View from Poland: Ukraine’s Victory is Indispensable for European Security
Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and its attempt to destroy Europe’s post-Cold War security order have triggered a series of crises that constitute the continent’s most severe upheavals in more than three decades. The resulting changes have the potential to fundamentally transform the entire continent. However, we are only at the beginning of this redefinition and its final form will depend on the outcome of the war in Ukraine, writes Wojciech Konończuk.
If someone had said in autumn 2021 that Russia would invade Ukraine, which not only would not collapse but would successfully defend its independence, while the West would come to its aid, Ukraine would be granted the status of an EU candidate country, and – all indications point to this – would soon begin accession negotiations, he or she would probably have been labelled a reality-denying fantasist. In the meantime, reality has exceeded all expectations for the umpteenth time. Ukraine and Europe are in a period of change on so many levels that the final outcome is difficult to predict due to numerous variables. However, it has the potential to completely reshape the European political and security order if managed effectively.
There are some important preconditions for this to happen. In short, the recipe for a successful transformation consists of the following points. First, Ukraine must win the war, and the West should do everything it can to support this. Second, Russia must be defeated, which requires a long-term strategy to contain its aggressive and revisionist policy. Third, Ukraine needs comprehensive security guarantees, which only NATO can provide. Fourth, Ukraine must become a member of the EU, which will have a stabilizing impact on the entire region.
The War Can Still be Won
With its aggression against Ukraine, Russia has set in motion something it did not expect at all. Sergei Lavrov was right when, shortly after the start of the invasion, he sincerely remarked that “This [war] is not about Ukraine at all, but about the world order. The current crisis is a fateful, epochal moment in modern history. It reflects the struggle over what the world order will look like.”[i] In Moscow’s perception, this is a systemic, zero-sum-game conflict. Russia’s strategic goals were openly spelled out in two draft treaties on security guarantees delivered to the West in December 2021, and – in Moscow’s view – their substance remains unchanged[ii].
The situation after almost twenty months of war is very far from Russia’s original expectations, because Moscow has failed to achieve its strategic objectives. The European and American response to the aggression has sent a strong signal that, to Moscow’s great surprise, the West won’t allow attempts to change the European order by military means.
Russia’s unprovoked aggression not only caused a historic split between two once close nations that – when the war is over – will take generations to reconcile. Russia has also effectively excluded itself from Europe, at least until the end of the Putin regime. One of the many lessons learned from the ongoing war is that the European security architecture cannot be stable without integrating Ukraine, which – in turn – is impossible without Ukraine’s victory.
However, there are still many challenges ahead, and the most important is ensuring a stable supply of military equipment, financial and other assistance, which Ukraine desperately needs. Current U.S. and European support for Ukraine remains solid, and it appears that there are no longer any taboos on supplies. But many uncertainties remain in the medium and long term. One of them is the speed and volume of deliveries, which suggest that the U.S. and some other allies are afraid of a possible escalation if things go too well for the Ukrainians, which – according to the their perception – could provoke the Kremlin to use nuclear weapons, for example. This de facto self-restraint, especially by the United States, a key NATO country and major donor of military aid to Ukraine, is a de facto gift to Russia and does not so much deter escalation as prolong the war. In Poland’s view, shared by NATO eastern flank states with the exception of Hungary, there should be no self-restraint, because that only convinces Russia of the West’s alleged weakness and indecisiveness.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive began in June 2023, but no significant progress has been observed on the battlefield. Since the dynamics of any war are only partially predictable, the current stalemate on the front may soon change. However, Russian forces do not seem to be in a position to further expand on Ukrainian territory. The open question is whether and to what extent Ukraine will be able to regain lost territories.
The West Should Step up Sanctions
Continued arms shipments to Ukraine must be accompanied by consistent sanctions and other measures to impair Moscow’s military capabilities and further isolate and delegitimize the Putin regime. An obvious prerequisite is that the Western community remain consolidated and coherent and continue to be able to speak with one voice. Russia is feeling the effects of sanctions, which are seriously damaging but not killing its economy. Nor is it likely to collapse in the foreseeable future. The shock of the sanctions has hit most of the Russian economy, but Moscow seems to have coped.
