It is an irony that, in the democratic world, the countries least likely to suffer from a problem are often the first to speak openly about it. It is easy to make an honest assessment of a serious situation if a solution is at hand from such a comfortable position. If a crisis does not offer the opportunity to make oneself look good, it is easier to play the blame game.
I was told by Polish and non-Polish friends that Warsaw had a new face last Christmas, with more and more Ukrainian voices being heard as the city welcomed a quarter of a million new guests— real refugees. But there is something else that is striking: a poster with Vladimir Putin’s face decorates the streets and train stations. This advertising campaign of the Polish Electricity Association recalls the bolder statements of a few months ago and is a clear sign of the change that is taking place in Europe.
The slogans warn citizens that the Kremlin will undermine support for the Ukrainian war by freezing the West with high energy prices. It is a stark and grim reminder that, in much of Europe, the freedom of your fellow men depends on the price you are willing to pay for your heat. But the billboards do not speak of the few doubts the average Pole harbors, because in Poland they know exactly who the enemy is, but of the fact that, despite the Kremlin’s threats, Polish energy prices have not risen at all while most Europeans endure significant increases.
The question is: How did they do it? The answer is clear: Anticipation. The Minister of State Assets and Deputy Prime Minister, Jacek Sasin, is responsible for this success. Anticipating the Russian threat has long been at the heart of Polish energy policy, which has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid dependence on Russian gas by diversifying imports, and investing in LNG infrastructure and renewable energy. Warsaw has staked its claim and set a very different course from other European countries. Indeed, when Russia demanded that Europe pay for its gas in rubles, Poland was able to turn off the Russian gas tap altogether.
However, there is a very real danger that Germany, Italy, France and the rest of the EU – which remain heavily dependent on Russian gas – will be unable to meet Poland’s demands, reach a compromise with Russia and never learn Warsaw’s lesson.
But not heeding warnings is no excuse for betraying those who did. Even European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen, who has so often attacked Poland, admitted her mistake: “We must recognize how naïve we have been about Russia and how wrong we have been in our thinking about Russia’s actions. We should have listened more carefully to our friends in the Baltic countries and Poland, who have lived under Soviet rule. Together we are now paying a high price for our dependence on Russian energy”.
The German government “too easily” bowed to industry forces pushing for cheap gas, while “completely ignoring the geopolitical risks,” acknowledged Carolina Schmidt, Angela Merkel’s former environment minister. Of course, it is good news when politicians acknowledge their mistakes, but the problem comes when these politicians depend on the votes of the citizens who pay the gas bill. Would they maintain the same stance in the face of Putin’s pressure? How will Europe dispel the inevitable feeling that, if we made peace with Putin, the heating bill would go down?
It is easy to want to return to the status quo ante, despite what that means, but let us remember that in Poland – a large industrial economy on the front line of Putin’s war – citizens and refugees pay far less for their energy than in most of the European Union. Let us remember that the rising cost of energy in countries still dependent on Russian gas is not the price of the Ukrainian war, but the cost of German realpolitik. The same realpolitik that imposed a catastrophic green agenda that has prevented Europe from harnessing its resources.
Poland is the nation that has invested the most time and effort in its energy independence from Russia, and this must serve as a real example for the rest of Europe and not remain mere declarations of intent. “Peace in Ukraine” means “victory against Putin”, not a truce to eventually remain dependent on Russian gas. However politically expedient it may be, Europe must not repeat its mistakes.
Álvaro Peñas is a political analyst specializing in Eastern European countries. He writes for El Correo de España and several European digital outlets. He is deputy director of two programs on Decisión Radio and a regular contributor to the television channel 7NN.