Two points about the Ukraine crisis are crystal clear. First, Vladimir Putin wishes to reimpose Russian control over Ukraine, whatever the price. His political dream of restoring the Soviet sphere of influence is echoed in a wishlist of “security guarantees” presented to western governments by Russia in December 2021. Nato, he maintains, should return to the pre-1997 state of affairs; Russia, apparently, need not.
Second, whatever Putin decides in the current crisis, there are real fears in central and eastern Europe that settled borders are now under threat. These fears are grounded in reason. What seemed unrealistic in the immediate post-cold war years is now again a real possibility. Questions about our collective safety and security have returned, along with memories of a traumatic and not so remote past.
More precisely, we are talking about more than one fear. Central and eastern European angst is existential in nature. In the 1980s, the Czech-French writer Milan Kundera wrote that small nations are constantly anxious about their existence, because their independence is repeatedly questioned.
As doubt is cast even over their presence on the map, they experience their sovereignty in a fragile, nervous way. The Russian military menace to Ukraine reawakens old traumas and, paradoxically, not only those generated from the east.
Another angst is, to put it bluntly, that the west will again abandon us. Historical precedent for western inaction is used in the current discourse to support doing nothing. The Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins, for example, noted, as he argued against Nato military intervention in Ukraine, that the west “wisely” did not intervene in Hungary in 1956 or in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
For central and eastern Europeans, drawing such parallels proves that the Russians are not the only ones who persist with framing today’s events in terms of the cold war.
The Ukraine crisis can be interpreted profoundly differently depending on which side of the old iron curtain you sit. This difference of perspective provokes its own misinterpretations and distrust. The evacuation of embassy staff from Kyiv may be understood as a “prudent precautionary measure” from the UK perspective; but for people in central and eastern Europe, it can have quite a different meaning.
It suggests a readiness to withdraw that reawakens for us the trauma of being forced to be a part of the Soviet bloc. The instability of US foreign policy in recent years is another source of anxiety for central and eastern European countries, not least because the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan has forced many US allies to reconsider their strategic security priorities.
But why should one listen to eastern Europeans’ anxieties, anyway, especially given the ambiguity their governments demonstrate towards the EU and the rule of law?
It is worth remembering that the governments of Poland and Hungary have electoral legitimacy but don’t fully represent their polarised societies, not to mention the entire region.
Yet, in Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, the mood is full of anxiety. Nervous questions are asked: are western governments reliable allies? Why not defend Ukraine with full conviction? Why not rethink the geopolitical context of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline if upholding “European” values means anything?
Many citizens of central and eastern Europe have clear memories of living under Moscow’s rule. For them, 30 years of independence is not long enough to banish the worry that we are trapped in a cycle of ever-repeating history.
A cold war framing of the Ukraine crisis undermines, imperceptibly perhaps, democratic legitimacy in the whole region. Thinking in terms of spheres of influence takes us back to a time when the Soviet Union’s satellite countries were unable to freely decide which military alliance or political regime they aspired to belong to.
What should be remembered today is that, during the Euromaidan crisis in 2013 and 2014, there were Ukrainians ready to sacrifice their lives to join Europe. The EU and Nato were founded to prevent history from repeating itself: if the west is really committed to democratic values, it should defend Ukraine.
Western countries should not accept a return to the outdated logic of spheres of influence. A decisive response to Putin’s belligerence is needed. At the moment, that is a diplomatic one. The so-called Normandy format talks, involving France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia, should continue in expanded form with the US, in an effort to de-escalate the crisis.
But any western decision will have far-reaching consequences for Europe. Further geopolitical instability would affect central and eastern Europe militarily, economically and in terms of migration. There is also a risk that this geopolitical distress could reinforce the region’s turn towards nationalism. Fear, as Cardinal de Retz famously remarked, is the passion that weakens judgment most. The fate of Europe will be decided in Ukraine.
Karolina Wigura is a historian of ideas, board member of the Kultura Liberalna Foundation in Warsaw and a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin
Jarosław Kuisz is a political analyst and essayist, editor-in-chief of the Polish weekly Kultura Liberalna and a policy fellow at the University of Cambridge
Guardian Newsroom: Will Russia invade Ukraine? Join Mark Rice-Oxley, Andrew Roth, Luke Harding, Nataliya Gumenyuk and Orysia Lutsevych discussing the developments with Russia and Ukraine on Tuesday 8 February, 8pm GMT | 9pm CET | midday PDT | 3pm EDT. Book tickets here