Joe Biden’s double bill in Kyiv and Warsaw this week is good political optics on the first anniversary of the worst war in Europe in 80 years.
Presumably not by anyone’s design, this scenic coupling also usefully clarifies the stakes for the region and the hard choices before the U.S. and its allies in the coming months.
For nearly the entirety of the previous two centuries, Poland sat precisely where Ukraine does now — on the front line of Europe’s defining clash between autocracy and liberalism, waged with the force of ideas and, as often, troops and armor. Poland was on the losing side most of that time. Its fate wasn’t settled until it ended up in the so-called West and its elite clubs, NATO and the EU, some two decades ago. Ukraine faces a similar predicament: It’s not clear where Ukranie fits, and the West hasn’t decided how hard to fight for it.
In its time, the “Polish question” tore Europe apart. When the Poles started an uprising against Russia in 1830, after partitions had erased their country from the European map a generation before, Tsar Nicholas I laid out the choice: “Poland or Russia must now perish.” Free Poland and authoritarian Russia couldn’t coexist. Nicholas put down the Polish insurrection, consigning Russia — as the Russian writer Peter Chaadayev, who saw the uprising firsthand, wrote — to “her own enslavement, and the enslavement of all neighboring peoples.” A century later, Hitler started World War II to enslave his eastern neighbors; after Yalta, Stalin got Poland and the region as his prize.
Poland became the cause célèbre in Western capitals the way Ukraine has become in the past year. In his “Sentimental Education,” Gustave Flaubert describes the feverish revolutionary mood in Paris inspired by the Polish January Uprising of 1863. He names the leaders of that failed insurrection who were executed by the Russians — among them, I should disclose, was a relative of mine. The Solidarity movement of the 1980s again stirred the Western imagination.
The fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t settle for good the question of where the borders of freedom and autocracy are in Europe. Poland only came off the map as a prize to be fought for in 1999, when it joined NATO, and, five years later, the European Union. Those decisions stabilized Central Europe.
Now, here we are with Ukraine. The similarities are bracing. Both the national anthems of Poland and Ukraine begin with the same line, that their nation “has not perished yet.” The Ukrainian question is shaping the Europe of the 21st century for the same reason the Polish one did: Its position in Europe, its future as a nation that desires freedom against the violent wishes of a tyrant next door, is at its heart what this conflict is about. The outcome, as the Polish experience shows, isn’t by any means certain.
The Russia-Ukraine split
The Ukrainian question didn’t emerge last year when Russian troops flooded over the Ukrainian borders. Nor when Vladimir Putin, breaking a taboo of the post-Cold War world ‘order’ (now coming with scare quotes), annexed Crimea in 2014 and pushed his proxies into the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
You can better pinpoint its birth to the changing of the clock, and the century, on Dec. 31, 1999. On that day, the ailing Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, handed power over to his young and largely unknown prime minister, Vladimir Putin. In his near-decade at the Kremlin, Yeltsin had balanced reformers and revanchists. He had bad instincts, shelling the Russian parliament in 1993 and launching the Chechen war a year later, mixed with good. His Russia was on a slow, ugly and circuitous path toward the West. He made a critical call early on, overruling his deputy, Aleksandr Rutskoi, who pushed for military action to keep Ukraine within the Russian fold in 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed. He made peace with Ukraine over Crimea and struck up a close relationship with Bill Clinton. Putin was a sharp departure, the KGB Lieutenant Colonel as 21st-century Tsar. Early on, he suppressed his internal opponents. Then he turned his attention to recreating an empire.
It was far less noticed that the rise of Putin coincided — and at first without any direct connection to what was happening in Russia — with the flowering of a civic democracy in the second largest and most important of the former Soviet republics. At that time, many Ukrainians spoke Russian not just fluently but as a first choice. But scratch off the Soviet veneer, and their political values were grounded in a culture and history of heroic opposition to oppressors going back to the 17th century. Through the worst years of official corruption and government dysfunction, the democratic impulse was the most vivid feature of its politics. The first free election was held in 1991, in which 90 percent backed independence. Voters bounced the first president of independent Ukraine, after a single term, in 1994. When the ruling party tried to subvert a free election in 2004, and Putin, for the first time, directly sought to impose his will on Ukraine, millions rose up in the Orange Revolution and secured their right to a free vote. They changed presidents in 2010, in 2014, and yet again, with Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s election, in 2019. Six freely elected presidents in three decades of independence. Only one incumbent won a second term. Ukraine is different: The other two Eastern Slavic states — Belarus and Russia — have had the same ruler this whole century.
