Ukraine War: Have Eastern Europe’s warnings against Russia fallen on deaf ears?
For years political leaders in Central and Eastern Europe have warned of the immediate dangers posed by Russia and now – amid Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine – some are blaming Western Europeans for not having heed these warnings.
A day after Russia’s attack, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lashed out at the apparent lack of Western support for his government, despite Russian troops assembling on Ukraine’s borders for months.
“This morning, we are defending our state alone. Like yesterday, the most powerful forces in the world are watching from afar,” he said. “Did yesterday’s sanctions convince Russia? We hear in our heavens and see on our earth that this was not enough.
The next day, Zelenskyy accused several Western European governments of “selfishness”, “arrogance” and “appeasement” in their response to the Russian military buildup.
Several Central and Eastern European leaders, who for years have warned of the dangers posed by Russia, have been equally scathing.
“There is no time today for the kind of inflexible selfishness that we see in some Western countries, including here in Germany unfortunately,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in Berlin last week ahead of a meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
‘I smell Munich here’
Since Russia began massing its troops on Ukraine’s borders in November, the inescapable analogy for analysts and politicians has been the Munich Agreement, when in 1938 France and Britain attempted to to avoid a conflict with Nazi Germany by ceding the Sudetenland to Czechoslovakia.
“I hope I’m wrong, but I smell ‘Munich’ here,” Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the Estonian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said last December.
The frustration felt by some Central and Eastern Europeans is not new.
For years they saw themselves as neglected in EU meetings and isolated in their call for a stronger NATO. Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Lithuania and Romania are some of the 10 NATO states – out of 30 – that actually spend the mandated 2% of GDP on defence.
Several states, notably Hungary, have been accused of undermining European solidarity and dividing the bloc with their relations with Moscow and Beijing, but central and eastern Europeans point to Western European countries as Russia’s main trading partners and China.
Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states are staunch opponents of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which directly connects Russia to Germany, the main European buyer of Russian natural gas exports. Yet successive German governments continued with this planned energy project, despite the fact that it massively increased Germany’s dependence on Moscow.
Last week proposes to suspend the certification of Nord Stream 2 after Russia invaded Ukraine.
There was little European solidarity after the Czech Republic expelled more than a dozen Russian officials last year after Czech intelligence agencies linked Russian military agents to a massive explosion at an ammunition dump near of Vrbetice in October 2014, the “biggest explosion on European soil since the Yugoslav wars”, according to an analyst.
“Introspection and Accusations”
There is also frustration with French President Emmanuel Macron’s “persistently futile attempts” to mediate Central and Eastern European concerns with Russia, added Kevin Curran, of the Association for International Affairs, a group think tank based in Prague.
“On all these points and more, many leaders and citizens of Central and Eastern Europe will feel compelled to rejoice in their warnings that have fallen on deaf ears for so many years. In many ways, this is justified,” Curran added.
Richard Q. Turcsányi of the Palacky University of Olomouc described the Russian invasion as surprising many analysts. “What is clear, however, is that those who have warned of Russia as a security threat will have their moment – many of them being countries in Central and Eastern Europe,” he said. he declared.
“Western European countries had a more cooperative attitude [towards Russia]which obviously will change a lot now,” Turcsányi said, noting that the German government was quick last week to postpone the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. Defying some expectations, Western democracies also agreed last weekend to exclude a number of Russian banks from Swift, an international payment system.
“There will naturally be soul-searching and blaming about who was right and wrong all the time, but I don’t think that’s a particularly useful avenue of reflection,” Turcsányi added.
Other Central and Eastern European commentators agree.
“The West’s indecisiveness and reluctance to punish Russia for its previous aggression is certainly the reason why Vladimir Putin felt that it (would be) plausible to attack Ukraine,” said Veronika Víchová, responsible for of the Kremlin Watch program at the Center for European Values. for security policy, a think tank.
For years, Putin has grown increasingly bold, and the West has repeatedly signaled that it will not impose adequate costs on such aggressive behavior, she added.
But ‘a blame game’ will not resolve the situation at this time,” Víchová said. “It is up to the transatlantic democratic world to realize that Russia is not interested in future diplomacy and that only strictly targeted sanctions and hard-hitting have a chance to make a difference.”
Not All Eastern and Central States Distrusted Russia
Curran of the Association for International Affairs noted that one should not forget that countries like Serbia, Hungary and Slovakia have found themselves, in recent history, to be quite sympathetic to Russian narratives.
“We cannot revise Central and Eastern European narratives to be universally suspicious of Russia,” he said.
Indeed, the narrative that Western Europe has been too lenient with Russia and has not heeded the warnings of Central and Eastern Europe is more complex.
Hungary’s autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orban, has been a key Putin ally. Milos Zeman, the Czech president, is known to have taken pro-Russian positions since his election in 2013.
Regarding Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea to Ukraine, Zeman later described it as “irreversible” and called on European governments to end their sanctions against Moscow.
Zeman questioned his own country’s intelligence agencies when they said last year they believed Russian actors were behind the Vrbetice explosion, saying his country should avoid “hysteria” and ” speculation” about alleged Russian involvement.
Another regional politician who has often embraced a pro-Russian agenda is former Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who also opposed sanctions on Moscow after Crimea was annexed in 2014.
It’s not just the political elites. A survey published late last month by pollster Focus found that 44% of Slovaks believed the US and NATO were responsible for rising tensions in Ukraine, and only 34% believed Russia. was to blame. However, the results differed massively across age groups, with more Slovaks aged 25-34 blaming Russia than NATO and the US, while those aged 65 and over were less likely to hold the line. Responsible Russia.
The invasion of Ukraine could change your mind
Analysts say it could now be much more difficult for pro-Russian politicians in Central and Eastern Europe to maintain their position. “I expect some of them to double their positions, but some will change their minds,” said Turcsányi, from the Palacky University of Olomouc.
On February 24, just hours after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Czech President Zeman called Russia’s actions an “unprovoked act of aggression” and a “crime against peace”, and demanded not just words but deeds from the Czech government.
He also admitted that he was wrong about Moscow. “A few days ago I said that the Russians weren’t crazy and that they wouldn’t attack Ukraine. I admit I was wrong.
“The irrational decision of the leadership of the Russian Federation will cause significant damage to the Russian state itself,” he said.
More surprisingly, Hungarian Prime Minister Orban was quick to condemn Moscow.
“Russia attacked Ukraine this morning with military force,” Orban said in a video on Facebook last Thursday. “Together with our allies in the European Union and NATO, we condemn Russia’s military action.”
Orban’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijijarto added that “Hungary’s position is clear: we support Ukraine, we support the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.”
The governments of almost all Central and Eastern European states, including Bulgaria and Romania, have now explicitly condemned Putin’s invasion. Even Aleksandar Vucic, the Serbian president, a very close partner of Moscow, called Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity “very reprehensible”, although Belgrade opposes sanctions against Moscow.
“It’s from here that a more united voice can emerge across Central and Eastern Europe,” Curran said.
“This voice, now in unison, will surely be heard throughout Western Europe. In my view, these voices should not go back in time to rejoice at previous warnings, but rather look to the next important steps.