Home / World News / Opinion | Russia’s Neighbors Are Worried That, After Ukraine, They’ll Be Next

Opinion | Russia’s Neighbors Are Worried That, After Ukraine, They’ll Be Next

WARSAW — The symbolism was striking. On March 12, two weeks into Russia’s brutal bombardment of Ukraine, the leaders of France and Germany held a joint call with President Vladimir Putin. Just days later, three prime ministers from post-Communist Europe — Polish, Czech and Slovenian — traveled to Kyiv by train, despite the danger.

This divergence exposed a sharp divide in how Eastern and Western NATO member states view the war in Ukraine. For Western countries, not least the United States, the conflict is a disaster for the people of Ukraine — but one whose biggest danger is that it might spill over the Ukrainian border, setting off a global conflict.

For Central and Eastern European countries, it’s rather different. These neighbors of Russia tend to see the war not as a singular event but as a process. To these post-Soviet states, the invasion of Ukraine appears as a next step in a whole series of Russia’s nightmarish assaults on other countries, dating back to the ruthless attacks on Chechnya and the war with Georgia. To them, it seems foolhardy to assume Mr. Putin will stop at Ukraine. The danger is pressing and immediate.

While the West believes it must prevent World War III, the East thinks that, whatever the name given to the conflict, the war against liberal democratic values, institutions and lifestyles has already started. Both positions have merit. But Mr. Biden’s visit to Poland on Friday, a day after an emergency NATO summit, is a vital opportunity to forge a common understanding. Both sides, West and East, must present a united front against Russian aggression. The alternative is disarray and destruction.

At the root of the divide is history. Across centuries, Central and Eastern Europe have experienced the chilling effects of Russian imperialism. From czarist Russia to the Soviet Union, many countries through the region had their independence stamped out, their societies oppressed and their cultures marginalized. The trauma caused by the cyclical loss of territory and statehood is one of the most important elements of collective identity across the region.

Many Central and Eastern Europeans share an anxious sense of themselves, a nervous sovereignty. Their independence, restored with such great effort after 1989, could easily be lost again, as the 20th century proved all too painfully. In the tragic fate of Ukraine, and earlier of Chechnya and Georgia, they see not only their own traumatic past but also their possible future. “We will be next” is the phrase on many lips.

In this febrile atmosphere, NATO’s cautious steps look to many Central and Eastern Europeans like an echo of the phony war of 1939, when France and Britain undertook only limited military actions and did not save their eastern ally, Poland. At that time, too, horrible stories from bombed Warsaw and other cities filled the media. Yet the allies were determined not to be drawn in too deeply. Their military inaction temporarily delayed the spread of the war across the globe, but did not stop it.

Whether the analogy is apt matters less than the fact that it expresses a deeply felt intuition about what might come next. That’s been visible in the way East and West have approached the war. Throughout, those geographically closer to Russia have urged a tough response. Now that Russia’s full brutality has been revealed, Western countries are weighing whether to impose more sanctions on Russia, send more weapons to Ukraine and intensify diplomatic efforts to end the war.

But Eastern countries would prefer to go further still. Suggested measures in the region include imposing a no-fly zone — as President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly urged — or sending NATO troops across the Ukrainian border, even if only as a peace mission. The Polish government recently offered its MIG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, something Western allies considered a move too far.

Yet Central and Eastern Europeans are convinced that they are right and have the moral high ground. They believe that they were correct all along with their warnings about the Nord Stream pipelines and Russia’s other geostrategic designs on Ukraine and former Soviet states. For a long time, such opinions were dismissed as Russophobic, irrelevant in comparison with the fruits of economic cooperation with Russia. Today these warnings seem horribly prescient.

That doesn’t mean the region’s leaders ought to lapse into self-congratulation or even damn the “stupidity” of the West — as Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel Prize-winning Polish émigré writer, called it — for its failures of foresight. The aim instead should be to communicate better with Western partners, something Mr. Zelensky, in his addresses across the world, has shown how to do.

This is of utmost importance. One thing Mr. Putin wants is for NATO partners to be divided and at cross purposes, as the alliance was in its response to the Kremlin’s aggressive military actions in 2008 and 2014. Those acts returned partitions to the region, along with pro-Moscow puppet leaders, political kidnapping and forged elections. The invasion of Ukraine, as Eastern countries see it, is just the next attempt by Russia to upend the geopolitical order through territorial acquisition.

Leaders in the region are in a unique position to spell out the stakes of Mr. Putin’s aggression and so help the West to better understand the level of risk. Yet the fact remains that Central and Eastern European countries would like to involve NATO in the conflict on a broader scale, while the West continues to prioritize global peace.

It is a tragic dilemma. And far from approaching resolution, it seems to be just beginning.

Karolina Wigura (@KarolinaWigura) is a board member of the Kultura Liberalna Foundation in Warsaw and a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. Jaroslaw Kuisz is the editor in chief of the Polish weekly Kultura Liberalna and a policy fellow at the University of Cambridge. They are both assistant professors at the University of Warsaw.

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