What’s Putin’s problem with Ukraine? It’s not NATO as such. The Kremlin shrugged when Finland — of Cold War-era Finlandization! — decided last year to join the alliance. It has little to do with Ukraine’s efforts to sign trading arrangements with the European Union that Putin forced a corrupt Ukrainian president in 2013 to tear up, sparking the protests on the Maidan. In reality, Ukraine’s outreach to NATO and the EU is just a manifestation of something far more unacceptable to an authoritarian Russia: That a democratic Ukraine would naturally seek alliances with other European democracies. Or really, since views on NATO were sharply split in Ukraine until last year’s invasion, that a democratic Ukraine could never be an ally or a vassal of an authoritarian Russia. The problem, at its heart, is Ukrainian democracy — and genuine independence.
Free Ukraine is a rebuff to Putin’s repeated denial of its existence, as a country or people separate from Russia. But its existence presents an existential threat to a Russia ruled by a single man that sees itself as an empire. Regime survival is the top priority for any autocrat. If people who are such close cousins of Russians build a vibrant democracy that regularly chucks out leaders, someone like Putin rightly fears contagion. An independent Ukraine sets back Russia’s ambitions for control over this region.
Now, many in the West would have preferred for the Ukrainians to slink on their way into Russia’s messy, authoritarian, pseudo-imperial world (Russkiy mir, as Putin calls it). The EU had trouble digesting the Central European countries and slow-walked their membership in the block. The West seems fine to abandon the Belarusians to Putin. But the Ukrainians never gave the West that option. Not only that, they’re showing it up, bleeding for values that, for generations, people in free countries haven’t had to fight for.
The U.S. and its allies have mobilized with speed to support the Ukrainians. The generosity and continued unity in Europe and America on Ukraine surely took Putin by surprise.
But the “Ukrainian question” hangs out there, largely unanswered. The discussions in Washington, Berlin and Kyiv are consumed by what weapons to send or which extra sanctions to impose. Yes, on Javelins and eventually HIMARs, no for Patriots, then yes. The Ukrainians asked for Leopard and Abrams tanks, and after much drama, last month will receive them, though perhaps not in time for a Russian advance in the Donbas. Ukrainians want more, possibly F-16s and long-range rockets. Joe Biden says no, for now; maybe he’ll change his mind later.
This incremental approach has some merits. American and European officials who are firm backers of Ukraine say this kind of “calibration” keeps the alliance together. It reflects the approach favored by Biden, who, above all, doesn’t want to suck America into a direct clash with Russia. Equally concerned supporters in the West, echoing Ukrainian anxieties, say the weapons are coming too slowly, that time is on Putin’s side. The Russian strongman won’t stop, they say, until he sees the West deliver overwhelming firepower to destroy, not just diminish, his military.
This debate avoids the one thing that requires a clear answer: What outcome does the West want for Ukraine and, for that matter, Russia? We know how Ukrainians would wish this to end. Same goes for Putin, who can’t let them win. It’s the West that sometimes looks lost in the fog of war, lacking a vision for what victory looks like.
There are plenty of good reasons for that. Look closer and divisions in the alliance become clearer. The North Americans, British, Poles and Balts are pushing hardest for Ukraine. These countries — most of which are members of NATO but not the EU — account for the bulk of the arms and economic sent to Ukraine. It’s the old Atlantic bloc, plus the “new Europeans.” The Continental powers (Germany, France, Italy) are less generous and more circumspect. As a share of its GDP, Germany gives roughly half what America has and a quarter of what Poland has last year in military aid to Ukraine. Hence the creative ambiguity in the alliance about where this is going.
Ambiguity and risk-aversion with Putin’s Russia has a poor track record. At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Germany stopped the U.S. push to give Ukraine and Georgia an eventual path into the alliance, not wishing to offend Russia; Putin invaded Georgia four months later. In 2014, after Putin seized Crimea, President Barack Obama kept talking about “off ramps” for Putin and refused to send the Ukrainians even defensive weapons, so as not to provoke the Russian leader; Putin moved on from Crimea right past those “off ramps” into the Donbas. Before last year’s invasion, the U.S. and Europe were reluctant to spell out the costs to Putin. The pattern was familiar from the Bucharest meeting: The West has been better at deterring itself than at deterring Russia.
These are hard decisions. The EU would be looking at many billions of euros in commitments to Ukraine. NATO would be looking to extend a formal security guarantee, possibly creating another Korea-style DMZ along Ukraine’s eastern frontier with Russia. Russia, and let’s not forget China, would be deterred from aggression elsewhere. Victory also means a Russia without Putin. “This man cannot remain in power,” Biden ad-libbed in Warsaw last March, before his cautious aides walked back this rare expression of clarity. The debate is moving, incrementally but clearly in that direction. The most famous realist of all, Henry Kissinger, now thinks Ukraine should be brought into NATO.
Until the “Ukrainian question” of this century is answered, presumably with an unambiguous statement of ultimate objectives followed by determined action, it’s hard to imagine enduring peace in Europe. This path carries grave risks for Europe and its American patron, but the alternative may be more unappealing. As the physical scars of the Continent remind us to this day, the failure to address the Polish question left it in ruins in 1945 and divided until 1989. This is another key moment where the future of Europe will be decided.