As we remember the heroes of Solidarnosc 40 years after the declaration of Martial Law in Poland, the legacy forged from the sacrifices and sufferings of those who fought for the freedom and dignity of their homeland remains alive today. The courageous efforts of the Poles and other peoples behind the Iron Curtain broke the chains of fear that held entire nations in slavery and inspired them to take control of their destinies as free and sovereign states. Today, 30 years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, much of East-Central Europe is free and increasingly prosperous. Bound by the shared tragedies of the past, the region’s peoples increasingly work together to ensure an independent and secure future. With the gift of freedom comes new challenges and responsibilities. Without seriously treating the present-day struggles of the Ukrainian and Belarusian peoples, the region’s nations cannot ensure an independent and secure future for the lands between the Baltic and Black Seas.

When thousands of Ukrainians braved the bullets and tear gas of armed police on Kyiv’s Maidan in 2014, they not only stood against the corruption and dysfunction of the Yanukovych regime. Perhaps more importantly, they communicated to the world that they, the Ukrainian people, were prepared to fight for the dignity of Ukraine. The blood which flowed upon the streets of Kyiv poignantly declared to the world that there is a sovereign land called Ukraine, which despite its tragic history, is not defined by the whims of corrupt oligarchs, the decaying Soviet legacy, or subordination to Moscow. The sacrifices made in Kyiv’s Maidan have led to an awakening of Ukrainian national consciousness and set in motion a domino effect that has reverberated across the post-Soviet space. Last year hundreds of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets to protest the rigged reelection of authoritarian President Aleksandr Lukashenko. Wrapped in red and white flags, the protestors expressed their distinct national identity while demanding free elections.

As the clouds of war once more gather above the lands between the Baltic and Black Seas, East-Central Europeans are reminded that without the spirit of solidarity and reconciliation that allowed them to break free from Communist rule decades ago, the future of the region will be increasingly uncertain and precarious. The gathering influence of Moscow in Belarus and the mass deployment of Russian troops on the border of Ukraine should not be disregarded as peripheral disturbances beyond the boundaries of the West but should be treated seriously as dangerous developments that can potentially decide the fate not only of the region but also of Europe as a whole. The values defended in the shipyards of Gdansk and embodied in by the linked arms of the Baltic people in the Chain of Freedom decades ago stand in the balance today. The West must ask itself if it is willing to stand by the conviction that all nations have the sacred right to decide their destiny.

Forty years ago, as the world watched armed police beating peaceful protestors in the streets of Polish cities and Soviet tanks were poised to crush the light of freedom across the border, American President Ronald Reagan said four powerful words: “Let Poland be Poland.” President Reagan took these words from a popular patriotic protest song that expressed the endurance of the Polish spirit in the face of historical tragedy. As the leader of the free word proclaimed, “Let Poland be Poland”, he not only expressed solidarity with the Polish people but also took up the mantle of freedom and liberty in the fight against communist totalitarianism. With clear leadership undergirded by solid principles, the Western world could put up a united front against the Soviet Union. By taking an uncompromising stand defending Poland’s independence, the West communicated more than its opposition to totalitarianism and Soviet imperialism. It also expressed a philosophy of nationhood that enshrined the inviolate right of every people to defend their past, present, and future and determine their destiny.

Decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the western world finds itself more divided and less united than it did before. As Western academics boldly hailed the victory of liberal democracies over the Soviet Union as ushering in “the end of history,” new conflicts and threats revealed the hollowness of utopian prophecies. Disillusioned after decades of draining war overseas, it is not clear that the United States possesses the same clarity of vision that it possessed during the days of President Reagan. As the nations that have prospered as allies of the United States once more have to contend with the imperialist designs of resurgent powers in an increasingly multi-polar world, their future looks increasingly uncertain.

While Washington and Brussels have expressed support for the eastern members of the EU, Ukraine, and the struggling people of Belarus, the peoples of East-Central Europe once more look to their troubled histories and question the will of their western partners to stand at their side. Perhaps no part of the world understands the realities of partition and power politics than the lands between the rivers Vistula and Dnieper. Divided between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 and later abandoned under the iron fist of Stalin by the western allies at Yalta in 1945, the nations of this part of Europe are aware of their precarious geopolitical position and the unreliability of security guarantees and alliances.

For many in Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltics, recent events have been the cause of great concern. The Kremlin’s armed aggression in Georgia and Ukraine and Putin’s increasingly revanchist rhetoric towards Russia’s East Slavic neighbors and ex-Soviet states have shown that the threat of imperial domination still hovers above the region’s peoples. Berlin’s cooperation with Moscow in constructing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has undermined Trust in East-Central Europe’s Western partners. The Biden Administrations’ waiving of Nord Stream 2 sanctions has also sent signals to Warsaw and Kyiv that they cannot always depend on the United States to ensure the interests of East-Central Europe over those of its other European partners. The manufactured migrant crisis along Poland’s border with Belarus has shown that Moscow is increasingly bold in its posturing towards the EU while its tanks along the border with Ukraine ominously point their sights towards Kyiv.

While NATO and the EU have multi-laterally condemned Moscow for its increasingly aggressive politics, there is much confusion in the West concerning the predicament of East-Central Europe, particularly in regards to Ukraine. As Ukraine expresses the desire to join NATO as a deterrent to Moscow, many commentators in the West have discouraged this development not to antagonize Russia. Some have even gone as far as justifying Putin’s revanchist policies by claiming that Moscow’s primary motivation in threatening Ukraine is purely defensive and that NATO expansion eastwards would be a threat to Russian security. While the arguments in Putin’s favor vary in kind, there is one common thread that unites them. None of these perspectives grant a voice to the people of Ukraine, Belarus, or East-Central Europe as a whole in shaping their futures. All of them relegate the region’s nations to serve as a mere stepping zone buffering the West from the East, obligated to obey the powers that be lest they create too much trouble. As Putin’s demands not only Ukraine’s exclusion from NATO but also calls for the withdrawal of foreign NATO troops east of the Oder-Neisse line, all the nations of East-Central Europe, regardless of EU or NATO membership, have cause for concern.

What is really at stake in East-Central Europe today is not the power politics of Moscow, Washington, Berlin, or Brussels. What truly stands in the balance is the dignity of East-Central European nations. Will the peoples of the region once more be arbitrarily divided along the lines of political influence, or will their aspirations to forge their sovereign path be respected? The Ukrainians on the Maidan and the Belarusians wrapped in red and white banners were fighting for more than mere national pride. Having been subjected to the devastation of Soviet Communism and imperialism, they are only now freely coming to terms with their history and identity by restoring the torn shreds of memory that join them to their distinct identities. In a compelling sense, the spirit that animated the Poles in 1981 and the Baltic peoples in 1989 is today found amongst the people of Ukraine and Belarus. As the Ukrainian people face the real threat of invasion this winter, does the West have the courage to proclaim, “Let Ukraine be Ukraine!”

When Russian President Vladimir Putin declares that Ukraine is not a legitimate nation and seeks to rehabilitate the Soviet legacy, the people of Ukraine, Poland, the Baltics, Belarus and elsewhere, are reminded that the specters of the difficult 20th century have not faded away in the 21st. The future holds significant challenges, especially for Ukraine and Belarus. But they also present an opportunity. By working together and standing in true solidarity, the nations of East-Central Europe can jointly defend their hard-earned freedom and identities. While the initiative belongs to East-Central Europeans today, this cannot be accomplished without the collective moral clarity of the West, particularly the United States. Only by standing firm to its shared values and commitments can the free world ensure peace and security for future generations to come.

By PAC Intern Eliseo Nesci

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