MUNICH, Germany — “We must admit that it will be a big challenge to keep the EU member countries enthusiastic,” Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned in a podcast last week. “We have woken up the West, so we can’t let it fall asleep again.”
Leaders from Central Europe, the Baltics and Scandinavia, including Morawiecki, have an innately different and much more stomach-churning perspective on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine compared to their Western European counterparts.
Countries that were once grinded under the Russian boot — or were anxious neighbors of a bullying Soviet Union — have reacted to the war with what psychologists call a survival response. And this is informed by not just the recent past but a history stretching back centuries, impelling these countries to commit to a total and uncompromised Russian defeat.
They see their future as inextricably bound to Ukraine’s, and a Russian win — partial or otherwise — as their defeat also. For them, there can be no frozen conflict, and no negotiations that could leave Russian President Vladimir Putin an opportunity to regroup his forces and come back to haunt them.
And this fear of a clear and present danger is informing cajoling interactions with Western European counterparts here at the Munich Security Conference — one of the most influential forums for global diplomacy — as Central Europeans press for warplanes and more tanks for Ukraine, and for a clear understanding that the fighting can only end when Russia has been devastatingly vanquished.
At past conferences in Munich, reporters and observers were drawn more to the interplay between adversaries. But this time, with no Russia or Iran — both countries were uninvited — the focus is on Western allies and how they will align and proceed on Ukraine.
There will be much talk of unity over the next two days and self-praise for the cohesion shown to date. It will be an opportunity to display the strength and purposefulness of the transatlantic alliance. But the niggling fear for Morawiecki and his cohort is that Western Europe will tire and, if presented with an opportunity for a negotiated settlement — however dubious — they will grab it.
And it might not just be the Western Europeans.
On Tuesday, after a meeting of Western defense chiefs at Ramstein, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Western partners had agreed to deliver more air defense systems, tanks, artillery and shells, as well as training for the Ukrainian military. “This Contact Group has made it clear that we will support Ukraine’s fight for freedom over the long haul,” Austin told reporters.
But U.S. officials have reportedly been urging Kyiv to make significant gains on the battlefield as soon as it can, while the West maintains a strong political appetite to back it and before a Republican-led U.S. Congress starts trimming support in earnest, or election cycles get in the way and the more cautious among President Joe Biden’s administration start pressing the question of exit strategies.
Central European leaders don’t see this war through the lens of election cycles, however, and their nervousness is based on history — including the history of Munich itself.
They’ve been left in the lurch before, notably in 1938, when just a kilometer from where I write this, Britain’s Neville Chamberlain and France’s Édouard Daladier signed the infamous agreement giving the Sudetenland away to Germany 85 years ago. The Czechs know the appeasement as Mnichovská zrada, or the Munich Betrayal.
Then, after the war, there was Yalta and Potsdam — the conferences that saw Joseph Stalin bring his boot down on Central Europe.
But, when the Berlin Wall came down, Central Europe and the Baltics could finally stop looking east with trepidation and reset their gaze west, shaping their post-Soviet identities and direction. They had escaped the trap of history — or so they thought.
For them, joining the European Union and NATO was driven by different motives than those of other Western European countries. They thought these alliances represented insurance against being entrapped ever again, according to Polish historian Jarosław Kuisz, founder and editor of weekly Kultura Liberalna.
But, now — as throughout much of their history, going back even further back from the commissars to the czars — “the east is back,” he said.
From the start, Russia’s invasion was interpreted in the region “not as an event, but as part of a long historical process,” Kuisz noted. And that perception is founded on the experience of previous generations, passed on through public and private education and shared at kitchen tables as families memorialize their histories.
It also informed the welcome that Poles and other Central Europeans extended to Ukrainian refugees, in contrast to their spurning of those from other parts of the world. Historical reasons explain the different treatment, Poles say, pointing to Ukraine’s proximity and the cultural and linguistic ties linking the two countries, as well as an underlying sense of what could be described as preemptive empathy.
When asked about their embrace of fleeing Ukrainians, Central Europeans of all ages mention a moral duty and compassion, but they also highlight worries about the conflict spilling over. The alarm is underpinned by an unshakable historical anxiety, and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, along with the horrors of Bucha and Irpin, has prompted a genetic shudder — one shared by all of Russia’s neighbors.
Seeing the war as part of a historical process, as opposed to an event that can be arbitrarily or quickly ended, is also reshaping alliances in Central Europe. Established partnerships, like the Visegrád Four, are being superseded by a group of countries stretching from Estonia to Bulgaria — Hungary being a notable exception — determined to drive this war to a definitive conclusion, however long it takes, and to ensure they aren’t drawn back into a trap.
Or, as Morawiecki put it: “We do more than others because we have more to win, and more than others to lose.”