The War in Ukraine
In Ukraine both sides of the conflict continue to be stuck in a brutal attritional struggle, locked in positional trench warfare reminiscent of World War I. The major attempts to break this stalemate conducted by either side have so far brought no change.
The first takeaway based on the current situation in Ukraine is that both Russia and Ukraine seem to be preparing for the long haul. It seems that at this moment both sides are struggling to break through each others’ defensive positions in several key hotspots stretched along the over 1000 kilometre long frontline. While on a smaller scale than before Ukrainian forces are continuing their assaults on Russian positions both in southern Ukraine and in the Bakhmut area. At the same time Russian forces continue attacking Avdiivka, with Ukrainian sources stating that as many as 40,000 Russian troops operate in the area.[i] Despite this however, it seems that neither side is anticipating significant effects of these operations. The Russian attack most probably had two objectives. One, it aimed to capitalise on Ukrainian commitment to other areas of the frontline, hoping to achieve some gains and further deteriorate the situation in Avdiivka. Two, Russian wanted to destabilise Ukrainian offensive efforts by forcing it to relocate other units into the area and commit reserves. Russia achieved limited gains but succeeded in drawing out Ukrainian forces, however Russian forces paid and continue to pay a very heavy price. At the same time Russians are saving their stocks of ordnance, and aviation assets, hoping to increase the strike capabilities for winter 2023/2024, aiming to grind Ukraine down in a prolonged war of attrition. On the other hand, while Ukrainian offensive operations both in the south and Bakhmut achieved and continue to achieve limited successes it seems that the offensive is not considered as the major or primary operation by the command. Even President Zelensky stated that the Ukrainian armed forces are now preparing for a new campaign in 2024.[ii] The only conclusions that might be drawn at this time is that the war in Ukraine will last much longer, well into 2024 and possibly beyond, and that Ukraine will need more aid in order to not lose the battle of attrition against Russia.
Ukraine on the EU path
The so-called light at the end of the tunnel for Ukraine might be the country’s path to ascension to the EU. Ukraine’s road to the EU can be traced as far back as the 2014 Revolution of Dignity which saw the ousting from power of the repressive and pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and change of direction towards integration and cooperation with the West, NATO, and the EU. The Russian 2022 invasion of Ukraine has provided an additional boost to Ukrainian aspirations, solidifying not only European support for Ukraine but also commitment to a Ukrainian future safe from Moscow’s grasp and influence. The importance of these steps was covered however during wartime by the general focus on humanitarian and military, planning and working for the better future was important but the immediate issues of survival and resistance against Russian wanton aggression took the centre stage. It is however, this very work on Ukraine’s future that might ensure its survival and victory.
On Wednesday, November 8, the European Commission recommended inviting Ukraine to begin membership talks as soon as it meets the final necessary conditions, even as the defensive war against Russia continues. As of now Ukraine has fulfilled 4 of the 7 required conditions, with the rest nearing completion as well. One of the key obstacles still in Kyiv’s way is the elimination of corruption, an objective which the Ukrainian government, led by the efforts of President Zelensky himself, have been hard at work to achieve. Before anything happens however, the Commission’s recommendation has to be approved unanimously by the 27 leaders of European member states during a summit in mid-December. While the vast majority of European states, similarly to the majority of EU citizens, support Ukraine’s ascension to the EU there are unfortunately some outliers which might slow down or even prevent Kyiv’s aspirations. The first is Hungary, which might try to utilise the vote in December to achieve further concessions both from the EU and Ukraine, as it did on other similar occasions. A new potentially problematic actor might be Slovakia, who’s anti-Ukrainian ruling party led by Robert Fico might stand in the way of Ukraine’s road to EU. Though Slovakian opposition might be minimised, as in the previous interactions Fico conformed to the EUs pro-Ukrainian approach. Should the recommendation be accepted Ukraine will be able to begin official membership talks as soon as next year.
The membership talks, as important as they are on the path to the EU, will most probably take a significant amount of time to complete, potentially counting in years. While this might seem somewhat bleak when faced with the Ukrainian everyday reality of the continued war with Russia, this very talks might allow Ukraine to not only secure further support from EU member states but also in the long term end the war and secure a Ukrainian future as part of the West. Recently, the West has shifted focus away from Ukraine towards other challenges, both internal and external. The US has become occupied with managing the situation in the Middle East, trying to contain the Israeli – Hamas conflict from escalating into a full fledged regional conflict reminiscent of the most tumultuous years in the Israeli-Arab relations. EUs attention has similarly been occupied by the events in Israel and Gaza, and pacifying internal societal divisions caused in their wake. At the same time the EU, with mostly Italy, France, and Germany had to tackle the growing issue of immigration into the EU via illegal means, which caused the existing structures to collapse. Simultaneously Poland, a key Ukrainian ally, has been preoccupied by its internal matters, with the parliamentary election, the transition of power and an upcoming shift in the government. These events led to a temporary relegation of Ukraine to the background, which resulted in less support both in terms of material aid and political recognition and focus on the conflict. This situation might be however remedied by the European Commission’s recommendation and subsequent membership talks which will not only shift European attention back to Ukraine but also establish another channel of communication between the war torn country and its European partners.