In its economic policy, the Kremlin has two main goals: maintaining social stability and securing money for the army. Raw materials remain the most important part of its exports, and Russia is indeed finding alternative markets to the already closed traditional Western markets, but revenues are much lower. The most optimistic scenario for the Russian economy, however, is stagnation. The sanctions, especially technological ones, lead to a lack of economic development. Their cumulative effect for the economy will likely grow, but it it should also be remembered that the analysis of the current situation becomes more difficult because the Kremlin has restricted some statistical information.
The West must think as soon as possible not only about additional sanctions, but about how to tighten them. This is because Russia is learning how to circumvent Western measures through a chain of intermediaries – both states and corporate structures. Secondary sanctions could be a solution, but the West – especially the EU – still need to learn how to apply them.
NATO Should Adapt and Absorb Ukraine
Another critical step is the ongoing, but not yet completed, adjustment of NATO to the direct security threat that is likely to remain for the longer term. Russian aggression has shifted the Alliance’s centre of attention to its eastern flank, which – with the accession of Finland and (not yet completed) Sweden – is changing the strategic situation in that part of Europe. Since we do not know the outcome of the war, NATO must strengthen its deterrence and defence.
The Vilnius summit in July 2023 brought some positive changes, most notably a partial return to the defence planning processes and structures that NATO put in place during the Cold War[iii]. The best way to further contain Russia is to show strength, unity, and determination to act. If we are to force Moscow to de-escalate, we must demonstrate our determination to adapt to the new security situation. This is deeply embedded in Russian strategic culture and is a language the Kremlin understands best. Other necessary measures related to deterrence should include an official denunciation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which is being lobbied by Poland and other CEE countries. The current approach by some key NATO members, including the U.S. and Germany, of not touching it is wrong, as it defiantly deepens Russian perceptions of the prevailing culture of dialogue. This is one of the examples where Russia’s neighbours, including Poland, advocate a tougher and more decisive stance toward Moscow, which goes beyond the consensus among NATO members.
One of the most debated and controversial issues is the best framework for cooperation between Ukraine and NATO. Poland and most countries on the eastern flank see Ukraine’s membership in the Alliance as the only way to stop Russian revanchism and achieve lasting peace. However, the Vilnius summit in July, which repeated the Bucharest formula from 2008, which declared the intention to admit Ukraine one day “when allies agree and conditions are met”, did not send a clear message that Kyiv can hope for membership soon. Many NATO states, including the United States and Germany, cannot envision Ukraine’s membership as long as there is a war with an uncertain outcome.
Relations between NATO and Ukraine have transformed enormously in recent years. Ukraine is no longer viewed through the prism of “Russia’s natural sphere of interest” as it used to be (which is still the case with Belarus). The attitude of the Ukrainian public towards integration with NATO has also changed dramatically. Before the Revolution of Dignity in 2013/2014, Ukrainians were more likely to see the Alliance as a threat rather than a potential protector[iv]. As late as in early 2022, Kyiv did not rule out the possibility that Ukraine might consider nonaligned status under certain conditions. The full-scale Russian invasion resulted in a revolutionary turnaround, raising support for NATO integration to 83 per cent, while only 6 per cent oppose it[v].
The West is in the process of developing a set of security commitments and arrangements for Ukraine beyond NATO in the form of an interim solution. Long-term commitments to provide Ukraine with a stable supply of military equipment and ammunition for its future defence are very important, but not enough – not least because many details remain undecided. The time until the next NATO summit in Washington in July 2024 should be used to find a solution and to issue Ukraine a formal invitation to NATO. This already would have a huge impact on the security architecture, but, again, only Ukraine’s membership in the Alliance would be the long-awaited “game changer” for the stabilisation of the European security architecture.
A Watershed Moment for Europe
Since the first day of the war, the fact that a watershed moment in European history had been reached, and that not only the future of Central and Eastern Europe but the European security system was at stake, was recognized at least in some countries. Although some EU capitals prepared for Ukraine’s quick collapse, the NATO Eastern flank nations were ready to support Ukraine in a decisive war. The Baltic countries and Poland were not only the first to send military equipment to Ukraine, but supplied many weapons at the expense of their own defence capacity.
