When president Zelensky spoke to us in the Romanian parliament, it was his first international address after the horrors of Bucha had come out. As he recounted the abominable crimes of the Russian military, it was surreal to see such atrocities happening in this day and age, in a country just next door to my own. ‘I apologise for these tough images’, Zelensky said during the address earlier this month, ‘but this is the reality, as tough as the images’.
Every country has a unique place in history. But a truly great nation is now being forged on the battlefields of Ukraine. The country has already marked an outstanding moral victory against the Russian invaders not only through the justice of its cause, but also by the valour of its arms and the spirit of its people. Ukraine’s fight is a reminder that such virtues – perhaps more ancient and less fashionable than the values we usually focus on – remain vital to national survival when war comes.
The moral force, psychological endurance and personal bravery displayed by Ukrainians are rooted, at least in part, in historical experiences, hardships and cultural beliefs shared across Eastern Europe. Until the end of the First World War, this benighted corner of the continent was always caught between the ambitions of foreign empires: Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman. The Second World War brought untold losses and destruction to most of the region. After 1945, all of it fell under the murderous yoke of communism.
Eastern Europe has long been a place of hurt and privation but also of Christian faith, hope and courage: this is what saw us all, in these parts of Europe, through the dark times and into the renewed freedom of the post-Cold War era. One legacy of this difficult past has been the mix of poverty, corruption and bad governance that have traditionally – and often correctly – marked many of these countries out for Western criticism and distrust. Another consequence has been mass migration, as millions of East Europeans left for often menial but better paid jobs in the West.
None of this was a natural spur to national confidence – particularly when, quite rightly, local elites had to spend decades as supplicants to Western partners in pursuit of coveted memberships of Nato and the EU. Joining the ‘club’ was worth every effort and countries like Poland have made a major success out of it, especially in economic terms. But an informal dividing line between old (Western) and new (ex-Communist) Europe endures. It has been hard for Eastern Europe to assert itself in a meaningful way politically – especially within the EU – while under the West’s tutelage and while still needing substantial Western support.
In history, however, war is often a great catalyst of change. It may not yet be fully apparent to more distant observers, but this is a turning point for Eastern Europe in three major ways. Firstly, there is a new level of solidarity as neighbouring countries instantly mobilised to help Ukrainian refugees and – excepting the neutral Republic of Moldova – to assist Kyiv’s war effort. The region has come together like never before in the face of Russian aggression, setting aside historic quarrels, unresolved issues related to minority rights, and mutual distrust. The sense of a shared destiny that crosses Nato and EU boundaries – not a common perspective prior to the invasion – has never been more palpable.
Secondly, the war has brought home a few hard foreign policy facts. East Europeans have taken full notice of how some powerful West European allies balance their own economic interests against the security of others. Unity on sanctions is welcome; at the same time, continued large-scale trade in key commodities, as well as attempts at compromising with the tyrant of Kremlin, smack of the worst kind of Realpolitik. On the plus side, the United States and particularly Britain have proven themselves as Eastern Europe’s most dependable strategic allies.
Eastern Europe’s de facto Anglo-American ‘special relationship’, overlaid on the EU and Nato frameworks, is the region’s indispensable support pillar. This carries great strategic implications. UK’s perception in the region, for example, has evolved considerably: from a Brexit disruptor of Europe, it has now become arguably its most resolute defender after Ukraine itself. The stage is set for an expanded form of long-term British leadership in Eastern Europe. The effect on the wider political balance on the continent could be substantial. Should London push at this open door, it would find willing partners.
Finally, the tragedy of Ukraine is a hard lesson to Eastern Europe, highlighting a truth the region has tended to overlook in recent years: that there is no substitute for self-reliance; there can be only additions to it. The war has shattered many illusions: what Napoleon said of soldiers – that they ‘grow old quickly on the battlefield’ – applies to civic leaders too. With the enemy at the gates, regional elites now understand that their period of apprenticeship in European affairs must end: it is graduation time, into an era of assertive and confident East-European statecraft.
A new, bolder and better trained generation of political leaders will have to give the region between the Baltic and the Black Sea a stronger and more united voice in Europe and across the world, standing tall on the giant shoulders of Ukraine – for Kyiv’s sake and for all of ours. The brave Ukrainians will ultimately win their war; the great task for Eastern Europe in our time, therefore, is to win the peace alongside them.
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