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.

This paper is part of our Inter­na­tional Expert Network Russia. Its publi­ca­tion was supported by the German Foreign Ministry. The views expressed in the paper are the author’s own.

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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.

Portrait von Wojciech Konończuk

Wojciech Konończuk is Director of the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw

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 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.



[i] Лавров заявил, что есть надежда на компромисс в переговорах с Украиной, March 16, 2022,

[ii] Marek Menkiszak, Russia’s blackmail of the West, OSW, December 20, 2021,–12-20/russias-blackmail-west

[iii] Justyna Gotkowska, NATO Summit in Vilnius: break­throughs and unful­filled hopes, OSW, July 13, 2023,–07-13/nato-summit-vilnius-breakthroughs-and-unfulfilled-hopes

[iv] Before Crisis, Ukrainians More Likely to See NATO as a Threat,

[v] Support for inter­na­tional unions: survey in Ukraine and Europe (July 4–10, 2023),

[vi] Ukraine makes clear it won’t accept second-class EU member­ship, September 28, 2023,

[vii] Germany, France make EU reform pitch ahead of enlarge­ment talks, September 19, 2023,

[viii] Ukrainians over­whelm­ingly support European Inte­gra­tion,

[ix] Support for inter­na­tional unions: survey in Ukraine and Europe (July 4–10, 2023),

[x] 2023 Transat­lantic Trends,–09/TT2023_digital‑3.pdf

[xi] Scholz cites risk of ‘esca­la­tion’ as reason not to send Taurus missiles to Ukraine, October 5, 2023

[xii] Marek Menkiszak, Winning the war with Russia. The West’s counter-strategy towards Moscow, OSW, April 26, 2023,–04-26/winning-war-russia

[xiii] Wojciech Konończuk, The Polish-Ukrainian Bond Is Here to Stay, October 3, 2023,



This paper is published in the framework of the project „Russia and the West: Europe’s Post War Order and the Future of Relations with Russia“, which is supported by the German Foreign Ministry.  Any opinions in this paper are the author’s own.

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