What to Make of the CEE Response to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Editorial perspective and expert survey

24 February 2023

The past 365 days have changed Ukraine and Europe for good.

In early February 2022, Visegrad Insight published a foresight report on how Central and Eastern European countries would react if Russia invaded Ukraine. A year later, we asked those authors to revisit their analysis and see how the war will affect the future of Europe. 

The past year has changed Ukraine and Europe permanently. It is likely the beginning of a new world order, as we discussed with Timothy Garton Ash

As an Editorial Team, we have stood with Ukraine and Ukrainians from day one in their struggle for victory and democratic security. Our crowdfunded Future of Ukraine Fellowship continues to support voices from inside the country, which shapes European public opinion beyond the war. Just this Tuesday, Vitaly Portnikov, a prominent Ukrainian columnist and one of the fellows, delivered a powerful testimony about the moral regeneration of Europe that is one of the many unexpected results of this war. 

We continue to build foresight on the future of Europe in the context of the war. It has also been addressed this week at a seminar at Oxford organised jointly by Visegrad Insight with the Russian and East European Studies and European Studies Centre (St Antony’s College). Furthermore, we reflect back on our past findings to develop perspectives and policy recommendations that take into account particular national viewpoints before synthesising them to a common CEE outlook. 

Over a year ago, before the first bombs fell, Visegrad Insight explored how nine Central and Eastern European countries would respond to Moscow’s invasion. Based on American intelligence reports, we assumed the Russian attack was likely and imminent; sadly, this turned out to be the reality. 

In anticipation of the strategic shift eastwards from Western and NATO allies, we asked experts from across the region to give their country-specific analysis related to the likely readiness of support to Ukraine, domestic political setting and foreign policy stances, among many others. 

On the anniversary of the invasion, we asked the authors of this report to revisit their assessments. Now, they give an update on how their countries and societies have responded to Russia’s invasion and how the war could affect them going forward.

Spasmir Domaradzki, Bulgaria:

In light of the war in Ukraine, the genuine picture in Bulgaria largely met the arguments of our report. The country persists in its internal political crisis, and that is both a reason and a consequence of its position on the war today. The lack of an efficient government with sound political legitimacy for a large part of the year left the country in the hands of President Rumen Radev. His pre-war alleged rhetorical confusions about Crimea have now received a new face with endless calls for a peaceful solution, impediments for military assistance to Ukraine and his claims for protecting Bulgaria’s national interest.

During the period of Kirił Petkov’s government, the war in Ukraine became one of the divisive issues as the Bulgarian Socialist Party persistently refused to send military assistance. Furthermore, after the 2 October 2022 parliamentary elections, the Ukrainian support issue has become a stumbling block (along with other issues) for the prospective cooperation between the reformist parties (We Continue Change and Democratic Bulgaria) and the Bulgarian Socialist Party.

The endless election campaign in Bulgaria leaves little room for compromises as the parties are much more interested in fulfilling voters’ expectations than in reaching deals. Hence, the war in Ukraine is instrumentalised in Bulgarian politics. Former PM Boiko Borisov’s GERB underlines his Euroatlantic orientation believing that this will increase his credibility at home and among international partners. Simultaneously, the reformist parties refuse to cooperate with Borisov despite the shared international priorities.

One thing that was overestimated was the role of the Bulgarian diaspora in Ukraine as a driver for action. Despite the efforts to raise this issue in the public debate, President Radev and the technical government of Gylyb Donev largely ignored its fate as a legitimate motive for action beyond the readiness to provide humanitarian assistance and shelter when necessary.

Christine Karelska, Ukraine — Future of Ukraine Fellow

“Putin didn’t fancy having Ukraine out of his post-Soviet space. The invasion has only made Ukrainians stronger and closer to Europe.”


Radu Albu Comănescu, Romania:

One year later, and having in mind Romania’s previously complicated relationship with Ukraine, it is hard to say if the war revealed something more about the dual nature of this relationship. Commitment is undeniable, with means certainly limited from a military and economic point of view, but which both parties try to use to maximum efficiency. 

While state secrets surround Romania’s actions, Ukrainian authorities repeatedly thanked Bucharest for the helping hand granted on specific points, such as the grain deal, connection to the EU market, electricity and fuel supply, etc. 

As expected, Romania did become a base and place of transit for providing military help to Ukraine and acted with surprising humanitarian generosity from day one of the conflict, processing almost 3.8 million Ukrainian refugees by December 2022 (of which 100,000 decided to stay in the country). It also respected the bilateral agreement that concerned the acquisition, production, delivery, overhaul and upgrade of Ukrainian military equipment. 

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However, logistics prove to be a challenge; Romania being reputed for a deficit of infrastructure that, more often than not, cripples such initiatives. Consequently, a series of border infrastructure projects were approved by the government (upgrades or new designs).

