In Slovakia, the Smer party led by pro-Russian former Prime Minister Robert Fico won the country’s parliamentary elections on Sept. 30. As a consequence, Slovakia immediately halted military aid to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, long viewed as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “man in Europe,” cheered him on. In the wake of Fico’s victory, he even managed to blackmail the European Commission, threatening to veto aid to Ukraine if Brussels didn’t cough up the EUR 13 million in funds for Hungary it had frozen.

Even Poland, Ukraine’s stalwart ally since the full-scale invasion began, refused to adhere to a European Commission decision to lift the import ban on Ukrainian grain in September, along with Slovakia and Hungary. As the country prepares for elections on Oct. 15, the ruling Law and Justice Party has cozied up to anti-Ukrainian elements within its coalition to shore up support – apparently yet another tactic to amplify the party’s long-running conflict with Brussels.


These countries, more than others, should understand Ukraine’s existential struggle against Russian aggression. And they probably do. But one must never oversimplify the complexity of Europe. Kyiv’s doing so could be lethal.

A success story

Europe in the past 75 years has been one of the most remarkable political success stories in modern history. Peace, prosperity, and cradle-to-grave social assistance. If you compare it with previous centuries, or the first half of the 20th when war was the norm, it’s a miracle.

Nested within that larger European success story is another remarkable achievement: the integration of Eastern and Central Europe – i.e., the former Warsaw Pact countries of Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Croatia and the three Baltic republics of the Soviet Union – into the EU.

For those who weren’t politically conscious at that time, these countries were considered lost causes in the final years of the Soviet Union. Apart from a handful of intellectuals familiar with Milan Kundera’s novels, even the glorious city of Prague was viewed as a Communist backwater doomed to a gray, Orwellian future.


So, what happened?

In two words: the EU and NATO. By all rights, when the equilibrium created by the Cold War collapsed, the entire Central European triangle formed by the Baltic, Black and Adriatic Seas should have descended into territorial disputes, if not war.

But only in Yugoslavia did rival ethnicities start shooting at each other, leading to a brutal war that made ethnic cleansing a household word.

Most observers expected the entire Soviet space to descend into similar chaos. And Russian troops did go into Chechnya and Moldova, while the Armenians and Azerbaijanis were already fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The EU still offers the bureaucratic scaffolding, while NATO guarantees security. Together they serve as a levée against the ‘illiberal tide.’

But the Warsaw Pact bloc remained peaceful, notwithstanding the fact that about 20 percent of all Hungarians in Europe lived in neighboring countries (mostly in Romania, but also in Ukraine, Slovakia and Croatia). Central Europe (sans Yugoslavia, obviously) managed to respect the post-World War II borders that had been established with a heavy dose of ethnic-cleansing – particularly in what was East Prussia. Miraculously, when the Czechs and Slovaks decided to divorce in 1992, it was achieved almost amicably.


With the prospect of joining the EU, these countries were obliged to meet certain minimum standards: democratic institutions, free market economy, human rights, et al. The prospect of achieving the level of prosperity they could see just over their western borders induced these states to jump at the opportunity.

When these countries saw how Russia tried to subdue Chechnya and how the Serbs dealt with wayward republics, they realized they needed a security guarantee. Memories of Soviet tanks rolling into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 were still fresh. The only real security guarantee that could keep Moscow at bay was NATO.

Those who continue to harp on the old saw that “NATO provoked Russia” should remember that the Central European states were not even remotely coerced. They practically begged NATO to join – such was their fear of Russian revanchism.

Today, Eastern and Central Europe is thriving and thoroughly European. The countries have their problems, but they enjoy a stability that would be impossible outside the umbrella of EU’s economic benefits and NATO’s security guarantees.


In short, the institutions that they were obliged to adopt in order to join, enabled them to go beyond any specific leaders who would have turned them away from the consensus view of how Europe should be – at least to date. But for now, the EU still offers bureaucratic scaffolding, while NATO guarantees security. Together they serve as a levée against the “illiberal tide.”

Why are they wavering with Ukraine?

As with all things European, the answer is manifold and complex.

There’s no doubt an element of complacency at play. Central European countries are now enjoying the economic fruits of EU membership. And as part of the NATO alliance, they don’t need to constantly fear a Russian invasion. Other European countries have enjoyed these benefits for more than a half a century. The logic is simple: Why risk a good thing?

Moreover, even though the new EU states enjoy the benefits of being members, they are chafing at the responsibilities. The longstanding immigration crisis is a prime example. None of the Eastern European members want to accept immigrants from “other” Europeans’ former colonies in Africa. The rationale being: “Why should we pay for their guilty conscience?”

Already, by coming to Ukraine’s aid against Russia, Europe necessarily forfeited the benefits that friendly relations with Moscow entailed. Germany lost a cheap gas source. Hungary had a sweet nuclear deal in addition to cheap fuel. The reason for complacency is therefore simple: Why jeopardize comfort for an ideal that may or may not gain traction in the “barbaric East”? – forgetting obviously that these countries were not long ago east of their “more civilized” co-Europeans.


There’s also a little bit of Stockholm syndrome going on. For years, these countries were held hostage by Moscow. It’s quite common for kidnappees to develop a fondness for their captors.

It would also be reckless to deny residual anti-Ukrainian sentiment. The Hungarians consider the Zakarpattia region in western Ukraine to be a part of Greater Hungary and have long been lobbying on behalf of ethnic Hungarians living there. In Poland, too, there are many who have not forgiven the Volhynia massacres and consider large parts of Galicia to be Polish territory. The Slovaks also remember territorial disputes in the lead-up to World War II.

Thus far, the Russian threat has outweighed any anti-Ukrainian sentiment. Still, it’s important to remember that many Central Europeans equate the Russian threat with Ukraine, in that the Red Army included many more Ukrainians than did the nationalist formations fighting against Moscow, which tend to get more press these days.


Moscow is well aware of this ambivalence and has always tried to pry open the natural fissures in Europe, hoping to break it into pieces, create a power vacuum, and gain influence wherever it can. 

EU reform

Today the EU seems to be committed – albeit somewhat tepidly – to Ukraine’s accession. But NATO is more reluctant to commit, even though Ukraine is a de facto partner at the moment.

Neither institution makes any secret about Ukraine’s need to reform its institutions in order to join. And Ukraine is certainly eager to reform – despite the apparent foot-dragging.

Less discussed is the fact that the Russo-Ukrainian War will inevitably transform the EU, NATO and Europe as a whole.

Like everything else in the EU, reform will be a long, drawn-out process – yet one that Ukraine could expedite.

The war has given NATO a new lease on life, after years of Donald Trump threatening to pull the plug.

The EU, for its part, will need to radically reform its structure to adapt to so many new members. Regardless of any perceived success or failure, the EU remains a revolutionary geopolitical experiment in nested hierarchies (i.e., sovereign states nested within an overarching legal and bureaucratic structure). As such, it is a work in progress – a precarious one at that.

Many Euro-enthusiasts have suggested that it needs more stick and less carrot to bring roguish members, such as Hungary, into line. But like everything else in the EU, it will be a long, drawn-out process – yet one that Ukraine could expedite.

When Ukraine finally shakes off Moscow’s stranglehold, it will then need to come to terms with Europe’s lighter, more comfortable yoke. Because even though Ukrainians love to vaunt their independent spirit, the fact is that Ukrainians have thrown their lot in with the West. And there is no turning back unless the West chooses to feed them back into Moscow’s maw.

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

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