Zelensky Gets Hero’s Welcome in Poland, Cementing Ukraine’s Ties

Feted as a hero who is saving Europe from Russia’s maw, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, on his first official visit to Poland, on Wednesday cemented a new axis of shared interests and military power that is pushing Europe’s center of geopolitical gravity eastward.

The Ukrainian leader, who traded his signature olive green sweatshirt for a more formal black one, won strong backing from Polish leaders for his country’s rapid entry into NATO — still a remote prospect given the wariness of Western European members — and signed a deal paving the way for the joint production of arms and ammunition.

While scattered street protests by Polish farmers angry at a glut of Ukrainian grain introduced a sour note — and prompted the resignation of Poland’s agriculture minister shortly after Mr. Zelensky arrived — the Ukrainian leader received a rapturous reception in Warsaw, the Polish capital, bedecked with the flags of the two neighbors.

A crowd that gathered outside Warsaw’s Royal Castle on Wednesday evening to hear a speech by Mr. Zelensky shouted, “Glory to Ukraine” — a patriotic chant that has animated his country’s resistance to Russia’s military onslaught — when the Ukrainian leader mounted the podium. He responded, “Glory to the heroes.”

The chant was for decades taboo in Poland because of its associations with Ukrainian nationalists who, before and during World War II, massacred tens of thousands of Poles in western Ukraine, which used to be Polish territory.

Old enmities have now been mostly glossed over because the two countries share what Mr. Zelensky, in an emotional speech thanking the Polish people for their robust support against Moscow and for sheltering millions of refugees, described as their “common enemy” — President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and his predecessors in the Kremlin.

“He will be responsible for the rest of his life here on earth” for a host of atrocities, Mr. Zelensky said of Mr. Putin.

The setting, the Royal Castle, rebuilt after the near-total destruction of Warsaw during World War II, is a potent symbol of Poland’s postwar revival.

“Just as Polish society managed to rebuild the Royal Castle, so Ukraine, with our support, with the support of the Western community, all countries and people of good will, will rebuild more beautiful than it was because of Russian aggression,” the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, said.

Ukraine is paying a horrific price for resisting Mr. Putin’s invasion, as are Russia’s own forces, most acutely in more than seven months of fighting in and around the city of Bakhmut that Western analysts say has claimed tens of thousands of lives. At a news conference in Warsaw, Mr. Zelensky said that Russia had not managed to dislodge Bakhmut’s defenders, but that a withdrawal remained a possibility if Ukrainian forces were surrounded.

The State of the War

  • Finland’s Entry to NATO: The Nordic country officially became the military alliance’s 31st member, in what amounts to a strategic defeat for President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
  • Drone Warfare: Using aerial drones to spot the enemy and direct artillery fire has become a staple of war for Ukraine and Russia, especially in the fiercely contested city of Bakhmut.
  • Killing of Pro-War Blogger: Russian authorities detained a suspect in the bombing that killed a popular military blogger in St. Petersburg and blamed Ukraine and Russian opposition activists for the attack.
  • Counteroffensive Challenges: With powerful Western weapons and newly formed assault units, Ukraine is poised for a critical spring campaign. But overcoming casualties and keeping troops motivated will be difficult tests.

Polish leaders stuck to a message of undiluted optimism in relation to Ukraine’s prospects and its role in saving Europe from what Mr. Duda called the “deluge of Russian imperialism.”

Describing Ukraine as a “shield for Poland and for the whole of Europe,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said earlier in the day that “Ukrainians have written their program for the future on the barricades with their blood: They want to be in NATO; they want to be part of the European Union.”

Mr. Zelensky and Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, who called Ukraine a “shield for Poland and for the whole of Europe.” Credit…Omar Marques/Getty Images

Poland, Mr. Morawiecki, added, “strongly supports these aspirations, because we know that when Ukraine is in NATO, we will be even safer.”

Mr. Zelensky started his visit with a welcoming ceremony featuring an honor guard and a military band at the presidential palace. Pageantry gave way to a day of meetings with Polish leaders focused on military cooperation and how to advance Ukraine’s entry into both NATO and the European Union, which last year granted it “candidate” status.

With the U.S.-led military alliance highly unlikely to admit Ukraine any time soon, President, Duda said that Warsaw would push NATO leaders to provide “additional security guarantees” for it when they meet for their annual summit this summer.

