As 2022 is coming to a close, the war in Ukraine rages unabated. Russian President Vladimir Putin sees what he still calls a “special military operation” as a life-or-death contest with the United States and its allies in NATO. The West, for its part, considers the war a threat to its own security and has thrown its weight behind the defence of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
But there is an inherent problem with framing the war as a clash between the US and Russia. It underplays the spirit, resilience and daily sacrifices of Ukrainians in resisting their mighty neighbour bent on re-creating a Moscow-centred imperial order across the post-Soviet space. No amount of military and financial aid for Kyiv would have been sufficient to thwart the Kremlin’s ambition had there been no resolve among Ukrainians to fight back aggression and revanchism.
That Eastern European countries and nations have agency and are more than pawns in the power struggles of larger players is a key takeaway from this war. And it goes well beyond Ukraine’s example.
Poland has become a much more influential player in European defence than it ever was. It is not just the fact that it is a front-line country which takes in many of the refugees coming from Ukraine, provides a land route to supply its neighbour with weapons and humanitarian aid, and sends assistance from its own pocket (more than $3.5bn so far).
But Poland is also ramping up its defence spending from 2.2 percent of its gross domestic product to a record 3 percent of GDP in 2023, one of the highest rates within NATO. The money will go into modernising and expanding its military forces and could make the Polish army one of the largest on the continent.
Warsaw is purchasing tanks and self-propelled howitzers from South Korea in a deal worth $5.76bn and will acquire state-of-the-art F-35 fighters from the US in the coming years.
The Polish case is not an exception. Romania’s defence budget is to reach 2.5 percent of GDP next year, well over the NATO benchmark of 2 percent. The Baltic states – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – will also hit a target of spending 2.5 percent of their GDPs over the next few years.
Indeed, Eastern flank countries are rearming on a major scale, with old Soviet-made systems being transferred to Ukraine or altogether scrapped.
One should also consider the newly acquired clout Eastern Europeans have within the EU and NATO. For many years, Poland and the Baltic states were dismissed as being too hawkish on Russia. Germany’s cautious approach, banking on the notion that dense commercial links would create commonality of interest with Moscow, prevailed and was embraced by other major Western European powers, including France.
That was the case even after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and the first stage in the war in the Donbas region in 2014-2015. Europe-watchers surely remember French President Emmanuel Macron cheering for France right next to Putin during the 2018 World Cup final in Moscow.
But this year’s attack on Ukraine overturned that. Now the EU is applying increasingly rigorous sanctions against Moscow, including its lucrative energy sector. And Poland and the Baltic states are at the forefront of that effort, pushing for ever more severe penalties against Moscow. They feel emboldened and are driving EU policy.
At the same time, the war has empowered Putin’s “friends” in Eastern Europe. It was a heaven-sent opportunity for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to reverse his falling approval ratings and win re-election for a record third time. He skilfully inflated and exploited voters’ fears that their country could be dragged into the conflict to win April’s vote.
Later on, Orban managed to carve out an exemption from the EU embargo on Russian oil reaching Hungary through the Druzhba (Friendship) pipeline via Belarus and Ukraine. He also used his veto power on a 18-billion-euro ($19bn) aid package for Ukraine as leverage to lift a freeze on EU funds that Brussels had conditioned on his government implementing rule of law reforms.
While Hungary with its pro-Kremlin stance has acted as a spoiler on efforts to help Ukraine, it has also contributed to Eastern Europe’s growing centrality on Brussels’ agenda. Over the past 10 months, the EU has shown a much more serious commitment to aspiring candidates along its eastern border. Budapest can claim at least some of the credit for this as the man in the driver’s seat of enlargement is Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi, a Hungarian career diplomat (who, interestingly, is considered to be close to Orban).
Of course, other Eastern European states have been quite active in this process too. Poland, Romania and other nations in the region have pushed hard for Ukraine and Moldova to join the union. They were granted candidate status in June.
Under the Czech presidency of the EU, which started in July, Brussels has also intensified engagement efforts in the Western Balkans. In mid-December, Bosnia and Herzegovina officially became a candidate while Kosovo was, at long last, given a green light for visa liberalisation, due in early 2024. Slovenia lobbied hard for Bosnia’s candidate status, in particular, even though Sarajevo has failed to meet many of the political conditions.
The December 6 EU-Western Balkans summit held in Tirana also demonstrated the EU’s commitment to the region. Significantly, it was the first time the union’s leadership gathered in a non-member country.
During the summit, EU and Balkan leaders mapped out a way forward towards a regional common market. Brussels pledged to spend billions in building cross-border infrastructure and “greening” and “digitising” Balkan economies. It also announced a 1-billion-euro ($1.06bn) package to help non-EU members in the region cope with the energy crisis caused by the Ukraine war.
Although Western Balkan enlargement remains a long shot, Eastern Europe is punching well beyond its weight. And of all people, Putin certainly deserves some credit for that. He has pushed the region to mobilise both politically and militarily to fend off his aggression.
The Kremlin’s boss would rather talk to Washington, and perhaps Berlin and Paris, about geopolitics in Europe, ignoring Warsaw, Bucharest and Tallinn. But his reading is no doubt out of date.