Western Europe needs to treat Central and Eastern European nations as equal partners


By Robert Tyler, Senior Policy Advisor at EU affairs think tank New Direction

Today, French President Emanuel Macron is in Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in a bid to avert war in Ukraine. Whilst pundits and supporters in Western Europe have cheered for this, there has been little praise in the East. In Kyiv, Warsaw, Tbilisi and Tallinn, Macron’s visit is viewed as yet another naive Westerner falling for Moscow’s optics. Indeed, Macron’s trip is seen as one more example of how the West still fails to understand the East.

Western Europe’s approach to the current crisis on the EU’s Eastern frontier has demonstrated that most nations in the West continue to be stuck in a post-Cold War mind set. The present attitudes and the guiding policies in Berlin, Brussels, and Paris are rooted in the belief that those countries East of Germany remain the impoverished post-communist states from the early 1990s, instead of recognising that they have become vibrant liberal democracies with stable market economies themselves.

Western European Paternalism

An air of paternalism still hangs over the approach of Western European countries when it comes to dealing with their partners to the East. This has perhaps been best exemplified in recent battles with Poland over the rule of law and media freedom, or with Lithuania over its tussle with Beijing. Whilst in both cases, their actions are no different than those of their Western counterparts, the fact that they have chosen to act on their own initiative is incompatible with the view that these countries would still need to be coddled by a bigger sibling in the West.

The worst of Western European paternalism has been on display when it comes to Russia. In 2021, whilst the Lukashenko regime launched its hybrid attack on the Polish, Lithuanian, and Latvian borders – weaponising the migrant crisis – Western Europe was slow to react. Indeed, it took several months for tangible support to arrive in Poland and the Baltics. Equally, as Russian troops arrived on the border of Ukraine in June 2021, Western Europeans seemed to pay little attention to the dangerous escalation.

This attitude of not taking the threat seriously has continued alongside with the mounting escalation on the Ukrainian border. As increasing numbers of troops, vehicles, and aircraft arrived on the Russian frontier with its neighbour, and into Belarus, Western Europeans once again chose to respond meekly. Germany, for example has so far committed only 5,000 helmets and a field hospital, whilst by contrast Poland committed to send anti-aircraft missiles, while the Baltic States and Britain have already deployed anti-tank weaponry.


All of this of course comes off the back of long-term concerns over Russia in the region. Even before the recent aggression along its frontiers, the Baltic States and Poland had put in place contingency plans. Latvia for example has redrawn its school curriculums to focus on finding good officers, whilst at the same time, it has put together plans to teach the public civil defence techniques. Since 2017, Poland has been building up its “Territorial Defence Forces” – new volunteer groups that can be deployed in a national emergency. At the same time, Estonia has launched a major modernisation programme – committing millions towards upgrading equipment and training. None of these strategies would be in place unless there was serious degree of concern.

However, the approach of Western Europe to the situation with Russia continues to be that of the upstairs neighbor in a flooding building. Whilst their downstairs neighbors are busy bailing out the water with buckets and pans, desperately shouting for help – the upstairs neighbor continues to insist that it can’t be the case because his feet aren’t wet. The irony of course is that in order to leave the building he needs to go downstairs – that is to say that the West will sooner or later realise that they too are the targets of Russian aggression.

This ignorance of how to deal with Europe’s Russia problem has translated into a series of blunders at the highest level. In February 2021, despite the best efforts of the Baltic states to stop it, EU High Representative Josep Borrell travelled to Moscow. There, he was publicly humiliated, as his Russian counterpart chastised the EU as an “unreliable partner” at a joint press conference. Adding insult to injury, as he left the country, diplomats from Germany, Sweden, and Poland were expelled for expressing support for the recently incarcerated Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Western Europe must reappraise its policy stance

As the current crisis escalates, and the threat of further hybrid attacks on Central and Eastern Europe seem inevitable, Western Europe must critically reappraise two key aspects of their policy – firstly their approach to their partners in the region, and secondly their approach to Russia itself.

When it comes to the first issue, Western European nations need to start treating Central and Eastern European states as equal partners. The near-Orientalist approach taken by commentators and politicians alike when discussing the region has done little to help them –as it has been rather detrimental to European cohesion. In some cases, it has been outright dangerous for the security of the continent, like in the case of the Polish-Belarus border dispute. It should thus be recognised that countries like Poland, the Baltic States, and even Ukraine can speak for themselves – France of Germany do not need to negotiate on their behalf.

Secondly, treating the nations in the region as equals, and listening to their legitimate concerns allows Western Europe to start working on a more stable joint approach towards Russia with their partners. An approach built on ensuring stability and security in the region, through common defence and resilience building.

Too much is at stake for the West to continue to ignore what is being said by their friends and allies in the East.

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