Op-Ed: The West won’t solve the Ukraine crisis by making deals with autocrats
In their scramble to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin, Western leaders seem increasingly open to striking Faustian bargains with other authoritarian regimes. Particularly startling has been the willingness of the European Union and NATO to grant an outsize role to Poland’s illiberal government. Poland’s de facto leader, Law and Justice party chief Jaroslaw Kaczynski, recently captured global headlines as part of a delegation of government leaders from Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia to war-torn Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, where his “courageous gesture” was praised by the Western press.
Yet to see Kaczynski speaking on behalf of Western democracy is surreal. This is a man who has, in his entire political life since 1989, contested the European democratic order. Over the last seven years, his government has transformed Poland from one of Central and Eastern Europe’s democratic front-runners into one of the world’s most rapidly “autocratizing” countries.
The West’s new reliance on Poland is eerily reminiscent of its reliance on Turkey during the 2015 refugee crisis. Like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who agreed to prevent Syrian refugees from traveling to Europe in exchange for $6.6 billion in financial assistance, Kaczynski has become the West’s latest autocrat fixer. The underlying cause is the same: the irreconcilable contradiction between the West’s principled rhetoric and what it is willing to do.
Attacks on civilian targets, including apartment buildings, schools, a maternity ward and a theater said to be sheltering children, are cited.
In 2015, Europeans’ patience for receiving asylum seekers was wearing thin, yet the plain language of the 1951 Refugee Convention compelled them to take in any person facing “serious threats to their life or freedom.” The deal with Turkey appeared to resolve the conundrum. Instead of openly flouting the convention, Europeans would let Turkey do the dirty work of keeping refugees where they were.
A similar “extraordinary rendition” of moral commitments is now taking place in Poland. Unwavering in its support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the West sees Russia’s attack as a threat to the entire European order but is unwilling to put boots on the ground to defend it.
Because Hungary, another quasi-authoritarian NATO member state, has refused to allow its territory to be used to transport military aid to Ukraine, a narrow stretch of the Polish border is the only viable route. In providing this service, Poland faces a substantial risk, as Russia has designated military supply convoys as legitimate targets. And, like Turkey in 2016, Poland is expected to shelter a large proportion of the millions of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war.
The West needs favors from Poland, and rapprochement is the down payment. As Vice President Kamala Harris quipped to Kaczynski’s puppet president, Andrzej Duda: “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” There is talk of Poland receiving EU funds that were rightly frozen because of its flagrant rule-of-law violations. These presumably would be made available in exchange for some cosmetic changes in Polish law.
Far from making Poland’s government any more committed to European values, these measures will embolden and empower it (not least by providing fresh funds with which Kaczynski’s party can buy electoral support). It is worth recalling that just a few months after landing his deal with the EU, Erdogan went on to purge Turkey’s judiciary, civil service, media and universities after the failed coup in July 2016. The EU largely stood by while about 40,000 people were imprisoned.
A similar dynamic is already visible in Poland. On March 10, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal, a sham institution packed with Kaczynski loyalists, declared key provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights unconstitutional. Poland has become the only European country — other than Russia — to repudiate the continent’s 1950 landmark human rights treaty. The government’s likely next move will be to call an early election to cement its hold on power until 2026.
Russian-speaking immigrants to the U.S. are facing backlash, but that does nothing to help those suffering in Ukraine.
Ordinary Poles and Turks won’t be the only ones paying the price for the West’s decision to include unsavory authoritarians in its coalition of the willing. Faustian bargains tend to have unintended consequences, and autocrats are unreliable fixers. While Kaczynski and his entourage were en route to Ukraine, EU representatives in Brussels reportedly fumed that the visit risked being the “spark” for World War III. These fears were not alleviated by Kaczynski’s subsequent remarks about putting North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops on the ground in Ukraine.
There is no need for Western politicians to ingratiate themselves with autocrats to achieve unity in the face of a crisis. Given that support for Ukraine within Poland was already widespread and organic, Kaczynski would never dare to block EU or NATO assistance. Any additional praise or largesse sent his way amounts to an unearned political windfall.
Moreover, there are almost always other options. In 2016, prominent figures such as George Soros offered serious proposals for creating a sustainable EU refugee system — one that would have alleviated the need to strike a deal with Erdogan. Likewise, Europeans do not need to accept the inevitability of a protracted war in Ukraine. Instead, Europe and the U.S. could make every effort to support Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government in its repeated attempts to find a negotiated solution with Putin.
If we must make moral compromises with bad actors, we should focus on negotiations that could resolve the crisis, rather than on side deals that will only create problems in the future.
Maciej Kisilowski is associate professor of law and public management at Central European University.
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