On 28 February 2022, the presidents of those four countries, joined by the leaders of Czechia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Bulgaria, issued a statement supporting Ukraine’s European integration. Not coincidentally, on the same day, President Zelensky, draped in sandbags in his office for fear of Russian saboteurs, signed Ukraine’s EU membership application. Some might say – madness and lack of reality. But it soon became apparent that this was a visionary step. The Ukrainian President sensed the historic moment. The continuation of this story is already known – in June 2022, Ukraine was granted a candidate status, and it seems that by the end of 2023, the EU will give the green light for opening accession talks with Kyiv. NATO and the EU membership are closely interconnected processes. Both are difficult but necessary steps for the stability of both Ukraine and Europe.
How long it will take Ukraine to become a full-fledged member of the European Union is hard to predict. The Ukrainian government keeps repeating that it expects Ukraine to join the EU within the next two years[vi]. This is definitely a too ambitious deadline, but the actual date will depend on two interrelated processes.
The first is the course of the urgently needed structural reforms in Ukraine and the outcome of the war. Never before in history has an EU member been involved in a war on its home territory, and no one knows how to reconcile EU accession with a over 1,000 km long front line. Unprecedented events are commonplace today, but in this respect Ukraine and the EU are entering uncharted waters. Ukraine, fighting its existential war, needs systemic transformation to prove its credibility.
The second process is a transformation of the EU. Discussion has already begun about the bloc’s future shape and possible internal reforms, including the voting system[vii]. Germany, France, and some other members have made it clear that enlargement to include Ukraine, Moldova, and the Western Balkans must be preceded by crucial EU reforms. This logic is opposed by other members, including Poland, who argue that the two processes should not be combined. In particular, because anticipated disputes over the content and substance of EU reform, which requires approval by all 27 member states, may effectively postpone enlargement.
The EU is unthinkable without Ukraine
The good news is that EU officials do not only agree that the EU, in the words of Ursula von der Leyen, “is unthinkable without Ukraine and the Western Balkans”,” but also that the political climate in key EU countries seems to have changed in recent months regarding the new EU ‘big bang’ enlargement. This is something that was unimaginable just two years ago, when voices – especially loud in Central Europe – about Ukraine’s or Moldova’s European integration were put off as “romanticism” or “lack of political reality”. This is one of many signs of how much European history, pushed by the Kremlin, has sped up. This process would also not be possible without changing the mental map, especially in the western part of the continent. It seems that in the minds of many Ukraine has finally been admitted, despite the fact that EU membership may still be further away.
But the European integration process is two-sided. For about a decade or so, Ukrainian attitudes toward this were ambiguous — about 40 per cent of respondents were in favour, and a similar number were against[viii]. The change in attitudes was accompanied by a profound identity change in Ukrainian society, triggered by the Revolution of Dignity and the subsequent Russian aggression. By 2021, two-thirds of Ukrainians were in favour of EU integration. After the full-scale Russian invasion, Ukrainian society’s support for EU membership skyrocketed: With 85 per cent support, Ukrainians are one of the most EU-friendly societies in Europe[ix].
However, realistically one must admit that the unification of Europe will take a long time, and that there will be many stumbling blocks in the process. The growth of radical, anti-European, far-right political forces (such as the German AfD, the Dutch Party of Freedom, or the French Rally Nationale) boldly moving toward the political mainstream will be a challenge to Europe speaking more or less with one voice. Also, possible economic turmoil could reduce enthusiasm for the accession of Ukraine and other countries. As many as 63 per cent of the EU public surveyed are generally positive about offering membership to Ukraine. The most supportive are respondents in Portugal (81 per cent), Lithuania (77 per cent) and Poland (72 per centand lowest in Germany (49 per cent), France (51per cent) and the Netherlands (54 per cent)[x].
Russia determined to keep on fighting
While working on EU and NATO integration and implementing radical reforms, Ukraine is at the same time forced to fight a defensive war and try to regain lost territories. For its part, the Kremlin is determined to achieve its goals in Ukraine and Putin currently has no exit strategy that would allow him to save face. Russia’s overall goals against Ukraine have not changed, but its tactics have evolved. Russia believes that time is playing in its favour and that it can wait until the U.S. political constellation changes and possibly Donald Trump (or a Trump-like president) returns to the White House and reverses the current American line toward the Russian-Ukrainian war. Another issue that makes Moscow hope are the mounting problems in the EU, which could eventually lead to Western unwillingness to support Ukraine, at least at current levels. Moscow is aware that the pain threshold for war and the willingness to bear its cost are much higher in Russia than in Western countries.
