Even before the start of the Ukrainian crisis, Poland and the Baltic countries have been prominent players in the contest between Russia and the West over the future of Ukraine. Poland, along with Sweden, initiated the European Union‘s Eastern Partnership program, which sought to bring the bloc closer to the former Soviet states on the EU periphery — Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The program targeted all of these states, but Ukraine made the most progress in negotiations on the EU Association and Free Trade agreement, the political and economic cornerstone of the Eastern Partnership program.
It was former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s November 2013 decision to abandon this progress at the Vilnius summit that led, ultimately, to his ouster. Pro-EU protests erupted in Kiev shortly after the decision, morphing into broader demonstrations. Yanukovich fled the country in February 2014 and was replaced by a new pro-Western government led by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and President Petro Poroshenko. This new government followed through with the earlier EU agreements, even as Russia countered the developments in Kiev by annexing Crimea and supporting a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
As the standoff between Russia and the West evolved, the Baltic countries and Poland threw their full support behind Ukraine. Throughout the crisis, they have been the most assertive countries in challenging Russia’s position in the former Soviet periphery. From the start they have called for a strong Western response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, especially by exerting pressure on Russia through sanctions. Since a Sept. 5 cease-fire between Kiev and pro-Russia militants the conflict inside of Ukraine has de-escalated and nations such as Germany and France have discussed a potential drawdown of sanctions. Poland and the Baltics, however, have remained resolute in calls to maintain these sanctions.
Separately from their advocacy at the EU level, these countries have made individual and regional efforts to mitigate Russian influence and to support Ukraine’s Western integration. Diversifying away from Russian hydrocarbon supplies has been key to these efforts. Lithuania recently launched a liquefied natural gas terminal that will reduce its dependence on Russian natural gas. Poland, too, will open its own LNG terminal in the early months of 2015. Plans to increase regional pipeline connectivity are in the works and will serve to erode Russia’s ability to leverage energy. Unilaterally, Poland has already managed to lower Ukraine’s dependence on Russia by sending reverse natural gas flows to Ukraine, helping Ukraine import more than 5 billion cubic meters of natural gas from the European Union in 2014 — a 59 percent increase over 2013. Ukraine, however, consumes more than 50 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year, diminishing Poland’s ability to seriously help Ukraine in the near term.
Poland and the Baltic nations have also sought to decrease Russian leverage on the security front, especially because of their geographic proximity and longstanding animosity. In 2014, all of these states requested that NATO make a greater commitment to their collective defense in order to prevent them from becoming the frontlines of potential Russian military aggression. While NATO did not agree to establish a permanent military base on their territories, the United States and NATO countries have increased the size and intensity of military exercises in the region and have agreed to a semi-permanent rotation of forces, now extended into 2015. The Baltics in particular also have a commitment from NATO on air policing, which enhances air operations and functions as a tripwire in case of conflict.
Poland and the Baltics hope that this enhanced NATO presence will entice Ukraine to bring itself closer to the security bloc. To some extent, Ukraine has already done so. NATO and the United States in particular have provided limited logistical assistance and military equipment to Ukrainian security forces in their fight against pro-Russia separatists. Ukraine, in turn, has repealed a law that required it to remain non-aligned, opening the possibility of future NATO membership. NATO membership is still a distant prospect for Ukraine and the nation’s leaders have said that the country will require five more years of reforms before even applying to NATO.
Meanwhile, the Baltic states have markedly increased their military cooperation with Ukraine. Lithuania has already supplied the Ukrainian military with munitions. Poland has also discussed weapons sales to Ukraine. From the start of 2015, Lithuania’s Kiev embassy became Ukraine’s NATO contact point. In 2014, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine formed a joint military brigade, the Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian Brigade or LITPOLUKRBRIG, which will stage exercises in the three countries in 2015. Latvia, which holds the rotating EU presidency in the first six months of 2015, has made its top priority to strengthen ties between the European Union and Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Belarus.
Limitations on influence
Poland and the Baltic States have placed a strong focus on challenging Russia and bringing Ukraine closer to the West, but they still face a number of limitations. Even within the context of the European Union, they are still relatively small players and simply cannot drive the bloc’s policy on such strategic issues as relations with Russia. EU sanctions on Russia are set to expire in April, May and July of various phases starting in mid-2015. Renewal would require a unanimous vote — an unlikely outcome with many European nations worried about the spillover effect of Russia’s current economic crisis.
Russia itself has substantial leverage in the Baltics and in Poland. The Baltic nations are all home to sizable Russian minority populations. Moscow also has a military presence in neighboring Kaliningrad and Belarus — although an actual Russian military incursion into Poland and the Baltic states is highly unlikely. In the end, the major Western powers such as the United States and Germany will determine the evolution of the West’s standoff with Russia. Poland and the Baltics, however, will play an important role in shaping the conflict and building on their own efforts at increased regional integration in 2015.