While unwavering in its support “as long as it takes”, Bucharest did not avoid discussing sensitive topics with Kyiv, for instance the Romanian minority rights or Ukraine apparently resuming Bystroye canal works in the Danube Delta, a dormant dispute between the two countries since 2004. Bucharest does not want to send mixed signals but emphasises that in order to become a part of the Euro-Atlantic community, Ukraine has to respect conventions and agreements characteristic to this community; timing, however, and circumstances are not the fairest and it might look like Romania takes advantage of the moment, but Bucharest wants to make sure that such problems are dealt with as soon as they appear, avoiding discomforting consequences.

Last but not least, both countries cooperate in supporting Moldova’s stability, menaced by Russian projects. Given the war and the multiple threats in the region, Romania has asked NATO to raise the level of deterrence on its Eastern Flank, and in talks with the new US ambassador, Bucharest requested an increase in the number of US troops deployed on Romanian territory.

Pavel Havlicek, Czech Republic:

Since 24 February, Czechia has taken a highly ambitious course in support of Ukraine and punishing Russia for its new wave of aggression against its neighbour. 

In many respects, the country outperformed much bigger and (geo-)politically more significant countries in its resolute stance and efficient support in the high peak of the war. This was caused by its mental shift from a more ambivalent position into a fully-fledged eastern flank nation, which has been a typical feature since the beginning of the Petr Fiala cabinet at the end of 2021. Czechia played a key role during its EU Presidency in the second half of 2022 when it coordinated European support to Ukraine as well as punitive measures against Putin’s regime while maintaining unity among the EU-27.  

On the political and strategic levels, the Czech government and its representatives took the decision to do maximum to support Ukraine, which was also why the Czech PM Fiala was among the first world politicians to visit Kyiv already on 15 March 2022, at that time still heavily bombarded by the Russians within the very first weeks of the aggression. Most of the Czech government came to Kyiv again on 31 October, this time for a series of bilateral consultations, the first one among the European nations in such numbers. Last but not least, even the Czech President Miloš Zeman publicly pronounced Vladimir Putin as “insane (and) that he needed to be isolated,” claiming that Putin “should stand in front of the war tribunal.” These remarks by Zeman officially distanced himself from his previous foreign policy course.

On the EU level, the most important was the Czech EU Council Presidency, during which the Czechs led and facilitated a number of punitive measures against Russia, for instance, cancelling the Visa Facilitation Agreement or negotiating several new sanction packages. 

Czechia managed to maintain the EU’s unity and uphold solidarity among the EU members in energy, defence and security or support for Ukraine, including the macro-financial assistance of 18 billion EUR for 2023 at the very end of 2022. Despite the lack of consensus, Czechs also succeeded in negotiating a reportable interim assessment of Ukraine’s progress on enlargement and compliance with the pre-conditions for the opening of the accession talks to start Ukraine’s journey into the European Union. Its leadership clearly illustrated the shifting centre of gravity within the EU decision-making process that has moved to Central Europe from the traditional German-French axis.

Vitaly Portnikov, Ukraine — Future of Ukraine Fellow

“It seems to me that the solidarity of Europeans with Ukraine will be that important factor that will help in determine European future.”


Juraj Kuruc, Slovakia:

A year ago, when writing about the distant possibility of Russia aggressively attacking Ukraine, I mentioned that Slovakia’s reaction would very strongly depend on who would be at the helm at the time of crisis. By happy accident, Slovakia had the best possible combination of pro-Western politicians and diplomats leading the country. Slovakia maintains a very strong pro-Ukrainian stance, realising and often repeating that Ukrainians are fighting and dying for our freedom, too, and if they fail, we (Slovakia) will be next. It has been an unprecedented year for the EU and NATO allies, and with the coming anniversary, this will often be repeated.

For Slovakia, there were several firsts. Slovakia donated significant amounts of armaments and humanitarian aid to the Ukrainian cause. Not as much as Poland or the Czech Republic, and according to some domestic commentators, not as much as it could. But in the case of the S-300 air defence system, it was not so much about how much was donated but when. And in terms of timing, Slovakia delivered what it could as soon as it was asked.

Humanitarian aid and acceptance of refugees were unprecedented. For a country that in previous years prided itself on opposing immigration quotas, it joined other countries of Eastern and Central Europe in accepting more than 100,000 refugees and letting hundreds of thousands pass through. Opening its social, healthcare and job sectors to the refugees, organising accommodation, transportation, offering tax incentives, as well as large-scale civil society mobilisation to help the country cope with the initial influx.

