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The wartime U.S.-Poland alliance provides opportunities to work on other issues

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Poland and the U.S. have had a seesaw relationship over the years, but the war in Ukraine has drawn them closer together and then turned Poland into an indispensable ally. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Warsaw.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Critics of the Polish government have long worried about the erosion of democracy there. Back in 2016, they accused the government of stripping the country's top court, the Constitutional Tribunal, of its independence. And when President Obama visited Warsaw, he called it out.

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BARACK OBAMA: I expressed to President Duda our concerns over certain actions and the impasse around the Poland's Constitutional Tribunal. As your friend and ally, we've urged all parties to work together to sustain Poland's democratic institutions.

LANGFITT: This didn't bother Obama's successor, President Trump, who embraced Duda and his illiberal policies. When Biden was elected, relations cooled again. Then Russia invaded Ukraine. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken went to Warsaw in March, and the tone he struck couldn't have been warmer.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: Poland is doing vital work to respond to this crisis. As NATO allies, defense cooperation between Poland and the United States, I think it's safe to say, is closer than it's ever been.

LANGFITT: Since the Russian invasion, Poland has become the key hub for sending humanitarian aid and billions of dollars in military equipment into Ukraine.

DANIEL FRIED: The United States and Poland suddenly found themselves in a wartime alliance.

LANGFITT: Daniel Fried served as U.S. ambassador to Poland in the late 1990s.

FRIED: Poland is in somewhat the role of Great Britain in World War II - the strong base of support for American resistance to a tyrant.

LANGFITT: The Biden administration remains concerned about Poland's treatment of the media and rule of law at home. But Fried says the war provides more opportunity to work on other international issues important to the U.S. He cited a recent visit here by Laura Rosenberger. Rosenberger is the senior director for China on the National Security Council. Fried says she met with Polish officials to discuss China's inroads in Europe - a top U.S. concern.

FRIED: These kinds of consultations is a direct product of the improvement in U.S.-Polish relations, and it shows that it's not just about Russia, it's an overall strategic alliance.

LANGFITT: As for the Polish government, it wants more American troops on a permanent basis to help deter Russian forces on the other side of the roughly 530-mile border Poland shares with Ukraine. Major General Piotr Blazeusz says Poland wants the Americans to provide more capabilities. That includes sophisticated intelligence and reconnaissance systems based in the air, sea, land and space as well as cyber systems to provide targeting info.

PIOTR BLAZEUSZ: We are talking about capabilities that would allow us, obviously, first of all, to have an even better indications and warnings. This is also about long-range precision strikes - basically the capabilities that will deter as much as possible the other side from doing crazy or stupid things.

LANGFITT: Would you need a permanent base for those troops?

BLAZEUSZ: I think this is the economical way of doing it.

LANGFITT: In fact, it's in the works. A written agreement between the two countries calls for construction of U.S. forces headquarters, multiple barracks and a medical and dental clinic. Pawel Markiewicz is an analyst with the Polish Institute of International Affairs, a Warsaw think tank.

PAWEL MARKIEWICZ: During the Trump administration, Poland was very frank and forthright in saying that they want to host more U.S. troops here, and they're willing to invest in the infrastructure.

LANGFITT: And Daniel Fried, the former U.S. ambassador, says relations with the Biden administration were improving before the war. In December, President Duda vetoed a media ownership law that critics say was aimed at silencing a U.S.-owned news channel. And that move, Fried says, made it just a little bit easier for the two countries to work together when Russia invaded Ukraine two months later.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Warsaw. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.