and NATO will not: i.e., fight alongside the Armed Forces of Ukrainian to stop a war that threatens European security and stability.”

And military analyst Stephen Bryen reports that Polish forces massing on the border with Belarus are being aided by British advisors, “causing alarm in Minsk and Moscow “that the real issue might be a NATO initiative to bail out Ukraine by attacking Belarus” and asks whether the U.S. will “use its proxy, Poland, to attack Belarus to try to save Ukraine?”

Anatol Lieven, director of the Eurasian Program at the Quincy Institute, told me, however, that, though “some form of association or special relationship” between Poland and Ukraine is possible, the two countries agreeing on a “union” is “quite impossible.” A de facto union could conceivably happen “if Poland intervened militarily and the Polish army ended up permanently occupying parts of Ukraine.”

There are several reasons why a formal union of Poland and Western Ukraine that would insinuate Western Ukraine into NATO would be difficult. The first roadblock would be NATO itself. Geoffrey Roberts, an expert on Russian military history and professor emeritus of history at University College Cork, told me that “NATO members will not allow such a move to be used as a device to secure partial Ukrainian membership of the alliance.”

The second is that, as Alexander Hill, professor of military history at the University of Calgary, told me, “Historically Ukrainian friction with Poland has been considerable, and the current apparent warmth of their relationship is based on their mutual hostility towards Russia and ‘the enemy of my enemy being my friend’. The only people the Ukrainian nationalist have historically opposed as much as the Russians and the Jews are the Poles.

The third is the Polish perspective on that history. Poland has been upset with Ukraine for what they perceive as the glorification of that anti-Polish nationalist past. In January, a Polish official reminded Ukraine that they “continue to glorify” Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, who was “responsible for the genocide of Poles in 1943-44, when UPA troops horribly killed about 100,000 Polish citizens.” The Polish parliament has adopted a resolution that includes “recognition of guilt” by Ukraine for the genocide as a condition for “Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation.”

But despite the public fraternity, the troubles between Poland and Ukraine run much deeper. Ukraine has complained about the betrayal of Polish restrictions on the import of Ukrainian grain. Echoing recent U.S. and U.K. statements, Marcin Przydacz, head of the Polish President’s Office of International Affairs, said that Ukraine should be “more grateful.” He took to Polish television to harshly scold that Kiev “should start to appreciate the role that Poland has played for Ukraine in the past months and years.” In angry response, Kiev called the Polish Ambassador to Ukraine in to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Furiously, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki shot back that “The summoning of the Polish ambassador to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry – the representative of the only country that remained in Kiev the day Russia invaded Ukraine – should not have happened.” Kiev’s action was “a mistake . . . given the huge support Poland has provided to Ukraine.”

Luring Russia into an Article 5 triggering military response would prove just as difficult. Two strategies have been mentioned. The first is a joint Polish-Ukrainian force intervening in Western Ukraine. If Russia were to attack such a Ukrainian force, it would also be attacking a Polish force that would then enable Poland to ask for an Article 5 response. The second is capitalizing on an alleged Belarussian aggression to launch a Polish attack on Belarus that brings Russia to its defense and triggers Article 5.

Poland has already rushed troops and combat helicopters to the Belarussian border after accusing Belarus of violating its airspace with military helicopters. Belarus has denied the border violation. Poland has also accused the Wagner forces banished to Belarus as having been “redeployed to NATO’s eastern flank to destabilize it.” Poland’s “response to the provocation is to increase the size of the Polish Army on the eastern border of the country by redeploying troops from the west.”

Putin has said that “Belarus is part of the Union State, and launching an aggression against Belarus would mean launching an aggression against the Russian Federation. We will respond to that with all the resources available to us.” He called the idea of an aggression against Belarus “an extremely dangerous game.”

Alexander Hill told me that “Poland is undoubtedly a ‘hawk’ within NATO as regards conflict with Russia, and other alliance members will have to be careful not to be dragged further into the Ukrainian quagmire by the likes of Poland.” However, he said that, based on the limited information available, “it seems highly unlikely that Wagner will be involved in any sort of incursions . . . into Polish territory from Belorussia.” Anatol Lieven told me that, though a future Russian intervention into Belarus to solve a political crisis “could give Poland an excuse to intervene in an effort to draw in the rest of NATO,” Poland would not likely “be willing to make the first move, as this would be deeply unpopular with most other NATO countries.” Geoffery Roberts told me additionally that it is hard to see “Poland doing anything without the full support and go-ahead of the US. Nor do I see the Americans allowing either themselves or NATO to be led by the nose by the Poles into direct involvement. It that happens, it will be DC’s decision.”

As Poland’s considerable efforts to help Ukraine join NATO and defeat Russia become increasingly chimeric, they may be tempted to intervene more directly to bring the extant part of Ukraine into NATO and NATO into the war in Ukraine. But both these goals could be even more chimeric than the ones they are meant to replace. Drawing Western Ukraine into NATO by uniting it with Poland faces formidable roadblocks in Ukraine, Poland and NATO, and drawing Russia into an Article 5 triggering action would require Poland making the unlikely move of going against the majority of NATO and against the wishes of the U.S. Polish-Ukrainian pronouncements, and Russian-Belarussian public responses, may be partly intended as deterrents to keep Belarus out of the war and as deterrents to greater Polish and NATO involvement.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.