Diplomatically and symbolically, Slovak Prime Minister Heger pointedly did not join his counterparts from Poland, Slovenia and Czechia in March 2022. He did eventually go with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borell. Since then, Slovakia has continued to support Ukraine in international fora as well as institutions like the EU or NATO.

However, Slovakia’s support is by no means guaranteed. Internally divided with a large section of the population believing the Russian narrative and the top leadership readying for early election this year, Slovakia’s present course is by no means assured. 

Negotiations over the sixth package of sanctions confirmed that national interest comes before high principles. Ukraine will need a lot of support in the coming year and more yet after that.

Magda Jakubowska, Poland:

Poland has witnessed the largest wave of migrations and has become the main hub for receiving women and children from Ukraine. Unlike some neighbouring countries, the success of these humanitarian initiatives has been primarily down to the Polish nation’s self-organisation rather than any government structure. Poland and its society have welcomed the Ukrainian migration cohort with an open heart which lasts till today. Although the expected nationalistic voices were in place, Polish people have shown outstanding commitment and support to their troubled neighbour, which has been recognised the world over. What was not anticipated was the Polish nation’s unified reaction to the war, which was so much needed in this heavily-polarised society. 

The Polish threat perception has also changed as it has grown in respect to Russia’s invasion; now, the acceptance towards increased defence spending is greater than ever. Additionally, the need for energy security has driven us towards nuclear power plants and the need for renewable energy resources; a reinvigorated strategic shift which was impossible before Russia’s invasion. The presence of US troops in Poland and common work towards securing NATO’s Eastern Flank has also gained widespread acceptance.

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Positively, the third sector’s role in Polish society has been highlighted, and finally, its work is more understood in Polish society. Therefore, Poland is also more empathetic towards democratic values and its presence within the EU, primarily in NATO. 

Nonetheless, Poland understands Russian aggression towards Ukraine as a threat to its own security, willing both to vocalise and perform any support that displays a non-acceptance of the aggression. It highly endorses sanctions and any other steps the Western world or international order undertakes to “punish” the Kremlin. Surprisingly, like nothing else, all share this stance – regardless of political colour. 

Oleksandr Kraiev, Ukraine — Future of Ukraine Fellow

“Today, Ukraine is the country most embodied with European values and principles. Ukraine is Europe in itself.”


Dovilė Jakniūnaitė, Lithuania:

Lithuania was very active and persistent in talking about the possible Russian threat, urging to take the warnings by the U.S. seriously. Still, the attack on Ukraine was a massive shock in the country as the biggest fears that Russia might attack another country have been realised. Therefore, the most important question asked after the invasion was about the reasons why bigger European partners were so risk tolerant and even naïve towards Russia for so many years without taking into account Lithuanian (or Baltic, or Eastern European) concerns more seriously.

Europe has definitely changed since 24 February 2022. Mentally, many political leaders had to deal with the new reality admitting that quite a few mistakes in policies towards Russia have been made. From the Lithuanian point of view, the most important change was made by Germany — this is due to its Zeitewende announcement, the decision to change its energy policy quickly, and also in its increased commitment towards contributing to Lithuania’s security. Germany promised to permanently deploy a combat-ready rotational brigade in Lithuania, which is a substantial factor in increasing the country’s security.

As for Lithuania itself, at least two prominent changes can be noticed. First, Lithuanian diplomacy became more visible, active and persistent in trying to keep the attention on helping Ukraine as much as possible with the understanding that the country has a great window of opportunity to become a more influential player in the European foreign policy field. Second, Lithuania has accelerated its budget increase to the defence policy, and in 2023, the defence budget reached 2.52 per cent of GDP, a much bigger increase than it was planned before the war started.

Imants Liegis, Latvia:

Anglo-American intelligence assessments about Russia’s imminent full-scale military assault on Ukraine one year ago regrettably proved to be correct. Greatly helped by the fierce resilience of Ukrainians and the outstanding leadership qualities of President Zelenskyy, the war witnessed a speedy, determined and united response by the Euro-Atlantic community.

Additional US troops were immediately dispatched to Poland and the Baltic countries after 24 February. Other allies followed suit, with NATO agreeing to provide increased military presence from battalion to brigade level. Air and sea defences are being bolstered. NATO’s defence posture is replacing deterrence by punishment with deterrence by denial. Societies in the region accept the need for increased defence spending.

Other perceptible changes in Europe have seen Ukraine and Moldova become EU candidate countries. Finland and Sweden are joining NATO, thereby fundamentally changing European security in the Nordic-Baltic region. Neutrality has been abandoned. The Baltic becomes a NATO sea. However, speculation about Europe’s centre of gravity moving east may prove to be illusory. Retaining the moral high ground about Russia with a “we told you so” approach has impacted European partners. But it won’t replace the military power projected by France and the UK and the economic might of Germany.



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