As Russian troops march through the streets of Crimea and amass on Ukraine’s border with Russia, it’s still quiet here in Warsaw, where I am a visiting professor teaching about democratization and politics. Poles are watching the latest developments in their next-door neighbor with a mix of quiet anxiety and resignation. Poland, with a long and brutal history, is accustomed to restless neighbors and fluid borders. At the end of the 18th century and again 150 years later, Germans and Russians partitioned the country as they saw fit.
In the early 1980s, when a massive social movement rose up to challenge communism, its 10 million members faced martial law from Polish authorities who claimed Moscow forced their hands. During most of these crises, the Poles were largely left to their own devices with very little help from outside. Even after 25 years of aligning their country with Western institutions, such as NATO and the European Union, few here have any illusions that they are safe.
Local friends are renewing their passports. Some of them are filling out U.S. visa applications that only a couple of weeks ago seemed too long and burdensome to bother with. Some are withdrawing their money from banks in the fear that instability will spread and they will be left stuck in long ATM lines, as witnessed in Crimea. Their bags may not yet be packed, but euros pad their pillows.
Poles have good cause for alarm. For starters, Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to protect ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. Securing Kiev, the source of the problems in Ukraine, would be a logical and easy next step for him. Putin has also warned “meddlers” farther west, including Poland and Lithuania, that they are under watch. In his first televised comments after sending troops into Crimea two weeks ago, Putin singled out Warsaw and Vilnius for providing assistance to “fascists” in Kiev. “It's common knowledge they were trained in Lithuania, Poland and in Ukraine,” he said of the Maidan protesters opposing President Victor Yanukovich.
Poland’s neighbors to the north are no less secure. Both Estonia and Latvia have large Russian minorities that make up about one-fourth of their populations. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, ethnic Russians in both countries have often complained of being treated as second-class citizens. If there is any clear point at which Putin would logically stop his westward march, it is certainly not Crimea.
There is no doubt here: Russia is in an expansive mood. Economically, under Putin, the country has risen from the post-Soviet economic abyss of the 1990s. His mercantilist policies, coupled with high global oil prices, have created the illusion that Putin single-handedly brought long-term economic stability to the country. He is, for many in Russia, a savior.
The cost of economic improvement is paid in political freedoms. After consolidating power in 1999, Putin quickly restricted many of the political liberties that Russians had under his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Putin did not put an all-out stop to democracy. Instead, he brought Russia into the fold of illiberal democracies — states that have all the trappings of democracy, including regular elections, opposition parties and independent media. But in reality, all the cards are stacked against anyone, outside of Putin’s circle of comrades, striving to attain real power. In a fully authoritarian state, Putin could sit back and enjoy the throne. But in a state with democratic mechanisms, where people can speak out and political opposition can contend for real power, Putin’s security is under constant threat from within. He must rally his people. To that effect, he has begun catering to virulent nationalists to maintain his authority.
Russian nationalists are rejoicing. The weak policies of the West over the past several years have shown Putin and his supporters that Russia is, indeed, in charge. Nowhere is this clearer than on the front lines. When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Western leaders shuffled uneasily in their seats at the Olympic stadium in Beijing. Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania responded pointedly: “We will use all means available to us … to ensure that aggression against a small country in Europe will not be passed over in silence,” the presidents of those countries declared in a joint statement.
Former Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko, then pro-Western, quickly came to their side. The Russians were not deterred. It turned out they had no reason to be. The West did practically nothing to stop them.
Six years later, the West’s halfhearted reaction to Russia’s takeover of Crimea has made it clear to a growing number of Poles that they will be, at the end of the day, largely on their own in the face of a Russian threat. Russia is, after all, the European Union’s third largest trading partner and a formidable military power. No one here talks of the coming apocalypse. There is no all-out military mobilization. Just a growing unease. Poles are watching Russia’s movements the way Texans might watch a Category 4 hurricane that has formed in the Gulf. The storm is for the moment in a holding pattern. But many Poles agree it would be naive to assume they will be spared.