War in Ukraine
The first days of November are marked with a realisation that the greatly anticipated Ukrainian offensive has come short of its expectations. The Ukrainian breakthrough in the direction of Tokmak has become stuck in the Robotyne-Verbove area. While Ukraine has made progress it ultimately found itself unable to pierce the Surovikin defence line in southern Ukraine. Furthermore, the Ukrainian forces paid a heavy price for their gains, with the majority of brigades involved in the offensive suffering significant losses both in terms of equipment losses and personnel casualties. Furthermore in response Russian forces have launched a major assault on Avdiivka, a key bastion of Ukrainian defensive lines in souther-eastern Ukraine. While the Russian attack failed to achieve significant gains or breakthrough it forced Ukraine to utilise their strategic reserves. This suggests not only that the situation in Avdiivka was dire, but also that Russian forces, despite suffering extremely heavy casualties during the Ukrainian offensive, maintain the ability to launch major coordinated offensive operations – and one’s with potential to threaten Ukrainian lines. What is more impressive is that such a threatening situation was achieved by Russia in a heavily defended and fortified Ukrainian position, manned by a significant garrison. This situation unfortunately puts in doubt one of the main positive outcomes of the Ukrainian offensive – that is the attrition of Russian forces to the point where significant operation would be impossible or at the very least extremely challenging.
The main challenge facing Ukraine now, in the aftermath of its offensive, is a potential Russian winter campaign. Last year Russian forces used winter two-fold. Firstly they targeted critical civilian infrastructure (for example power plants, thermal stations, the electric grid and transport grid) in an effort to cripple Ukrainian morale and war effort. At the same time winter conditions facilitated Russian offensive operations which were previously hampered by autumn rainfalls, which turned the battlefields in eastern Ukraine into mud. With the ongoing marshalling of Russian resources, including saving strike capabilities by minimising the use of missiles and Shahed drones and increasing military production Russian might be posing to launch a major campaign in winter, hoping to capitalise on presumably battle weary Ukrainian soldiers. While last year Ukraine managed to survive the winter onslaught the situation this year is more bleak. Many Ukrainian frontline units have suffered noticeable casualties during the offensive, while Ukrainian air and missile defence capabilities have been limited by continued Russian strike campaigns. In order to bolster its defence during winter Ukraine is now in dire need of stable and significant Western support, especially in terms of air defence assets.
The Israeli-Hamas conflict and its influence on CEE
While the ongoing military conflict between Hamas and Israel is taking place beyond the boundaries of Central and Eastern Europe, it can have a significant impact on the region. First of all the current situation in Israel and Gaza has prompted a shift of focus of the Western states away from Ukraine. The West might be worried about the possibility of an escalation across the Middle East and sparking a regional conflict. An open conflict involving Israel would most probably lead the US, as well as a number of European states to get directly or indirectly involved. Interestingly such an involvement can already be observed with the dispatching of two carrier battle groups by the US to the Mediterranean headed by carriers USS Gerald R Ford (US’s biggest aircraft carrier) and USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Biden administration has also asked for Congress approval to direct funds in support of Israel. While President Biden stated during an interview that the US has the capacity to tackle both the challenges brought from the Israeli-Hamas conflict and the continued war in Ukraine, the shift of focus to Israel, especially by the general public, might limit the assistance provided to Ukraine.
The public is also one of the challenges and concerns in Europe, as the situation in Israel and Gaza has sparked a significant number of protests and demonstrations in support of Palestine, as well as riots caused by growing tensions. In a number of major European cities violent riots took place, headed by pro-Palestinian messages, opposition to pro-Israel positions of European states, and in some cases anti-semetism. Such violent outbreaks had pushed some European states, including Germany and France, to ban (or at the very least) attempt to ban some pro-Palestine rallies. While such approaches have been met with stark criticism, European states are continuing a very controlling approach to the situation, hoping to prevent a widespread wave of anti-semetism. This situation has put a significant amount of pressure on many European countries, forcing them to divert their attention away from Ukraine. As Europe struggles to contain this growing issue Ukraine and the security of Central and Eastern Europe has been pushed back to the background. A similar situation can be observed in the case of the general public whose attention has shifted away from Ukraine.
