Western Balkans Futures
Simulating Five Scenarios for the Western Balkans
13 May 2022
As Russia launches a full-scale assault on Ukraine, Central Europe has become the most exposed part of the European Union and NATO, becoming, in essence, the frontline of the West.
Yet, the positions of individual Visegrad Group (V4) nations towards this crisis are not unanimous. Three out of the four: Hungary, Poland and Slovakia share a border with Ukraine. Czechia does not border Ukraine but it hosts a large Ukrainian diaspora. The positions of these four states are addressed below.
Over the last year, the Czech position towards Russia has significantly hardened and by extension, the attitude towards Ukraine has become more supportive. The event that sparked the change in the Czech attitude was a discovery, published in April 2021, that Russian operatives were responsible for staging a terrorist attack on Czech soil in 2014.
The attack, which led to the explosion of the munitions depot, resulted in two deaths and tens of injured and was executed by the same operatives who attempted to kill Sergei Skripal in Salisbury. Following the discovery, Czechia expelled tens of Russian diplomats and the Czech-Russian relationship went into crisis mode.
Until 2021 Czechia was considered to be soft on Russia with some of its prominent politicians, such as President Miloš Zeman, being openly pro-Russian. Following the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, Czech diplomacy also made a point of distancing itself from being considered a part of NATO’s East flank and declining an offer to host the Alliance forces on its territory.
However, following the eruption of the Czech-Russian crisis in 2021 the mood of the country has significantly evolved. Despite clear Russian threats Prague did not hesitate to carry on with expelling Russian operatives posing as diplomats.
With the onset of the Russian military buildup on the borders of Ukraine, Czechia was amongst the first nations to offer military support to Kyiv and consistently shipped armaments over the last month.
Czechia has also offered military support to its neighbour Slovakia, which borders directly Ukraine. Czechia will now serve as a framework nation for the NATO battle group stationed in Slovakia.
On the day of the full-scale military invasion, the Czech government took additional steps: closed down two Russian consulates at home and two Czech consulates in Russia, suspended granting new visa to Russians, called home the Czech ambassador to Moscow and Minsk and announced preparations for refugees from Ukraine.
Under the leadership of Victor Orbán Hungary became the most pro-Russian member state of the EU and NATO. Orbán established a close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin with the two leaders paying frequent visits to each other.
Orbán has also criticised sanctions imposed on Russia following the annexation of Crimea and although Hungary complied with the sanctions it was frequently bypassing them. Orbán also expressed sympathy with Russian policies in Crimea and other parts of the former Soviet Union where Russian minorities reside.
Finally, Hungary strengthened energy relations with Russia and became almost entirely dependent on Russian energy sources.
As regards the Ukrainian question, the Hungarian position has been marked by acting as a stopper on developing Kyiv’s relations with the West, for example in the context of NATO.
Under Orbán’s leadership, Budapest accused Kyiv of running a policy of discriminating against the Hungarian minority in Zakarpattia.
In effect, Budapest has been therefore acting as an anti-Ukrainian agent inside the EU and NATO, with the only justification being insufficient, according to Budapest, rights of 150 000- strong Hungarian minority.
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine was becoming inevitable, Hungary kept rejecting the possibility of sanctioning Russia and placing NATO presence on its territory. However, eventually, Hungary did not veto the EU sanctions.
Also, Hungary eventually agreed to form a NATO battle group on its territory, although, Hungary itself will act as its framework nation.
In response to the full-scale invasion on 24 February, Hungary initially mulled vocal support to Ukraine but promised to fall in the response by the EU as a whole and eventually condemned Russia.
However, along with Germany, Italy, and Cyprus, it blocked the possibility to exclude Russia from SWIFT. It also moved additional troops to the border and introduced temporary protection to Ukrainian citizens arriving from Ukraine and to third-country nationals residing in Ukraine.
Poland has long acted as a chief hawk in Central Europe alerting NATO and the EU on the Russian revisionist agenda. It has the largest American presence on its territory, established after the Ukrainian take-over of Crimea.
