(Bloomberg) -- “I've always stood up for Polish interests,” Andrzej Duda told supporters in the small northern town of Polczyn-Zdroj just hours after being criticized by the US for giving the greenlight to a panel that would investigate Poland's opposition leader. “Nobody is going to stop me.”

Despite the defiant rhetoric, Poland’s president rowed back just four days later. Stiff criticism, not just from the US but also the European Union — with both saying the panel could be used to interfere in October’s national elections — forced Duda into an embarrassing climbdown. On June 2 he promised to de-fang the legislation dubbed Lex Tusk because it is seen as targeting former Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

This political whiplash laid bare the tensions in a country whose strategic importance has expanded massively since Russia invaded Ukraine, but whose nationalist government has been accused by allies of failing to uphold democratic standards. Poland is still engaged in a years-long fight with the European Commission over attacks on the judiciary and the need for measures to protect the independence of the media.

Duda embodies that tension between international interests and local politics. Many asked whether he might veto the Lex Tusk legislation and consolidate his position as a serious partner of the US and Europe. Instead he backed the move by the ruling Law & Justice Party even at the risk of putting himself and his country on a collision course with those same allies. It looked like a deliberate provocation by someone who has become vital to US President Joe Biden’s efforts to maintain support for Ukraine.

After the February 2022 invasion, Poland quickly emerged as the wartime gateway for assistance to Ukraine, embracing its role as a prime mover of NATO efforts to ship arms to Kyiv and twisting the arm of more reluctant European powers to fully support the war effort. 

This elevated Duda from the periphery of European politics — where he was marginalized along with the rest of Poland’s government — to the status of international statesman. Duda’s friendship with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, forged in the months before the invasion, has been pivotal in this transformation. Poland’s president became a conduit for allies trying to assess whether the Ukraine leader could withstand the Russian offensive. 

But the domestic moves against Tusk, a former president of the European Council who leads the opposition Civic Platform, has thrown Poland’s role as a reliable partner into doubt and raised fears that it is squandering a crucial moment to elevate its status as a decisive partner in the 27-member EU bloc.

“Poland did not take advantage of the opportunities created by the success the president and Polish society achieved during the first year of the war in Ukraine — in some ways, they have been completely wasted,” said Anna Materska-Sosnowska, political scientist at the University of Warsaw. “We are not a serious partner.”

Rushed through by Law & Justice, the investigation into Russian links in Poland has been condemned by critics as a blunt political weapon to throttle Tusk, even though he is not named in the legislation. The US State Department called the law a tool “that could be misused to interfere” with the vote. The EU has launched an infringement procedure which could lead to action at the European Court of Justice. Days after the law was signed, an opposition rally in Warsaw drew as many as half a million people protesting against the erosion of democratic standards. It was the largest in the country since the anti-Communist demonstrations of the 1980s.

Neither the White House nor the US State Department would comment on whether the disagreement over Lex Tusk had changed their view of Poland’s president, who was originally plucked from relative obscurity by the powerful Law & Justice Party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, to be its candidate for head of state in the 2015 election.

Read more: US, EU Call Out Poland for Pre-Vote Move Against Opposition

The term-limited president will be only 53 when he leaves office in two years, which has prompted speculation over what he will do post-presidency. His detractors in Poland say that many of his decisions around Ukraine have been made with a view to obtaining a future post at an international organization, such as the United Nations or NATO. He has denied that. 

“I am not thinking about what I might do after 2025,” Duda told Polish Radio ZET last week, jokingly adding that, “I will have a presidential pension. I will be fine.”

The Zelenskiy Effect

The affable face of a party known for its confrontational style, Duda spent his first term waving through some of Law & Justice’s most divisive initiatives. The authorities in Brussels condemned the measures, including rules to remove judges viewed as hostile to the ruling party’s agenda and smother critical media.

Few within the party considered Duda to have political ambitions beyond working quietly to further the Law & Justice agenda. Critics called him the “government’s notary.” Yet within months of the start of the war he proved instrumental in breaking down opposition to tank deliveries for Kyiv and took credit for spearheading an effort to admit Ukraine as a candidate for EU membership.

Duda had assumed the role as Ukraine’s champion as early as December 2021. With Russian troops gathered on Ukraine’s borders, he and Zelenskiy — the pair had first met two years earlier — grew frustrated at what they thought was the failure of western European powers to understand the imminent threat posed by Putin, according to officials close to the Polish leader. That pre-war gloom culminated in a joint mission by Duda and his Lithuanian counterpart, Gitanas Nauseda, to Kyiv on what turned out to be the eve of the invasion in February 2022. 