The change of power in Poland
The parliamentary elections held in Poland on October 15th have been a watershed moment for the country, with the opposition parties emerging victorious with a combined majority of parliamentary seats. For the last eight years Poland was ruled by the conservative Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – PiS) party, characterised by populist approaches, anti-EU tendencies, and a great number of scandals and corrupt practices involving the administration’s officials. The transition of power into the hands of the opposition parties composed of the Civic Coalition, the Third Way, and the Left will lead to many key changes both in terms of internal and external affairs.
Many of the political promises and ambitions of the victorious parties are focused on rolling back the changes implemented by the current government. These refer mostly to fixing key institutional issues caused by the Law and Justice administration, which dismantled and politicised judicial institutions, including the Constitutional Tribunal, which stood in the way of PiS’s populist and autocratic tendencies. Another key fix in the new government’s sights will be the reconciliation of ties with the European Union, including the unlocking of EU funds for investments in Poland. Worth noting are also promised changes in more accessible abortion, combating of discrimination based on sexual orientation, revised education programmes, and quite importantly enhanced freedom of press – especially in state sponsored media.
A key part of the transition of power in the case of Poland are the matters of state security and defence. Since the Russian 2022 invasion of Ukraine, defence and security have been a key issue of Polish politics and national interest. The wide scale modernisation programme of the Polish Armed Forces launched by the PiS government in 2022 has been quite successful in increasing the capabilities of the military. While some decisions made by the government might be debated (with some of them debated fiercely by Polish experts – for example in the case of the K9 self-propelled howitzer programme, the acquisition of the FA-50 light fighter jets etc.) this resolute approach allowed Poland to boost its defence capabilities, exceed NATO guidelines, and facilitate Polish military aid to Ukraine. One of the key promises of the three opposition parties was the continuation of the modernisation of Polish Armed Forces, both in terms of maintaining current acquisitions and programmes as well as further developments. One thing worth to note here further is the fate of the Polish based defence industry, as the abandonment and negligence of certain Polish based opportunities (Pirat ATGM or Krab SPG) was highlighted and criticised by members of the opposition parties. Thus, while some changes to Polish Armed Forces and Polish defence industry might be expected they will generally continue on the path of modernisation and enlargement of the Polish defence and security capabilities.
Having discussed the potential effects of a new coalition government composed of the past opposition parties it is vital to mention how the actual mechanisms of the transition might influence the situation in the region. According to Polish law the head of the new government is appointed by the President – in this case President Andrzej Duda, who was elected as a representative of the PiS party. By custom the President chooses the head of government from the single party with the greatest number of seats in parliament – in this case PiS. PiS however, does not hold the majority in the parliament by itself, or even in coalition with the allied Confederation party. The possibility of a greater coalition with members of the opposition parties is minimal, due to stark ideological and programme differences and the opposition’s plans for their own coalition government. In this case PiS would only be able to create a minority government which would be voted out at the soonest opportunity. After the collapse of this government the new head of government would be chosen by the parliament where the opposition holds majority, which would entail a coalition government to be created headed, most probably by the Civic Coalition leader Donald Tusk. The problem here however, is that this entire process would take time – approximately a month, during which the Polish government would be at a total or near total standstill. This standstill, coupled with the organisational chaos occurring during the transition of power would limit Poland’s ability to respond to key issues – for example the war in Ukraine. Already the Polish-Ukrainian relations and Polish support of the Ukrainian war efforts have suffered as a result of the Polish elections. The continuation of this trend would further hamper the support for Ukraine during a very important period of preparation for the winter months and a renewed Russian bombing campaign. A potential solution here lies in the hand of President Duda who could choose to appoint an opposition candidate to form the new government – effectively limiting the chaos and paralysis resulting from a lengthy transition of power. This option however, would entail President Duda going against his party, and cooperating with the opposition which seems unlikely, though seeing as Duda won’t be seeking a reelection, not entirely impossible.
As the War in Ukraine is entering a new phase of a brutal battle of attrition with the onset of winter, the country is in need of allies and Western support. Unfortunately the West has now been forced to direct its attention in the face of new challenges. The Israeli-Hamas conflict has brought unrest to Europe, destabilising the aid efforts to Ukraine, with even the US directing both its attention and funds to Ukraine. At the same time Poland, a key Ukrainian ally, is undergoing an important transition of power in the aftermath of parliamentary elections, which will greatly influence the role Poland will play as one of the key actors in Central and Eastern Europe. CEE is now facing many challenges, both internal and external, which might shape the future of the region – what this future will be for now remains to be seen.
Author: Sebastian Czub, Analyst, Casimir Pulaski Foundation