Blog Post | From the margins to the front line: Central Eastern European diplomacy in the light of Russia’s attack on Ukraine
Russia’s premeditated attack on Ukraine in February 2022 changed not only the security landscape of Europe. It also altered – at least for now – the structures of leadership and influence within the West.
At the forefront of the EU’s and NATO’s diplomacy to promote solidarity with Ukraine and a united, determined stance against Russia emerged their Central Eastern European (CEE) members: Poland, the Baltic States, but also Czech Republic and Slovenia. These states undertook extraordinary diplomatic efforts in support of Ukraine. While this in itself is not unexpected, the positive international reception is unusual, and so is the degree to which these states have driven Western narratives regarding the war.
CEE states lead EU diplomacy
With the Russian attack on Ukraine, the EU’s ‘newer’ member states spearheaded efforts to exclude Russia from various international organizations. The government of Lithuania asked the International Criminal Court to investigate “war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine”. On the EU level, CEE politicians and diplomats became the main advocates for greater sanctions, using not only the tools of persuasion, but also coercive soft poweri, notably verbal shamingii. For example, when a few days into the war, Germany was still blocking a common EU decision to exclude Russia from the Swift international payment system, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda and Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki travelled to Berlin. Before the meeting with German chancellor Scholz, Morawiecki declared to the press that had come to “shake Germany's conscience” because there was “no time for selfishness”. Poland also announced to stop energy imports from Russia completely by the end of 2022 and urges other states to follow its lead.
In mid-March the government leaders of Poland, Czech Republic and Slovenia (and soon after also the Lithuanian defense minister) travelled to Kyiv by train. The purpose was to express “unequivocal support” with Ukraine, but certainly also to show to Western politicians and public that despite the ongoing Russian attack, Ukraine was still a functioning state. In subsequent media interviews, the participants of this trip called on the leaders of the main European powers to do the same. Indeed, on April 1st the president of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola paid a visit to the Ukrainian capital.
Learning from the past
The CEE’s leaders’ undertaking was reminiscent of a diplomatic initiative during the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, where the five presidents of Poland, the Baltic States and Ukraine travelled to Tbilisi. In their view, the war highlighted a dangerous trend in Russian foreign policy, and they demanded a stronger reaction from the EU and NATO, including economic sanctions. However, after only a temporary suspension of the EU-Russia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, the EU continued to treat Russia as a partner. Also, the U.S. soon after attempted a ‘reset’ in relations with Moscow. The CEEs’ attempts to change the West’s approach towards Russia became dismissed as a largely emotional reaction guided by historical prejudice. In contrast, France’s president, Sarkozy’s mission to Moscow was seen as more rational and decisive.
It is again the French president Emmanuel Macron, who has continued direct conversation with Putin. Yet the CEE countries (notably without Hungary) have now become the EU’s moral voice, even though not long ago they were labeled as its “trouble-makers”. In the media, Poland, for example, featured because of its dispute with the European Commission over controversial domestic judicial reforms.
A central role for energy security and soft power
But also, in the area of foreign policy, other member states (individually or collectively) have frequently disqualified the value added of the CEE member states’ contributioniii. Analysts have pointed out that the ‘traditional’ view on security of the former Soviet-bloc states, grounded in collective military defense, deviated from the idea that the EU should be a postmodern security actor that seeks to maintain peace and stability by spreading liberal norms and creating interdependence beyond the EU’s and NATO’s borders. This had implications for relations with Russia, which became a main point of contention, especially with France and Germany. The CEE states’ emphasis on energy security and independence from Russian gas was often regarded as insufficient dedication to climate policy.
Now, the eastern members of the EU and NATO have come to bear a great bulk of responsibility for the security of these communities but also for the humanitarian crisis created by the war. Poland has been accepting unprecedented numbers of refugees from Ukraine. Over 2,5 million refugees have by now crossed the border to Poland, where the efforts of NGOs and civil society, but also regular citizens, have made international press. The well-organized support of Ukrainian refugees increased the country’s soft power, and with it the government’s diplomatic leverage. But the actions also stem from a sense of solidarity with Ukraine based close historical and cultural ties (albeit not free from conflict).
Reshaping the diplomatic narrative
The experience of domination by Soviet totalitarian rule during the Cold War period shaped the CEE states’ strategic cultures, fundamental ideas and narratives about security. A shared view is that independence and state sovereignty cannot be taken for granted. Policymakers and diplomats interpret events through the lens of strategic culture, which guides their choices and their assumptions about cause and effect. While in many Western European countries the belief persists that a confrontation between the West and Russia must be avoided at all costs, more Western decision-makers begin to accept a narrative that the CEEs have propagated for years. It is the view that peace is dependent on stopping Russia’s neo-imperial pursuit.
As Lithuania’s prime minister Ingrida Šimonytė put it, the struggle in Ukraine is “a struggle for the whole free world”. In a similar vein, Morawiecki said in Kyiv “if Europe thinks it will remain the same if Ukraine is lost, then it is deeply mistaken.” The situation of deep insecurity has given the voice of the CEE countries a new weight within NATO and the EU. Through their diplomatic efforts that combine symbolism, advocacy in international institutions and shaming, these states have been setting the tone of the West’s common response.
Author: Dr. Molly Krasnodębska holds a PhD from the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambrdige and an Master’s degree in Public Diplomacy from the University of Southern California. Her academic work focuses on the role of Central and Eastern European members in Western institutions and the EU’s foreign policy towards the Eastern Neighborhood. Currently, she is a diplomat at the Polish Embassy in Reykjavik, Iceland.
The opinions expressed in this post are the author’s own and do not in any way, shape or form reflect those of the Polish Embassy or MFA.
i. Janice Bially Mattern. (2005) Why ‘Soft Power’ Isn’t So Soft : Representational Force and the Sociolinguistic Construction of Attraction in World Politics. Millenium 33: 583–612.
ii. Rochelle Terman. (2019) Rewarding Resistance: Theorizing Defiance to International Shaming. Available at: https://rochelleterman.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Terman_Defiance_06_11_2019.pdf. (Accessed March 30, 2022).
iii. Molly Krasnodębska (2021) Politics of Stigmatization, Palgrave.