Ukraine’s lessons for NATO’s eastern front

The horrific Russian attack on Ukraine should be a wake-up call for the elites of NATO’s Central European members and the rest of the alliance. Without excusing Russia’s aggression, we must admit that decades of political division and institutional decay contributed to the relative weakness of the Ukrainian state—weaknesses that Russian President Vladimir Putin is now ruthlessly exploiting. While helping the victim and punishing the attacker, other countries in the region should also heed the tough lessons of Ukraine’s tragedy.

When Ukraine emerged from the collapsing Soviet Union in the early 1990s, it was among the economically more prosperous post-communist states. Adjusted for purchasing power, its per capita GDP was roughly 20% higher than that of Poland. If that were still true in 2020, and if Ukraine’s population had not decreased by a staggering 15%, the country’s economy (again, in purchasing power terms) would be almost two-thirds the size of Russia’s. A successful, democratic Ukraine with a powerful military arguably could have had a chance of being admitted to NATO during the window of opportunity used by its neighbours from Central Europe and the former Soviet Baltic republics.

Instead, Ukraine’s three decades of independence were marked by economic stagnation, deep internal divisions and repeated flirtation with authoritarianism, punctuated by impressive but turbulent uprisings by pro-Western parts of society. Meanwhile, Central European countries such as Poland, Hungary and Romania forged a broad domestic consensus about their desire to join the democratic West. That bet paid off handsomely: In one generation, Poland’s economy grew nearly threefold.

Unfortunately, since 2010, the former democratic frontrunners have been sliding down a path eerily similar to that which arrested Ukraine’s post-Soviet growth. In Hungary and Poland, authoritarian leaders have methodically eroded democratic institutions with the sole objective of creating insurmountable barriers for opposition parties to challenge them.

While Hungary and Poland do not have the ethnic or religious fault lines faced by Ukraine, the countries’ strongmen—Viktor Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, respectively—have been busy exploiting and deepening the ideological divides between their country’s more progressive urban populations and more conservative rural citizens. Liberal politicians and intellectuals as well as the dwindling number of independent journalists are routinely derided as traitors, foreign agents or even animals.

In place of the pro-Western foreign policy consensus of the post-communist decades, Orban and Kaczynski have ratcheted up anti-Western rhetoric. In Hungary, cities are routinely plastered with billboards warning against malevolent ‘Brussels’ imposing its will on the Hungarian nation. Kaczynski, for his part, routinely weaponises nationalist hysteria aimed at Germany, Poland’s main ally and trading partner. In their contemplative moments, both leaders ruminate about ‘alternatives to liberal democracy’, which often strikingly resemble the system instituted by Putin. At a time when a truly united European Union is essential, both countries are under partial EU sanctions for their rule-of-law violations.

Instead of investing in non-political, professional homeland security, the Polish government has cynically used the military and security services for domestic intrigue. The security forces have suffered numerous purges aimed at weeding out supposed opposition sympathisers. Multiple reports now confirm that the government used Israeli Pegasus software to spy on leading opposition figures. Just a few months ago, Kaczynski committed the country’s military, and hundreds of millions of euros, to a heavy-handed pushback against desperate Middle Eastern refugees deposited at the Polish border by Putin’s ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

The resulting humanitarian crisis, which involved several refugee deaths, elicited the justified outrage of many Poles, weakening the national consensus around yet another critical state institution, the armed forces.

Like Ukraine’s former strongmen, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych, Kaczynski and Orban are creating ‘mafia states’ of dependent businesses, rigging the economy and undermining the prospects of further convergence with the West. And yet the Western response to Poland and Hungary’s democratic backsliding has focused mainly on rule-of-law issues and their influence on the disbursement of the EU’s sizeable development aid.

That response is essential but insufficient. The West’s formal commitment to defend Central Europe through NATO gives it a vital stake in national reconciliation in countries ravaged by polarisation and populism. It is especially important that these countries recover the elite consensus needed for institutional stability in key fields like foreign policy and security.

Concretely, that means pragmatic power-sharing arrangements, such as carefully targeted decentralisation and unity governments during periods of national emergency. Other ideas should be explored and successful practices in other divided countries in precarious geopolitical positions should be consulted.

Deep ideological and identity divisions exploited by regressive populists are, of course, not only a Central European specialty. But what can be a serious problem for rich, established democracies far from the frontlines of Cold War II constitutes no less than an existential threat to Central European countries.