Author : Nivedita Kapoor

Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Sep 17, 2020
Another step away from Moscow: Ukraine and the Lublin Triangle

The announcement of the formation of the ‘Lublin Triangle’ by Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine – condemning ‘Russian aggression in Ukraine’ and supporting Kiev’s ‘European choice’ – has come amid intensifying geopolitical competition among major world powers in Central and Eastern Europe. The Triangle - which aspires to promote political, economic, infrastructure, security, defense and cultural links - invokes historical linkages among its members. It also puts forth an agenda of greater Ukrainian engagement with the EU and NATO while moving away from Russia.

The formation of the Triangle comes a few years after the three countries got together to form the Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian Brigade (LitPolUkrBrig) to improve security cooperation, soon after the 2014 Ukrainian crisis. Since then, Ukraine – which is part of the eastern partnership framework of the European Union – has sought to strengthen its relations with the West. In this direction and a step up from the brigade, the new cooperation mechanism expands the ambit of trilateral linkages beyond the security sphere to a more comprehensive dimension.

The joint declaration of foreign ministers of the three countries on establishment of the Triangle extends support to Ukraine’s aspiration to become a member of EU and NATO, despite the prospects of such a developmentunlikely in the short to medium term. Given the ongoing conflict with Russia, NATO is wary of extending the Article 5 security guarantee to Ukraine, which could pit the security organization directly against Moscow in a future scenario. Nevertheless, cooperation of Ukraine with EU and NATO has seen an uptick and as members of the two organizations, Poland and Lithuania have extended their support towards this endeavor.

The move comes in the backdrop of the US deciding to move some of its troops from Germany to Poland. This would increase the total number of American forces in Poland by a thousand to 5,500 while also making it the headquarters of the US Army V Corps. Warsaw and Vilnius are already part of the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence set up after the events of 2014. Meanwhile, the LitPolUkrBrig has since its formation conducted joint exercises with several EU and NATO members.Its formation has raised concerns in Moscow, which has questioned the ‘goals’ of the brigade. Till now, despite the timing of its formation, the brigade has not intervened in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict.

The Three Seas Initiative – backed by the EU and the US – also finds specific mention in the joint declaration. At present, 12 EU countries located between the Adriatic Sea, Baltic Sea, and BlackSea cooperate in order to promote connectivity in energy, transport and digital sectors. A key aim of this initiative is to reduce dependence of post-Soviet states in the region on Russian energy pipelines through the creation of a ‘north-south corridor.’ Other aims of the 3SI – which Ukraine has expressed an interest in joining – include promoting economic development and infrastructure building. It must be noted that such sub-regional initiatives are not uncommon in Europe. The Lublin Triangle is the first time Ukraine has formally entered into such an agreement.

In addition to the geopolitical and economic considerations of the Triangle, the grouping also invokes a particular period in its history where the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 16thand 17th century formed one of the ‘largest states in early modern Europe.’ The Union of Lublin in 1569 created a community that included the kingdom of Poland, the grand duchy of Lithuania, and the areas inhabited by Ruthenians, which covers modern-day Ukraine and Belarus. The western and northern Ukraine of today were port of Poland since the mid-14th century and later became part of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, remaining part of it for around three centuries. In fact, the development of a separate Ukrainian national consciousness has been attributed to this period, when issues of language and religion led to the Cossack revolt in 1648 followed by its closer association with Russia.

Historians acknowledge that despite its eventual end of the union in 18th century, it was a success for its people and endured for four centuries. For modern day Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine – this is interpreted as part of their historical role in determining the progress of Central Europe – and a link bridging their present-day cooperation to the past. Especially for Ukraine, invoking this period of history links it to a Europe it wants to align with, even if its inclusion as a full-fledged EU or NATO member seems a far-fetched goal.

While Russia has not reacted officially to the announcement of the Lublin Triangle and can hardly prevent the formation of the group; the stated goals away from closer engagement with Moscow have clearly been spelt out. This is visible in condemnation of Russian actions in Ukraine as well as support of Ukrainian aspirations to EU and NATO membership.

As of now, the joint statement provides a broad outline to the potential areas of cooperation – including military-to-military cooperation, fight against Covid-19 pandemic, trade and investment, regional infrastructure and people-to-people contact. The success of the ambitions of the Triangle will, however, depend on several factors – not all of which are under the control of its constituent members.

Firstly, the eventual level of engagement between Ukraine and the EU/NATO will have an impact on the future of the Triangle. If Kiev feels satisfied with increased cooperation without full membership – it will also help shape the agenda for the Lublin Triangle and its activities. Secondly, the Russian reaction will depend on what projects the plurilateral decides to implement on the ground as well as the level of EU and NATO engagement. If the two organizations decide to keep the interaction at a level that does not raise hackles in Moscow, Poland and Lithuania as member-states will have little choice but to follow suit. Such caution might also be exercised in order to prevent chance of any further conflict over Ukraine – making cooperation over political and economic matters more feasible at this stage over security issues.

Thirdly, the ability of the three states to manage their bilateral differences will also have an impact on their trilateral cooperation. In recent past, Poland and Lithuania have clashed over Polish minority and the usage of their language – even though steps have been taken by both sides to address these concerns. Historical events have also posed a challenge to Polish-Ukrainian ties even though the two countries continue cooperation in economic, defense and strategic areas of mutual interest. The management of these issues becomes important given the experience of other plurilateral groups in the region whose functioning has been impacted due to bilateral issues and ‘changing political priorities.’

Fourthly, outcomes of future meetings will have to be watched closely to determine plans for concrete on-the-ground projects or collective action being promoted by the Triangle. The translation of its above mentioned goals into specific projects will have an impact on the future viability and durability of the Triangle in meeting the national interests of all member-states.

The fragile situation on the Russian-Ukrainian front would preclude any adventurism from either EU or NATO in favour of the new grouping. However, the Ukrainian intent to stay the course on its westward direction in foreign policy with the support of other like-minded players has been clearly demonstrated in its joining the Lublin Triangle.

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Nivedita Kapoor

Nivedita Kapoor

Nivedita Kapoor is a Post-doctoral Fellow at the International Laboratory on World Order Studies and the New Regionalism Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs ...

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