Putin's Invasion Strengthens Resolve in Central and Eastern Europe

The defence ministers of Visegrad Group (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia) at a meeting in June 2021. Courtesy of Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

The Russian invasion of Ukraine conjures dark memories for the region, but its countries are increasingly united in their response to Putin’s aggression.

With the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia rolling into its second week, the present Russian leadership’s feudal-imperialist mindset must have become clear to anyone who is committed to objective reality. As in feudalism, Vladimir Putin seems to believe that ‘people come with land’ and if the land and its resources are interesting for him, its inhabitants merely come with it. If the people do not want to, they simply become collateral damage.

An article prepared for a ‘victorious day’, which was to be published after the occupation of Ukraine and released perhaps mistakenly by RIA Novosti, outlined not only Russia’s vision of the new world order but also the concept of the ‘final solution for the Ukrainian question, once and forever’. This involves ‘restoring [Russia] to its historical fullness, gathering the Russian world, the Russian people together – in its entirety of Great Russians, Belarusians and Little Russians’, a chilling reminder for those who refused until now to fully grasp the Russian imperial project.

If Russia’s national strategy is to move its frontiers as far west as possible, there are serious questions about Moscow’s intentions towards the Baltic states, and Central and Eastern Europe. Each of these countries has memories of Nazi or Soviet invasions and occupations. Thus, they are highly sensitive to any threat or ultimatum.

In the span of a week, the number of Ukrainian refugees reached 1 million, with neighbouring countries now harbouring the majority of them, providing them with housing at reception centres, free public transport, health and social services. Some of these countries have immediately adopted the Temporary Protection Directive, an EU legal instrument offering protection and rights by granting people fleeing the invasion with residence permits and access to education and the labour market.

Experienced voices from Central and Eastern Europe know very well who would pay the highest price of further Russian aggression

The blatant Russian aggression towards its neighbour has prompted countries of the otherwise fragmented central European region to act in concert and help Ukraine with humanitarian and military aid. There is a shared consensus that further democratic guarantees for Ukraine are sine qua non for their own stability and security. With the exception of Hungary, the Visegrad Group countries – the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia ­– adopted a common position vis-à-vis prospective Ukrainian EU membership and together with the presidents of Estonia, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia published an open letter urging the EU to immediately grant status and begin negotiations on its formal acceptance into the bloc. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky formally signed an EU membership application on the same day.

Although the region might face a direct threat from Russia, not everyone perceives it as a danger. The distorted truth, which has been served by Kremlin-backed media outlets for a long time, has left an imprint on local minds. What we have witnessed around the world in recent years has made it clear that hardly any country is immune from a societal division instigated by narrators serving alternative ‘facts’.

However, former communist bloc countries might be slightly more susceptible to those narratives. In light of this, blocking media outlets which spread disinformation on the Russian invasion and endanger national security was a necessary move, though it should have been done earlier. Yet it is reasonable to expect that sooner or later new ways to reach Central and Eastern European voters will be found. As the Kremlin has shown its intent to capture Ukraine, it will put maximum effort into winning the propaganda war in its former satellites – first with fine words, later with threats.

Putin’s desire to redesign and rebrand Ukraine – no matter what it takes – has strengthened not only Ukrainian identity, but it has also cemented NATO and EU unity. This unity should not be taken for granted and it should be consolidated. At the same time, experienced voices coming from Central and Eastern Europe must be heard – due to their geographic proximity and historical experience, they know very well who would pay the highest price of further Russian aggression.

Regardless of the outcome of the invasion, the premonition of the Iron Curtain falling again is strong

Under the weight of news about indiscriminate killings of Ukrainian civilians, including children, the use of prohibited lethal weapons and other Russian acts that likely constitute breaches of international law, dissenting voices questioning the importance of NATO or EU membership are mostly silent for now. Poland has even pledged to increase its defence spending to 3% of GDP in 2023 to enhance its deterrence capability. The latest public opinion polls have also shown a shift in public threat perceptions.

There are many tough decisions and challenges lying ahead, including the dilemma of energy security. Heavy dependence on Russian oil, gas or uranium fuel makes the situation far more complicated. None of the decisions will be easy, and many will be difficult to bear. Yet, the alternative is worse.

As the Russian leadership has never reconciled itself to the fall of the Soviet Union, a disproportionate military assault on Ukraine is seen as a logical step to reset ‘the negative trajectory’. Putin has always yearned to resurrect the former glory of the Great Russia. To enforce the respect that he so often talks about, he has consciously chosen the path of spreading threats and fear.

Regardless of the outcome of the invasion, the premonition of the Iron Curtain falling again is strong. This time it seems to be darker, heavier and harder to lift. Yet we should not resort to a quick conclusion that international norms are being rewritten. The reality of facing this danger should make us even more resolute in the preservation of the rules and norms that keep the world together.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Sylvia Tiryaki

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