WARSAW — After years of cozying up to Kremlin-friendly anti-immigrant firebrands and fulminating against the European Union, the leader of Poland’s populist governing party has taken on an unlikely new role: a standard-bearer of European solidarity in defense of Ukraine and democratic values.
Joining three European prime ministers on a risky train ride to Ukraine’s besieged capital, Kyiv, Jaroslaw Kaczyinski, Poland’s de facto leader and a longtime scourge of European unity, this week became the latest European politician attempting a difficult somersault prompted by mounting public horror at Russia’s invasion.
Mr. Kaczyinski’s trip came as millions of ordinary Poles have surprised their leaders and, in some cases, even themselves, with an extraordinary, nationwide outpouring of support for Ukrainians fleeing war and seeking shelter across the border in Poland.
The war in Ukraine has not only sent more than 1.5 million terrified people pouring into Poland, which just a few months ago was beating back migrants from its border with batons and water canons, but also spread alarm that Russia could widen the conflict beyond Ukraine, dramatically expanding and reshaping the contours of Polish politics.
Previously focused on asserting national sovereignty against bureaucrats in Brussels and waging narrow domestic political battles, Mr. Kaczynski’s party, Law and Justice, had picked fights with the European Union and even its principal military protector, the United States, with which it quarreled bitterly for months over an American-owned television station that threatened its grip on the media.
But, forced out of its domestic political bunker by the war raging next door in Ukraine, the Polish party “made a huge about-face and returned to basics — to NATO and the European Union,” said Marek Swierczynski, an analyst with Polityka Insight, a Warsaw research group. “They are now trying to show, or at least make us believe that they are 100 percent loyal Europeans,” he added.
It marks a startling change for Mr. Kaczynski, who in December denounced the European Union as a German-led “Fourth Reich” and whose Law and Justice party, suffused with nationalism and dogmatic Catholicism, built its political brand on fighting with fellow Europeans over L.G.B.T. rights, the rule of law and a host of other issues.
Even if the Polish government has shown no sign of retreating from its defiance of E.U. laws and regulations, Mr. Kaczynski’s effort to promote himself as a European standard-bearer highlights how Russian aggression is scrambling politics and public opinion across Europe. Germany has overturned decades of military and foreign policy and traditionally pro-Russian countries like Bulgaria and Serbia are rethinking their loyalties, even as public sympathy for Russia remains strong, especially in Serbia.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, long the Kremlin’s biggest backer in Europe and a stalwart ally of Poland’s governing party in its fights with Brussels, faces a tough fight ahead of national elections on April 3 that his opponents have billed as a choice between “Orban and Putin or the West and Europe.” His Fidesz party is slightly ahead in the polls, buttressed by a vast pro-government media apparatus that played down the carnage caused by Russia and presented Mr. Orban as the only bulwark against bloodshed spreading into Hungary.
Poland, in contrast to Hungary, has been unequivocal in denouncing President Vladimir V. Putin and distancing itself from pro-Kremlin populist politicians, whom it had looked to for support against Brussels, like Marine Le Pen, the French presidential candidate, and Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right former deputy prime minister.
The shift in Poland has been particularly pronounced in Mr. Kaczynski. Other than making statements recalling the role of Ukrainian nationalists in the massacre of Poles during World War II, he had shown little interest in Ukraine and remained silent during the early stage of Russia’s invasion.
Which made his trip to Kyiv, at the head of a European delegation comprising the prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia, all the more surprising.
A reclusive figure, who rarely speaks publicly and mostly confines himself to closed-door meetings with party faithful and interviews with loyal media outlets, Mr. Kaczynski has shed no light on his motivations for traveling by train to Kyiv.
Beyond providing Ukraine with moral support, the European leaders who visited Kyiv offered no concrete assistance. But their rail trip helped Mr. Kaczynski obscure his previously enthusiastic association with Europe’s best-known fans of Mr. Putin, if not with the Russian leader himself.
Russian commentators helped him in this effort by lambasting the trip as a hostile action. Denouncing a proposal floated by Mr. Kaczynski in Kyiv that NATO send a “peace mission” to Ukraine, a foreign-policy analyst for the Russian media group Pravda, Lyubov Steposhava, on Wednesday described Poland as “the hyena of Europe” and called for its “denazification,” the Kremlin’s code for forced subordination to Moscow.
While some in the opposition condemned Mr. Kaczynski’s trip as a political stunt, his journey won plaudits from supporters and also some critics as a courageous gesture of solidarity with Ukraine — and a welcome effort to align his usually inward-looking party with massive public sympathy for Poland’s embattled eastern neighbor.
This sympathy is particularly strong among young Poles, many of whom detest the Law and Justice party and strongly support the European Union.
“I never thought we had this in us,” said Michal Trefler, a 24-year-old student in business management who this week joined volunteers helping traumatized Ukrainians arriving at Warsaw’s central railway station. “Nobody knew we could be mobilized like this.”
Some hard-line anti-immigration Poles have been so baffled by the kindness shown to Ukrainians that they think their fellow citizens must have been drugged. A conspiracy-minded internet television channel this week featured suggestions that Covid-19 vaccines had been secretly re-engineered to give people “a euphoric reaction to migrants.”
Ryszard Schnepf, a former Polish diplomat who served as ambassador to the United States, viewed the surprise rail trip to Kyiv as a stunt by a leader who is eager to shake off his past association with pro-Kremlin, anti-European populist politicians.
“Knowing his position on the E.U., we are all very confused that he suddenly takes a trip that was quite risky and claims to represent Europe,” Mr. Schnepf said “He is simply looking for PR,” he added, and “is trying to repair the damage” caused by many years of undermining the European Union and palling around with Mr. Putin’s European friends.
Worried that soaring inflation will undermine its popularity and that Brussels could suspend billions of dollars in badly needed funding, the government has of late curbed its previously vitriolic attacks on the European Union.
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Still, many question whether Poland’s governing party, which depends on the support of anti-E.U. radicals in Parliament to stay in power, can really calm its various long-running feuds with Brussels.
With Europe transfixed last week by horrific images from Ukraine, Poland’s constitutional tribunal, a body stacked with Law and Justice loyalists, quietly resumed its attack on European law, ruling that parts of the European Convention on Human Rights are incompatible with the Polish constitution.
Ukrainians who have arrived in Poland since the war started have been amazed by how warmly they have been received in a country whose government has previously taken such a hard-line against immigrants.
The Polish government, led by Law and Justice, passed legislation last week that gives Ukrainians access to health care, education and other benefits. The state-run railway lets Ukrainians travel free of charge. The state is also providing a small daily allowance to Poles who put up Ukrainians in their homes.
Much of the heavy lifting has been done by legions of volunteers who provide food, housing and transport, and municipal governments in places like Warsaw, many of which are led by opponents of Law and Justice.
“It is unbelievable how much they help. They give us everything they have,” said Viktoria Shupovalova, who arrived this week in the Polish capital after sheltering for six days in a basement in Kharkiv, her bombed-out hometown in eastern Ukraine, and traveling for days by bus to the border.
She came with her younger son, aged 11, but had to leave his 26-year-old brother and her husband behind because all men of military age are barred from leaving Ukraine.
Among those helping at a Warsaw sports hall, now serving as a dormitory for new arrivals, is Weronika Wodkowska, who has taken time off her job in marketing to sort through and distribute donations of food and other supplies.
“Our history and what happened to our grandfathers and great-grandfathers” during past Soviet and Nazi invasions of their country, she said, “made it impossible not do something to help.”