He did not specify what these would be, saying only that they would serve as a “prelude” to full membership, a goal “in which Poland strongly supports Ukraine all the time.”

The linchpin of NATO’s eastern flank, Poland has acquired significant new clout within in the alliance since President Putin ordered the start of what he called a “special military operation” against Ukraine 13 months ago. Poland has by far the largest population and military of any NATO member bordering Russia; it is one of only seven countries in the 31-nation alliance that meets its military spending targets.

Poland has raised its defense budget far beyond the NATO target of 2 percent of gross domestic product while urging laggards like Germany to do the same. It has also been a vocal force in goading other European countries to step up their military aid to Ukraine, including modern German-made battle tanks and Soviet-designed warplanes. Poland recently delivered on a pledge it made last month to send MIG-29 fighters to Ukraine, the first country to supply Kyiv such aircraft since the war started.

Shortly before Mr. Zelensky arrived in Warsaw, the U.S. ambassador to Poland, Mark Brzezinski, joined the Polish defense ministry at a military base in Powidz, west of the capital, for the ceremonial opening of a huge warehouse complex built to store American tanks and other hardware. Mr. Brzezinski described it as “the largest single infrastructure project funded by NATO in 30 years.”

Mr. Putin has long protested NATO’s expansion into former Soviet republics and satellite states as aggression against Russia, and has said that keeping Ukraine out of the alliance was one of the main goals of his full-scale invasion. Instead, it has solidified the alliance and persuaded Finland and Sweden that they should join.

The war has “brought Poland and the United States closer together for a common cause,” Mr. Brzezinski said. The United States Army last month opened its first permanent garrison in Poland.

“Today we are continuing to expand on a lasting U.S. military footprint in Poland,” Mr. Brzezinski said.

Mr. Zelensky had stopped off in Poland twice since Russia sent tanks and troops storming into Ukraine from three directions last year, but his trip on Wednesday was the first enveloped in the pomp and formal pageantry of the Polish state.

Ukrainians and Poles watching a speech by Mr. Zelensky in the Royal Castle Square. About 10 million people have crossed from Ukraine into Poland since February 2022, Credit…Omar Marques/Getty Images

It came at a sensitive time for both countries, with Ukraine gearing up for an expected spring offensive and the Polish government under pressure from farmers — angry about a flood of Ukrainian farm products — and growing, though still minority, public support for a far-right political party that has been highly critical of Mr. Zelensky.

That party, Confederation, has toned down its strident anti-Ukrainian message, which often echoed Kremlin talking points. But it still channels political currents at odds with the view of Poland’s mainstream parties that Ukraine and its people, more than 1.5 million of whom are sheltering in Poland, deserve robust support.

Around 10 million people have crossed into Poland from Ukraine since February last year, though many have moved to other countries or returned home.

With Poland facing a general election this year, the governing Law and Justice party and the main opposition party, Civic Platform, have both sought to damp down grumbling about Ukraine on the political fringes and to prevent anti-Ukrainian sentiment, previously limited to hard-line nationalists, from intruding into the election campaign.

On Wednesday, Polish farmers, furious over a steep fall in prices for their produce, blocked traffic on main roads in the northwestern city of Szczecin by using tractors, and staged small protests elsewhere. Since the war began, the European Union has lowered some barriers to Ukrainian agricultural imports, flooding markets in neighboring countries.

Mr. Zelensky said he had discussed farmers’ complaints that Ukrainian grain and other agricultural products were threatening their livelihood and had reached an agreement with Polish officials on ways to solve the problem. He did not specify how.

“We have found a way out,” he said. “I believe that in the coming days and weeks we will finally resolve all issues as there cannot be any questions, any complications between such close partners and real friends as Poland and Ukraine.”

Eager to prevent any backlash against Ukraine caused by economic pain, Polish leaders throughout the day spoke of how Ukraine had become a major customer for Poland’s weapons industry and would also offer big opportunities for its construction companies.

The two countries signed an agreement for joint production of 125-millimeter tank shells and other arms, and separate deals for the sale of Polish self-propelled mortars, combat vehicles and antiaircraft systems, the Polish state news agency, PAP, reported.

“We know each other — Ukrainians and Poles, we have known each other for a long time,” Mr. Zelensky said. “Now, in the heart of the Polish capital, Ukrainian hearts turn to all Polish hearts; it is a great honor for me to be here.”

“Tyranny will lose in history,” he added, “when it loses in Ukraine.”

Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting.

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