“I will never forget our farewell when he told me: ‘I don't know if we'll ever see each other again’. It was devastating,” said Duda during an interview at the presidential palace in Warsaw on May 31. “I will admit that yes, I did have the thought that perhaps I am indeed seeing him for the last time.”

Poland quickly became the chief organizer of all diplomatic trips to Kyiv — effectively Zelenskiy’s gatekeeper to the outside world. The US, wary about how the untested leader would perform in a full-scale invasion, wanted as detailed a picture as possible of Zelenskiy. The Polish leader reassured the Americans that Kyiv’s forces were battle-hardened after the eight-year conflict against Russia-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region. 

The US shared intelligence with eastern NATO member states — Poland had long been considered a key ally in the region. Washington wanted a “scientific understanding,” said one official, of the geography of the Polish-Ukrainian border, road conditions, the location of medical facilities, hotels and train lines.

The strength of the relationship was seriously tested, however, after a missile struck a village in eastern Poland near the Ukraine border in November 2022, killing two people. With markets shaken by the prospect of a Russian attack on NATO soil — an event that would have marked a significant escalation of the conflict — the open channel between Duda and Biden worked like “clockwork,” said officials. The US said Russia likely wasn’t the source of the rocket.

“There was meshing together and time counted,” said Mark Brzezinski, US ambassador to Poland of the response to the missile strike. “It was highly organized and it was put to bed, so to speak, as a scary issue within 12 hours.”

Duda leveraged his line to Biden, a counterpart he called a “treasure” in the May 31 interview. Marcin Mastalerek, Duda’s social adviser, said the US leader had offered his younger counterpart tips on how to respond to political adversity. The Washington-Warsaw relationship has allowed the Polish leader to push EU allies to take a stronger line with the Kremlin, for instance, Duda claimed at least partial credit for Germany’s decision to ship state-of-the-art Leopard battle tanks to Kyiv despite opposition.

“We are an ally of the United States located in an absolutely sensitive and strategic place,” Duda said. “President Biden recognizes the fact that Poland's role is crucial.”

“There was no need to persuade him to help Ukraine,” added Duda, “but it was necessary in the case of other leaders.” 

The Domestic Front

Duda’s new-found position on the international stage has helped him become Poland’s most popular politician, according to opinion polls. But he is far from its most powerful. That title goes to Kaczynski, the arch conservative who built a political machine with the backing of mostly Catholic, rural voters. A reclusive 74-year-old, Kaczynski is the prime architect of Poland’s fissure with the European mainstream, with populist projects attacking a perceived elite in the justice system and the media.

Kaczynski handpicked Duda to be Law & Justice’s candidate in the 2015 presidential race. He trusted him to carry on the party’s policy agenda. Yet the pair have barely spoken since Duda was re-elected in 2020, according to people close to both men. The estrangement deepened when the president defied the party leadership by blocking parts of the media control legislation in 2020. 

“Duda has struggled for a long time to find a kind of role for himself as president,” said Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of politics at the University of Sussex and an expert on Poland. “When the Ukraine war came along, it really gave him an opportunity to define himself.”

“It still means that his role in terms of domestic politics is very unclear,” added Szczerbiak.

That was obvious when Duda had what he considered a decisive one-to-one meeting with Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, in February 2022. He laid out a blueprint to overhaul Poland’s judicial reforms, to conform with commission demands and trigger the release of billions of euros in aid, according to officials familiar with the encounter. Von der Leyen was on board. Yet the plan was sabotaged by far-right allies in the ruling coalition in Warsaw who refused to give any ground to Brussels. The episode convinced commission officials — including some who believed the talks represented a genuine chance to break the deadlock — that Duda had little influence in Warsaw, according to one of them.

Rather than proving to be a final break with Law & Justice, Duda swung back behind the party when it came to Lex Tusk. The investigation is the product of long-standing accusations from Kaczynski that Tusk allowed Russian influence to spread during his time as prime minister, between 2007 and 2014, particularly after the 2010 air crash that killed Kaczynski’s twin brother Lech, Poland’s then president.

Since his about-turn, Duda has looked trapped. In Paris, alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron, on June 12, he called for NATO to respond to Russia’s deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus. Nine days later, he put on his party hat when Kaczynski announced his return to an active government role – a bid to help the party gain momentum ahead of October’s election. 

The next few months could determine whether Duda is remembered as a statesman or a party loyalist tied to the fate of an increasingly isolated Law & Justice, which has seen its lead in the polls shrink.

“The immediate response to the war in Ukraine won Poland a get out of jail free card,” said Michal Baranowski, managing director at the Warsaw-based GMF East think-tank, a part of the German Marshall Fund. “It has now thrown it away.”

--With assistance from Ewa Krukowska, Daniel Hornak and Milda Seputyte.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.