The President’s Decision
The first session of the newly elected Polish parliament has been scheduled for Monday, November 13. Prior to this inaugural meeting the Polish President Andrzej Duda has to appoint the official candidate for the prime minister to form the new government. In accordance with tradition Duda selected primer minister Mateusz Morawiecki a representative of the party with the most seats in parliament – Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – the Law and Justice party (further referred to as PiS) which also formed the last government. As mentioned previously, while usually appropriate, the selected candidate and his party have no chance of forming a majority government. This is because the opposition parties made up of Civic Coalition, the Third Way, and the Left have already established an agreement to form their own coalition government as together they hold the majority in the parliament. However, before they can do so Morawiecki’s new government will have to first be presented and then rejected in a vote of confidence. Most probably Morawiecki will try to forestall the vote as much as possible, hoping to, by some yet unknown way, convince enough elected representatives to vote his government into power. As already established the probability of this is extremely low due to the fact that these representatives would have to come from the ranks of the opposition parties. Thus, Morawiecki can only realistically delay the inevitable. The latest the vote of confidence can take place is December 11, thus for a period of almost a month the Polish government will be at a stalemate.[iii] Only after this date will the opposition have its chance to form the government.
While the upcoming transition of power from the populist conservative PiS government to the much more progressive and liberal government of the opposition coalition is indicative of the change of direction both in Poland’s foreign and internal affairs, it will also be a very important test for the new government and the values this government represents. For the last 8 years Poland has been governed by a populist option, and one that has captivated a significant portion of the Polish voters. This year’s election results confirm that PiS still holds a lot of sway over the Polish public, with the three opposition parties combined barely achieving the majority. Thus, now comes the time for the “opposition” to prove itself and convince the Polish people that they are their best choice for the future. Ambitions will now run high for the opposition parties to prove themselves to the Polish people and achieve tangible results. Should they fail to do so, the Law and Justice party and its populist agendas may once again captivate the hearts of the Polish voters. The opposition will be facing some very difficult challenges, the continued war in Ukraine, decoupling with China, cooperation with the new American administration after the 2024 election, restoring EU funds to Poland and many more. The most significant measure however, of the efficacy and popularity of the opposition government will be the 2025 presidential election in Poland. Should the opposition fail to secure a victory there, then its hopes for reelection and its ability to function will be bleak.
While it can be clearly seen that this is a very challenging time for Central and Eastern Europe it can also be opportunity for a new better future. Ukraine torn by war and heading into the second year of the full scale conflict is stalwartly trudging the path to the European Union bringing back the West’s popular and political attention, opening new lines of dialogue and hopefully more supply lines to support its population and defensive war effort. Furthermore, the Polish progressive-liberal option is now standing before a great challenge and should it be successful it could cement its hold on power and create great momentum for Poland as the mainstay power of the CEE. These achievements could further reinvigorate the CEE and strengthen its ties with the western part of the EU, though the road ahead will be long and hard.
Author: Sebastian Czub, Analyst, Casimir Pulaski Foundation
[i] “Avdiivka surrounded on three sides, Russians trying to ‘bait Ukrainian artillery’ into revealing locations”, The New Voice of Ukraine, November 8, 2023, https://english.nv.ua/nation/avdiivka-surrounded-on-three-sides-russians-trying-to-bait-ukrainian-artillery-50366707.html.
[ii] Alessandra Galloni, “Ukraine can still deliver battlefield results this year, Zelenskiy says”, Reuters, November 8, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/reuters-next-zelenskiy-says-ukraine-has-plan-continue-fighting-after-slow-2023-11-08/.
[iii]Kasia Bielecka, “Rząd będzie tymczasowy? Nieważne. Odprawa ministrom i tak się należy”, Wyborcza, November 8, 2023, https://wyborcza.biz/biznes/7,177151,30379757,rzad-bedzie-tymczasowy-niewazne-odprawa-i-tak-ie-nalezy.html?disableRedirects=true.