BY LAURA KELLY – 09/05/23
WARSAW, Poland — Eastern European countries are raising alarm over Ukraine potentially being pushed into peace talks with Russia, amid growing partisanship in Washington, hesitation and delays in weapons supplies to Kyiv and waning public support.
While President Biden and other allies have promised to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes,” the countries bordering Russia and Belarus — the latter of which is considered a puppet state for Russian President Vladimir Putin — argue that international partners need to lay out a path for a decisive victory for Kyiv.
“What do we need to do? Plan for Ukrainian victory. Not plan to stand with Ukraine ‘as long as it needs, as long as it requires,’” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said during a conference in Spain last week.
“Plan for victory, they need to win, they need to win for us.”
Ukraine is making slow, but significant progress against Russia’s occupying forces in a second counteroffensive that was launched in June, more than a year-and-a-half since Putin launched the full-scale invasion of the country.
But Ukraine’s most hawkish supporters are concerned that battles in Washington over the 2024 budget, Republican infighting over military and economic aid for Kyiv, and creeping negativity among the U.S. public toward ongoing support will give the impression of waning American support and increase pressure for Ukrainians to negotiate with Russia.
Statements from Republican presidential candidates, including front-runner former President Trump, calling for the U.S. to directly negotiate with Putin and relegating the war to a territorial dispute are compounding those concerns among NATO-member states that are on the front-line of the eastern flank with Russia.
In an interview with a small group of journalists in Warsaw at the end of August, head of the Polish National Security Bureau Jacek Siewierą said Putin is determined to make a “new global order” and would not be contained by a supposed peace deal in Ukraine.
“This confrontation with the West, from the side of Russia, is probably a structural shift or development. … It will last for a long period of time. It won’t stop with a ceasefire,” Siewierą continued.
“This confrontation is something that Russia is treating as a pre-positioning for a new global order.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has insisted that any deal must pressure Putin into a full retreat of Ukrainian territory and security guarantees that would deter and repel any future Russian aggression.
The U.S. and other backers say that only Ukraine can decide when the moment is right for Kyiv to enter peace negotiations. But that orthodoxy is being challenged in the U.S. by figures such as Trump and fellow GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who wants to cede Ukrainian territory to Putin as part of a proposal to break the Russia-China alliance.
But for Poland and the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, engaging Putin for talks is a red line. And they say Ukraine’s supporters must prepare for scenarios where Putin is isolated completely.
One Baltic official, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, told The Hill that Baltic states are concerned that pushing Ukraine into negotiations will have dangerous ripple effects throughout the region.
“All of this then increases the threat on NATO’s borders. Putin would be able to sell negotiations as a victory, and [it] would help him exert even greater political influence globally — we already see it in Africa, in Niger and South Africa. It’s not only a military threat but a diplomatic one, too.”
The official said peace talks and a ceasefire would give Putin the motivation, and free up resources, to turn toward threatening other bordering states, such as in the Russian-occupied territories of Georgia and Moldova.
“Armenia would also be in Putin’s crosshairs,” warned the official, who described Belarus as “not a sovereign state.”
Poland and the Baltics are on heightened alert over potential threats on their borders with Russia and Belarus, which is under the control of Putin ally and longtime authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
These countries have accused Lukashenko since 2021 of sending migrants largely from the Middle East to their borders to manufacture a humanitarian and political crisis, and have previously considered invoking Article 4 of NATO’s treaty — which would convene the alliance to discuss concerns over “the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.”
Poland’s Border Guard said in early August that it had recorded at least 19,000 people so far this year trying to cross the border illegally from Belarus.
Putin and Lukashenko have also boasted of nuclear weapons being moved to Belarus. Following a failed rebellion earlier this summer, thousands of members of Russia’s Wagner private military company have also relocated to Belarus, triggering Poland and the Baltics to increase their own troop presence on the border.
They’ve closed some land crossings but have threatened to seal the border if they feel their security is at risk.
“We emphasize that we treat the actions taken by Russia and Belarus, which cooperates with it, as intentional attempts to destabilize the situation in the region,” the interior ministers of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia said in a joint statement Monday.
The death last month of Putin’s ally-turned-traitor Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner group, in a suspected Kremlin-backed assassination, did not change the security situation markedly for the Baltics.
Siewierą, the top Polish national security official, said the joint statement by Polish and Baltic warnings of border closures is one concrete step to protect against “potential infiltration.”
“So governments who are neighboring Belarus and Russia are expressing very openly that they don’t accept any form of provocations, any form of hostile activity on their borders,” he said.
U.S. and European officials view Putin as determined to stay the course of his war in Ukraine with the goal of bringing it under the Kremlin’s control. They believe the Russian leader still believes he can outlast the will of Ukrainian society and its international backers, and further survive any internal conflict.
“[Putin] really still believes he’s going to win this thing. … He’s in it for the long term. … His view is that the West doesn’t have the stomach,” a U.S. Department of Defense official in Europe told The Hill in an interview in mid-August.
“That’s our view of ‘the Putin view’ and those around him, is that things are messy. … Things don’t always work out exactly. But we’re staying the course.”
For some in Europe, that paints a worrying contrast with the U.S., which is showing growing signs of war fatigue. While a broad majority in Congress have continued to support Ukraine aid, a spending fight over President Biden’s latest request for $24 billion in supplemental funding for Ukraine will show whether far-right skepticism is starting to seep into the Republican mainstream.
The leading candidates in the Republican primary also appear to be staking out a position consistent with GOP voters, the majority of which say the U.S. should stop sending money to Ukraine. An Aug. 4 CNN poll found 71 percent of Republicans oppose additional financial support for Ukraine’s war.
European officials were reluctant to speak publicly about their concerns about political developments in the U.S. But they were anxious to warn of the dangers of any efforts to engage with Putin as a good-faith actor.
Michal Baranowski, managing director of the German Marshall Fund East and based in Warsaw, said the looming U.S. presidential election is “a very real concern” for NATO’s eastern flank countries.
“At this point, I’m entirely convinced that this administration is not going to push Ukrainians into early negotiations,” he said, but added that it’s an open question as to what extent the Biden administration will be able to continue to provide the same high level of military aid given the debates over the budget, the slowness of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, and ahead of the 2024 campaigns.
“If the Ukrainians were sweeping [the counteroffensive], it would probably be politically easier to maintain support,” he added.
Poland and the Baltics have staked out the most hawkish positions on confronting Russia. Their populations can reflect back to one or two generations, for stark examples of Russian — then-Soviet — cruelty. The Baltic cultures and identities were criminalized under occupation, with exile to Siberia was a common punishment for dissidents.
When it comes to engaging with Putin, officials here point to remarks in September 2022 by Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, who said that warnings by Poland and the Baltics that the Russian leader could not be trusted were proven right.
“What is happening to Ukrainians now, happened to Estonians in the 1940s and ‘50s,” U.S. Ambassador to Estonia George Kent told The Hill, speaking while touring celebrations in Pärnu, Estonia, on Aug. 20, marking the day it declared its independence in 1991 from the crumbling Soviet Union.
“And I think that is why the reaction has been so forthright, so clear-eyed and uncompromising. Because they don’t need the hypothetical ‘what ifs’ or ‘what abouts.’ They experienced the Russian way of wars.”