As nearly twenty months of war have shown, the Kremlin has repeatedly miscalculated and its assumptions have proven wrong, demonstrating that it is not a good idea to impose its own thinking on the West. Russia has been surprised or even lost about the consolidated Western position on Ukraine and its continued support. However, the Russian regime has no choice but to continue the aggression, as any concessions from Ukraine are out of question. Putin has de facto become hostage to the conflict he started.
Yet, at present there is no critical mass in the West that could force Kyiv to make concessions. At the same time, Moscow cannot bring about a favourable solution on the front lines and has long been on the defensive as the Ukrainian side dictates the rhythm of this war, even though its counteroffensive, which has been underway since June, has had little effect so far. Therefore, Russia is holding on to its territorial gains and playing for time, hoping that its determination will ultimately lead to success. Traditionally, Moscow underestimates the determination of Ukrainian society, 90 per cent of which are bent to continue to defend their country and to make no concessions.
Thus, there is currently no possibility not only to end the war, but even to freeze it. Possible diplomatic talks with Moscow would be counterproductive, as they would raise hopes that the current Russian approach – no concessions, pushing hard until successful – is correct. It should be clear that even if the West agrees to what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called “existing territorial realities,” this would not end the conflict but only delay it until Russia is ready for its new phase. And first and foremost, it would be a face-saving operation for Putin.
Another traditional Russian tool is the constant threat of nuclear escalation – something Western societies and governments are very receptive to. Although this scenario cannot completely be ruled out, it is very unlikely because it would come at an enormous cost to Russia itself. The Kremlin also regularly sends signals to blackmail Western governments into not supplying Ukraine with long-distance weapons. Unfortunately, this is effective in some cases, leading to self-restraint which accommodates Russia’s interests, prolongs the war, and increases Ukrainian casualties. The most recent example is Berlin’s decision not to supply long-range, high-precision Taurus cruise missiles for fear of escalation[xi].
One more paradoxical point is the West’s fear of a collapse of the Russian regime or even an uncontrolled disintegration of the Russian Federation as a result of military defeat. This is reminiscent of U.S. fears in the late 1980s and early 1990s of a collapse of the Soviet Union. If any lesson can be learned from these thirty-two years, it is that Western elites are constantly fearful of an even greater crisis in Russia and that they can do nothing to prevent it. At the same time, a Russian defeat – which hopefully is only a matter of time – will clearly raise a new strategic question: Russia’s future and its place in the international order. There is no doubt that this and any future dialogue with Moscow will depend on the extent to which Russia proves able to fundamentally change itself and discard imperialism.
The Quest for a Stable Peace
Ukraine and the rest of the Western community face many serious security challenges, primarily related to the ongoing war. The period of strategic instability will not end soon. As mentioned earlier, it is clear that Russia will not change its approach to the conflict it started and will remain a threat to Ukraine and the EU in the years to come[xii]. Moscow believes that if it is more consistent, decisive, and unyielding it may ultimately achieve victory. But although it tries to put on a poker face, the Putin regime is actually weaker than we think.
The current Western posture appears solid, but many strategic uncertainties remain and are likely to increase with each month of war. The international order is at a crossroads, and there are questions over its final form and the future of international law and rules. The basis of Western strategy should be to secure Ukraine’s victory and thereby force Russia to abandon all occupied territories. This should be accompanied by Ukraine’s integration into the EU and NATO, as only these structures guarantee stable development and security.
Effective Ukrainian resistance buys Poland and other vulnerable countries on the eastern flank time to adjust and better equip themselves for a possible deterioration of the military situation in the region, as well as a possible reduction in U.S. involvement in Europe and – consequently – military presence. This is accompanied by a lack of confidence in a common European security and defence policy, which currently hardly exists. Germany’s apparent deficit of Zeitenwende in the military sphere also prompts Poland and the region to invest heavily in its own military potential. The increase in Polish defence spending to 3.9 per cent of GDP this year and more than 4 per cent in 2024 – the highest among all NATO countries and secured by bipartisan consensus – clearly demonstrates this.
