The Threat from the East: Central-Eastern European Voices Finally Heard

By Robert Czulda

Central and Eastern Europe has lived in Russia’s shadow for years – even in the 1990s, when Russia was weak and did not oppose Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joining NATO. A fear of Russia stemmed from historical trauma and the memory of decades of ruthless political, military and economic domination and behavior.

Then came the era of Putin, who started aggressive actions against his neighbors – either by intimidating them or by directly using the military to create a pressure (Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine since 2014).

Concerns and anxiety grew in the region even more, when the West decided to increase cooperation with Putin Military spending was systematically reduced, while NATO focused on so called “out-of-area” operations. Article 5 obligations were considered by NATO member states, except by those in Central and Eastern Europe, as unrealistic and archaic thinking from the Cold War era.

An aggression against Ukraine launched in February this year by two states – Russia, but also Belarus (both states have integrated their military systems) – came as a surprise to the Western world.

It is a painful truth, but at least partially it was possible because of a naivety of numerous Western politicians and experts. The West has never fully understood the East, including Russia.

After the Cold War, most of the Sovietologists either retired or had to find a different job. Yet Russia has not ceased to exist.

Russian experts, and later Putin, told exactly how they see the world and what changes in international order they want. It was enough just to listen to the Russians and people from Central and Eastern Europe, who not only knew about the threat, but also loudly warned the West.

Warning bells from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were systematically ignored and ridiculed by numerous experts, who dismissed them as “Rusophobia”.

This is not the best time to look for guilty, but it must be remembered that it was the passivity and naivety of the West that created a monster – contemporary Russia with its aggressive foreign and security policy.

Among many other failures, it is impossible to forget that the Russian Army was supplied and trained by France and Germany. Political mistakes often come at a measurable price – this price is now paid by Ukrainian blood, destroyed houses and by thousands of refugees, who have to flee to neighboring countries, including Poland, which has already welcomed tens of thousands of them within a few days.

Fate can be sometimes perverse and even bad events can lead to something good.

By putting a pressure on Ukraine, Putin wanted to achieve several strategic goals – to show that Russia is a serious player and has to be recognized as such;  to demonstrate that Ukraine, just like many other parts of ex-Soviet territory is still a Russian sphere of influence and no one else can interfere; to destabilize, weaken and terrorize Europe (particularly its Central-Eastern part) and to consolidate his own personal power as well as to guarantee a place in a Russian history among top national leaders.

But it seems that so far – war is still far from being over – Putin miscalculated and he will not achieve most of his goals. One which he has managed to achieve was to establish a permanent military presence in Belarus, which means that he moved troops closer to the border with NATO.

Due to surprisingly extremely poor initial performance of the Russian Army, Putin unintentionally achieved a number of strategic goals, which were pursued by Central and Eastern Europe.

First, he made Germany to break with pro-Russian policy. This include Berlin’s resignation, at least temporarily, from the Nord Stream 2 project, which has been perceived in states such as Poland and Ukraine as a serious security threat. At the same time, work on the Baltic Pipeline between Denmark and Poland has been relaunched with gas expected to start flowing in October 2022.

Secondly, the West has consolidated and has embraced the Central and Eastern European narrative about Russia as a threat and “sick man of Europe.”

The West has also sent additional troops to the region. Central and Eastern Europe has also welcomed relatively severe economic sanctions imposed on Russia – it is not because we hate Russia and the Russian people, but it is because we know that money sent to Russia were spent to boost its military capabilities.

Moreover, naive and dangerous fantasies – such as President Macron’s concept of building a European order and security together with Russia – have ended up in the trash bin. With Putin’s Russia, as our region has been saying for years, one cannot build a peace based on mutual respect and cooperation when Putin has the objective of rebuilding the Russian empire.

The key achievement of the region is to convince a majority of Ukrainians that their fate should be tied with Europe – the European Union and NATO and not with Russia and Belarus, who can only bring poverty and misery.

Putin, who wanted to drag Ukraine into the Russian camp, eventually pushed it out of it.

Even the long-term occupation of Ukraine, which cannot be ruled out in the event of the capitulation of Ukrainian troops, will not change the anti-Russian sentiment among millions of ordinary Ukrainians.

Central-Eastern Europe hopes to see more positive developments.

An important element in building a stable bloc would be a full NATO membership of both Sweden and Finland. It seems that a support in those countries for joining the Alliance is now higher than ever.

Finland has even started parliamentary talks on this topic.

It would be in the interest of Europe, both Western and Central-Eastern, if Ukraine joined the European Union, and eventually also NATO.

Will it be possible?

Sometimes politics needs to focus on how to achieve impossible. Several decades ago no one in Central and Eastern Europe could have imagined to join NATO. Two weeks ago no one thought that Western Europe would finally wake up so decisively.

Time will tell whether the West’s response is short-lived or foreshadow something permanent.

Dr. Robert Czulda

He is an Assistant Professor at the University of Lodz, Poland. He is a former Visiting Professor at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) under a Fulbright Senior Award.

Dr. Czulda is an Alum of the Young Leaders Dialogue of the U.S. Department of State (2010– 2011), and has lectured at universities in Iran, Brazil, Indonesia, Ireland, Lithuania, Turkey and Slovakia, as well as the National Cheng-chi University in Taipei.

He is a freelance defense journalist as well and has published widely on Polish defense and related issues.

Dr. Czulda’s area of expertise is international security and defense.

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