Central Europe worries about Moscow — and Washington

Central Europe worries about Moscow — and Washington
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Earlier this month, on the occasion of the first anniversary of the so-called Lublin Triangle, the foreign ministers of Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine issued a joint statement reiterating their condemnation of Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its interference in support of the breakaway eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. They also issued an invitation to Belarus to join their organization as soon as it became a democratic state. In effect, they were lobbying for the overthrow of that country’s dictator, Alexander Lukashenko.                      .

The states that form the Lublin Triangle have overlapping economic and cultural bonds that span back to the 17th century, when much of Ukraine was part of a Lithuanian-Polish commonwealth. Moreover, although none of the representatives of the three states explicitly mentioned it, they also had a common Catholic heritage. Catholicism was, and remains, the overwhelmingly dominant religion in Poland and Lithuania, as well as in that portion of Ukraine that once was part of the commonwealth. All three states have a history of absorption by Russia — Lithuania and Ukraine also became Soviet Republics — and, not surprisingly, have a history of resistance against their giant eastern neighbor. 

The city where the three foreign ministers announced its creation, and from which the “Triangle” has taken its name, itself was at one point part of the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth: the creation of that commonwealth was called “the union of Lublin.” Like the three partner states, the city also has been a victim of foreign occupation. It became part of Austria after the third partition of Poland and of Russia after 1815. It was occupied by Austria and Germany during World War I; by Nazi Germany from 1941-44; and briefly by the Soviet Union in 1944-45.  

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The Lublin Triangle thus represents a symbolic act of defiance toward Moscow, the latest predator to threaten the integrity of all three states. It is the first such Central European grouping to include both NATO and non-NATO, as well as European Union and non-EU, members. Indeed, one of the organization’s primary objectives, apart from fostering closer ties among the three states, has been to press for Ukraine’s membership in NATO and the European Union. It was the failure to achieve the latter that led first to the 2014 “Maidan revolution” that took its name from Kyiv’s main square and that brought down the pro-Moscow Viktor Yanukovych. The former Ukrainian president had backed away from an association agreement with the European Union and instead had opted for closer ties with Russia and its Eurasian Economic Union, which Moscow dominates. 

Yanukovych’s departure and his replacement by the pro-Western Petro Poroshenko coincided with Russia’s seizure and subsequent annexation of Crimea, and the invasion of eastern Ukraine by Moscow’s so-called “Little Green Men” and the creation of pro-Russian governments in the breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. 

The latest declaration by the three foreign ministers — including their desire, however tenuous, for the pro-Russian Lukashenko’s departure in favor of a democratic Belarusian government — may not be merely a restatement of objectives that they outlined a year ago. They also may be seen as expressing concern about America’s commitment to continue to support Ukraine’s desire to escape from Moscow’s grip and to sustain its European posture as part of NATO’s deterrent. It perhaps is no accident that the three countries announced their new arrangement during the final months of the Trump administration. After all, former President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE had been unequivocal about his disdain for NATO and reportedly planned to withdraw the United States from the organization once he assumed what he anticipated would be his second term in office. 

While the Biden administration has committed itself to preserving America’s longstanding alliances, there remains considerable doubt in many European quarters as to just how strong that commitment might be. The administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget proposes reductions to the European Deterrence Initiative, while at the same time emphasizing deterring China as its top national security priority. Neither of these developments reassures states that border Russia. The statements emerging from meetings of the Lublin Triangle members are, therefore, a cri de coeur for America’s ongoing active support. Hopefully, Washington will listen.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.