Until the eruption of the current Ukrainian crisis, the US presence in Poland was already close to 5,000 troops, counting both the US presence in the context of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (where the US serves as a framework nation) and on the basis of Polish-American bilateral agreement.
In days leading to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, US presence in Poland was boosted by additional 3000 troops and more troops are likely to arrive in the coming days.
Poland’s position towards Ukraine has been consistently supportive since 1991 with Warsaw becoming the first capital to recognise Ukraine as an independent state. Warsaw also played a key role during the Orange Revolution (2004-2005) in Ukraine with Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski effectively brokering the agreement.
Warsaw also played a key diplomatic role during the Maidan revolution, although, it was subsequently excluded from the Normandy format upon Russian demand.
Support for Ukraine is largely a matter of bipartisan consensus in Poland, with all major parties supporting this position in principle. However, until recently, the governing Law and Justice Party exercised a more lukewarm attitude towards Ukraine, mostly in response to the largely anti-Ukrainian lobby that is strong in the East of Poland, which faithfully supports Law and Justice in the election.
Therefore Poland, despite its vocal support for Ukraine, started to deliver weapons to Kyiv only in recent weeks, considerably later than the Baltic states and Czechia. It is also important to note that Poland is home to the largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world, reaching 1.5 million people.
Despite some incidents, Ukrainian labour migration has been overall well-received in Poland as a positive factor contributing to the national economy.
After the full invasion was launched by Russia, Poland — next to supporting full sanctions by the EU — announced opening reception centres for the refugees near the border, called for NATO Article 4 consultations and organises a Bucharest Nine meeting (on 25 Feb) of 9 NATO leaders from CEE to coordinate positions.
Slovakia is geopolitically very torn. Most of its elites are Atlanticist but considerable parts of the Slovak population sympathise with Russia. The current Slovak centre-right government represents a coalition of forces most of which are pro-western, but some are pro-Russian.
The biggest opposition party SMER, led by former Prime Minister Robert Fico is squarely pro-Russian, both ideologically but also through a variety of business links mostly of corrupt nature.
In the last week, Slovakia was home to major controversy with the fight in the parliament to pass the agreement on defence cooperation with the US. The agreement is a standard document that all nations in Central Europe have completed years ago and it does not stipulate the hosting of US troops. Yet, it was portrayed as such by the opposition, and it led to major protests. In fact, the majority of Slovaks have opposed the agreements.
Today, the Slovak opposition and a considerable part of the public are sympathetic to the Russian narrative vis-à-vis Ukraine. Ukraine, even though a direct neighbour, is seen in Slovakia through the prism of attitude towards Russia.
Like other Ukrainian neighbours Slovakia has also agreed to host a NATO battle group but, as mentioned earlier, the framework will be provided by a non-controversial neighbour: Czechia.
Yet, upon the outbreak of the full-scale invasion, Slovak Police announced that Ukraine-Slovak border crossings will be open to all even without a passport.
Ukraine’s neighbours have shown divergent levels of support, which is mostly motivated by geography and history. However, there is no doubt that the club of Ukraine’s supporters has been growing over time in the region.
Traditionally, Ukraine has had strong support from Poland. Today Czechia is joining this group whilst Hungary remains pro-Russian and Slovakia is torn. Poland works towards a joint CEE response by means of Bucharest Nine.
Hungary, presiding until the summer in the Visegrad Group, is reluctant to move away from close relations with Russia and China which were cornerstones of Budapest’s foreign policy in the recent decade.
Yet, this response is moderated now with the public generally condemning the Russian aggression during a close electoral race to conclude on 3 April.
Part of the V4 Defense Policy Challenge Project
Western Balkans Futures
Simulating Five Scenarios for the Western Balkans
13 May 2022
Banning the ‘Z’ Symbol in CEE Will Backfire
12 May 2022
Will the Debate on the Euro Save Central Europe’s EU Future?
11 May 2022
It Was Only After the Invasion That the Future of Europe Began to Be Discussed in Earnest
11 May 2022