At the same time, the Polish statement that “we will support Ukraine as long as it takes” is strict and unalterable. Since the crucial element in Polish-Ukrainian relations is the joint perception of security threats, support for Ukraine is an indispensable element of the security policy of any Polish government[xiii]. Therefore, Poland declares that only Kyiv can formulate the conditions for ending the war. This is a clear signal that Warsaw would oppose any political solution if some Western governments decide to force Ukraine into accepting an unfavourable agreement. The negative experience with the Minsk agreements of 2014/15 is still well remembered.
And it should be emphasised that there is no political dispute in Poland over the general objectives of the country’s eastern policy, including the response to Russian aggression against Ukraine. There is a solid consensus between the outgoing Law and Justice government and the main opposition parties (which will likely soon form a new government as a result of the October 15 elections) on the issue of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Poland’s response, the need to increase defence spending and mobilise greater EU support for Kyiv.
In this respect, Poland’s policies towards the ongoing war are similar to the Baltic countries and most countries of Central Europe. Ukraine is fighting an existential war with far-reaching and possibly “existential” consequences for the entire region. “Compromise” scenarios are out of question and any government in Warsaw – as well as other eastern flank capitals – will strongly advocate only a solution that brings stable peace.
Other Western powers, first and foremost Germany and France, are in a different situation and can afford to take the “not exactly our war” position, since their core security interests are not at stake. For this reason, it is important that any solution to end the war must be a Ukrainian decision and Western countries should not impose anything on Kyiv. Otherwise, there could be a serious upheaval among NATO allies because Poland and the other eastern flank countries will always be on the same page as Kyiv regarding peace terms, but not necessarily with most Western countries.
Finally, it is extremely important not to repeat old mistakes. Many lessons have already been learned from the Russian-Ukrainian war, but they should be internalised and implemented. The utter fiasco of Western strategy toward Russia before 24 February 2022 should serve as a warning to us. When this war ends, there is a historic opportunity to continue the continent’s integration process, which will bring more stability and prosperity. Yes, we are still far from that moment, but some essential work in that direction has been done. In all this, we should not forget that an independent and secure Ukraine is an indispensable element for a sustainable European security order.
[ii] Marek Menkiszak, Russia’s blackmail of the West, OSW, December 20, 2021, https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/analyses/2021–12-20/russias-blackmail-west
[iii] Justyna Gotkowska, NATO Summit in Vilnius: breakthroughs and unfulfilled hopes, OSW, July 13, 2023, https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/osw-commentary/2023–07-13/nato-summit-vilnius-breakthroughs-and-unfulfilled-hopes
[iv] Before Crisis, Ukrainians More Likely to See NATO as a Threat, https://news.gallup.com/poll/167927/crisis-ukrainians-likely-nato-threat.aspx
[v] Support for international unions: survey in Ukraine and Europe (July 4–10, 2023), https://ratinggroup.ua/en/research/ukraine/p_dtrimka_m_zhnarodnih_soyuz_v_opituvannya_v_ukra_n_ta_vrop_4-10_lipnya_2023.html
[vi] Ukraine makes clear it won’t accept second-class EU membership, September 28, 2023, https://www.politico.eu/article/ukraine-wont-accept-second-class-eu-membership-pm-denys-shmyhal/
[vii] Germany, France make EU reform pitch ahead of enlargement talks, September 19, 2023, https://www.euractiv.com/section/enlargement-neighbourhood/news/germany-france-make-eu-reform-pitch-ahead-of-enlargement-talks/
[viii] Ukrainians overwhelmingly support European Integration, https://euromaidanpress.com/2016/04/01/ukrainians-overwhelmingly-support-european-integration-infographics/
[ix] Support for international unions: survey in Ukraine and Europe (July 4–10, 2023), https://ratinggroup.ua/en/research/ukraine/p_dtrimka_m_zhnarodnih_soyuz_v_opituvannya_v_ukra_n_ta_vrop_4-10_lipnya_2023.html
[x] 2023 Transatlantic Trends, https://www.gmfus.org/sites/default/files/2023–09/TT2023_digital‑3.pdf
[xi] Scholz cites risk of ‘escalation’ as reason not to send Taurus missiles to Ukraine, October 5, 2023 https://www.politico.eu/article/germany-olaf-scholz-cites-risk-escalation-deliver-taurus-missiles-to-ukraine/
[xii] Marek Menkiszak, Winning the war with Russia. The West’s counter-strategy towards Moscow, OSW, April 26, 2023, https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/point-view/2023–04-26/winning-war-russia
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