For the better part of the last two centuries, Central and Eastern Europeans had little control over their geopolitical destinies. Not anymore. The heroism of Ukrainians in defense of their country has amplified Ukraine’s voice on the global stage and helped build an international coalition to support the country militarily and financially throughout the war. Ukraine’s post-communist neighbors should take note: They are no longer expected to “suffer what they must,” while the strong do what they can—quite the contrary.
Already, Poland, the Baltic states, and other countries to the west of Ukraine have stepped up in a big way by hosting large numbers of Ukrainian refugees and by putting pressure on their Western allies to do more. They sense the enormous stakes of the war’s outcome for the region—their own democratic future and national security will be undermined or enhanced by Ukraine’s ultimate orientation.
Yet, the incorporation of Ukraine into NATO and the EU remains a distant prospect. In the United States, any future NATO enlargement is seen by a vocal political cohort as a source of new, potentially dangerous liabilities—epitomized by Tucker Carlson’s question about why his son should go and defend Montenegro—rather than as a stabilizing force that keeps Europe and by extension the United States out of military conflicts. Furthermore, Ukraine and Moldova’s EU candidate status notwithstanding, there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm in “old Europe” for widening the EU further, especially given the expected costs of such an enlargement and the resulting dilution of power of the existing member states.
Can friends of Ukraine do more to help its prospects than plead with Washington, Brussels, and Berlin to speed things up? They most certainly can. It’s time these countries extend to the realm of European politics the same initiative they have shown with regard to the battlefield. Specifically, they should begin the process of creating linking institutions with Ukraine at the regional level in order to facilitate its future incorporation into the EU and NATO. There are plenty of precedents for this strategy.
In a recent article in Foreign Policy, I made the case—as the headline put it—“to bring back the Polish-Lithuanian Union,” in reference to the Commonwealth of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which from the 14th to the 18th centuries encompassed large parts of today’s Ukraine and Belarus. Through a “re-unification” of sorts, I suggested, Ukraine could join the EU and NATO in much the same way East Germans did; within eleven months of the fall of the Berlin Wall, East German citizens found themselves to be members of both.
The idea may seem farfetched—if even Ukraine’s grains exports represent too contentious a subject in Poland, the prospect of the two countries’ political integration is more fanciful still. Yet, my proposal was not about state building nor about restoring unwieldy elective monarchies of yore. Rather, it sought to show that Central and Eastern Europeans were not trapped in existing political structures, but rather have the agency to change them to their benefit. They should use it.
Some twenty years ago, the existence of the Visegrad Group—a cultural and political alliance among Poland, Hungary, and initially Czechoslovakia aiming to aid their integration into Europe—facilitated Slovakia’s accession to both NATO and the EU. Slovakia had been excluded from the initial waves of the two enlargements because of the authoritarianism of then-Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, but the group helped it catch up with its neighbors. The stakes are much more existential today and the distance that Ukraine (not to mention a future democratic Belarus) must travel is far greater. Accordingly, their neighbors to the west must do more than the Czechs, Poles, and Hungarians did for Slovakia.
A thin political union, or a confederation, between Poland and Ukraine could achieve something along Visegrad’s lines, though on a more ambitious scale. Such an initiative could build upon two platforms that predate the war. The Lublin Triangle was started in the summer of 2020 by Polish, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian foreign ministers (meeting in a city where, in 1569, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth transformed itself into an elective monarchy) in order tocoordinate foreign policy and respond jointly to Russia’s hybrid threats. The Three Seas Initiative, launched in 2015, was intended to strengthen north-south connectivity along Europe’s eastern flank from the Baltic down to the Black Sea; thus far it has been limited mostly to infrastructure projects relating to energy and transportation.
These platforms, with Poland as their centerpiece, could be leaned into to deliver more, perhaps helping pave the way for the overarching goal of bringing Ukraine into the EU and NATO. At a very pedestrian level, they could be used to provide technical assistance to Ukraine to bring its legal and regulatory systems up to date with the acquis communautaire. More importantly, the coalition of states within the EU vested in Ukrainian membership would be more influential if it operated under a unified, institutionalized umbrella with a single leader, dedicated resources, and staff. Under such circumstances it would be better placed to make the case that various benefits of EU membership be opened to Ukraine even before it joins as a full member.
Finally, a more explicit defense and security alliance between Poland and Ukraine would force the question of U.S. security guarantees in a way lobbying in Washington alone cannot. The prospect of Ukraine’s joining NATO seems remote, no matter how encouraging the language that comes out of the upcoming Vilnius summit. An explicit commitment on the part of Central and East European countries to come to Ukraine’s defense in a future conflict might go a long way toward forcing the hand of a U.S. administration on this question.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has opened an extraordinary window of opportunity in which countries of the region enjoy a historically unparalleled degree of independent agency, instead of being pawns in a geopolitical game played by others. Historically, arrangements that have emerged during similar moments have tended to endure, for better or worse. It is in the interest of those countries most affected by the war in Ukraine not to lose sight of the big picture and to take full advantage of the current moment.
Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor of American Purpose. Twitter: @DaliborRohac
Image: A Polish honor guard marches during the Exercise Steadfast Jazz 2013 NATO readiness exercises. (NATO photo by British army Sgt. Ian Houlding)
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