WARSAW -- It’s unlikely that Polish officials will greet Barack Obama by saying "I told you so." But you couldn’t blame them for thinking it.
During the U.S. president’s last visit to Warsaw in 2011, he was eager to persuade the Poles they no longer needed Western military support to defend against what he saw as a diminished Russian threat under a manageable Vladimir Putin.
Three years later, that picture has been violently upended by Russia’s armed intervention in Ukraine. As Poland marks the 25th anniversary of its first partially free elections, officials and ordinary Poles alike are looking to capitalize on its time in the spotlight to persuade the U.S. to return its focus to Eastern Europe.
"I’m very, very worried about the whole global situation," says 22-year-old university student Piotr Paszynski, sipping an iced coffee in defiance of the gray drizzle blanketing the city. "A lot of things are shifting right now. And one aspect of that can be found in Ukraine, I think. Putin outwitted everyone, and this is kind of scary, that the world order can’t do anything about it."
Others in the Polish capital express similar concerns.
"I'm a little bit afraid of Russia, and I’m glad we’re in NATO, because it provides us with security," says Artur Apostolowicz, 44. "I'm afraid there's going to be a war. I’m glad Obama is coming, because it’s a sign that someone’s looking out for us."
In addition to commemorating Poland’s watershed 1989 vote, Obama is using his Warsaw trip to offer gestures of support for Ukraine -- meeting with President-elect Petro Poroshenko, and attending a high-profile awards ceremony for dissident and Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev.
But he will likely stop short of the concrete support that Poland, on the front lines of the Ukrainian unrest, is seeking -- like permanent NATO troops in the country. NATO defense ministers, however, are due to discuss the issue of stationing troops on the alliance's eastern flank at a meeting in Brussels this week.
Many Poles still speak with regret about Obama’s decision -- shortly after his election and proposed “reset” with Russia -- to scrap plans for a missile-defense system in Poland and Czech Republic. But they’re grimly optimistic that the Ukrainian wake-up call will force a reversal in what they view as Obama’s first-term appeasement.
"Some say history is back, and that we shouldn’t be naive about there being a peaceful relationship between all the partners in Europe," says Henryka Moscicka-Dendys, the Polish Foreign Ministry’s undersecretary of state for European policy and human rights.
"What happened in Ukraine makes us think about the security agenda in a new context. And this is something which requires new reflection in Europe and in the trans-Atlantic relationship. I think issues which we’ve regarded as settled, or as not so important anymore -- like hard security, for example -- are coming back on stage again."
'Our Voice Is Heard'
Poland, which shares a long and complicated history with Ukraine, has been genuinely distressed by the events of the past six months. The soul-searching has only increased with the quarter-century anniversary of Poland’s first partly free vote – the legislative elections of June 4, 1989, in which Lech Walesa’s Solidarity trade union saw solid gains against the Communists.
At the time, Poland and Ukraine, which was still part of the Soviet Union, were similarly destitute and underdeveloped. Now, 25 years later, Poland is an ambitious member of the European Union and NATO whose GDP is three times the size of Ukraine’s.
"We're no longer a small, unimportant Eastern country that nobody cares about," says Bartosz Wielinski, who covers foreign affairs for Poland’s respected "Gazeta Wyborca" daily, which operates out of a sleek steel-and-glass publishing house in Warsaw's Sielce neighborhood.
"Now it’s quite different. Politically we’re playing a very important part on the EU stage, and the voice of the Polish government, the Polish Foreign Ministry, and Polish diplomats are heard -- especially now, when you have the crisis in Ukraine," says Wielinski. He adds that Ukraine has dominated the paper’s front page "almost daily" since the start of the Euromaidan protests last November.
Poland has been seen as playing a leading role in tugging the United States and EU towards a unified policy on Ukraine. The issue has even added to the luster of Poland’s charismatic foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, who has been tapped as a possible successor to Catherine Ashton when she steps down as EU foreign policy chief this fall. (Wielinski and others dismiss the notion as unlikely.)
Warsaw’s intense focus on Ukraine has at times threatened to sour Poland’s traditionally strong ties with the United States. (Poland regularly ranks among the most U.S.-friendly countries, with public opinion almost immune to vagaries like the scotched missile-defense deal.) Poles originally expressed minor frustration with what they see as Washington’s plodding response to the crisis; Walesa himself said he was disappointed by Obama’s "lack of leadership" in world affairs.
Marcin Zaborowski, the head of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, says Washington's soft performance on two key issues -- the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, which predated Obama's election, and the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad -- encouraged Putin to believe he would face little resistance with his adventurism in Ukraine.
"I do think it is very, very serious," Zaborowski says. "I think we wouldn’t have the current situation had the reaction in Georgia been different. I think that Putin drew lessons from the circumstances in Georgia, the very weak reaction, and the subsequent wavering on Syria. He drew conclusions from that that the United States lacks will."
Still, Poles have been heartened by Obama’s decision to impose sanctions against Russia, a move followed by similar steps from Brussels. Polish officials will no doubt be looking to convince the U.S. leader to ramp up the restrictions further during his Warsaw stay.
Meanwhile, some Poles believe the Ukraine crisis has given the Polish government undeserved confidence about their place on the world stage and their ability to push U.S. policymakers to reembrace Eastern Europe. If Obama is coming to Warsaw, says 66-year-old Maria Olsson, it’s because he sees an opportunity to make a well-timed gesture of support for Ukraine, but nothing more.
"I think lots of people in Poland are thinking they’re so important, but we are just important because we can go to Ukraine and have this role. Otherwise, we are not so important," she says. "If there wasn’t this crisis in Ukraine, I don't think that President Obama would come here just to celebrate this 25th anniversary. It’s very naïve to think so."