The Warsaw Security Forum began in the first week of October. It’s now an annual event, but this year, the timing seems to have been deliberately chosen to coincide with international events.
Emotions have cooled somewhat in the Ukrainian-Polish grain dispute. There is a chance to understand what was behind Poland's hints and threats of discontinuing military-logistical support to Ukraine. Then again, in another EU country, Slovakia, a party that openly used anti-Ukrainian slogans has won the elections. So the time has come to determine whether scepticism about Ukraine is becoming a trend.
Finally, Europe needs to prepare for all and any scenarios in the United States, given the ongoing public debate in Washington about reducing or even discontinuing aid to Ukraine.
All of this was discussed in Warsaw, with government officials, military personnel and experts all taking part. The discussions can be summarised as follows:
- The Polish threats were not serious. The chances of Rzeszów losing its role as a logistical hub for supplying the Armed Forces of Ukraine are close to zero.
- Key EU states are ready to continue assisting Ukraine and to increase their support.
- Dealing with the United States is complicated. A reduction (although not a cessation) of American aid in the future remains a realistic possibility. The problem is that US supplies cannot be easily replaced. We need to honestly acknowledge that. Therefore, all efforts are focused on preventing this.
Finally, the forum had one unexpected outcome. Ukraine’s Western partners, perhaps for the first time, publicly and collectively discussed what Ukrainian experts have been asserting from the beginning: that the results of the NATO summit in Vilnius were a failure for Ukraine. Even Lithuania officially and openly acknowledges this now.
Understanding and recognising this is important because it defines the goal: to secure Ukraine's invitation to NATO and subsequently its membership of the Alliance. This is a crucial part of Ukraine's path to victory.
Poland Returns to Supporting Ukraine
The main impression from the discussions in Warsaw is that they were in stark contrast to what Ukrainian experts and officials were accustomed to hearing in conversations with their Polish partners just a few weeks ago.
On every panel, in every discussion with Polish involvement, whether open or closed, it was stated that Poland is a crucial security partner for Ukraine. The idea was further underlined by the fact that this year, the United Kingdom became a "partner country" of the forum, and its pro-Ukrainian stance is beyond doubt. The British, including the guest of honour, junior defence minister James Heappey, did not miss the chance to thank the Poles for their role.
Polish government representatives also emphasised this.
"Fatigue occurs when we cross the red line and society can no longer bear the cost we have to endure. And Europe needs to look at this from the same perspective. We need to consider the cost of weapon production, logistics, the risks for Rzeszów as a logistical hub for supporting Ukraine, and how to ensure that we don't cross the red line in our assistance to Ukraine," explained Jacek Siewiera, the head of Poland's National Security Bureau.
Everyone at the forum in Warsaw saw Poland as a country that supports Ukraine absolutely and unequivocally,
even though just a few weeks ago, the situation seemed very different.
The reason for that was the grain dispute that escalated in August and September, leading to unilateral sanctions by Warsaw and Ukraine's lawsuit at the WTO. It even reached the point where in private conversations, Polish officials directly told Ukrainian experts and politicians: "Do you think Poland's role as a logistical hub for arms transit to Ukraine is guaranteed? That is not the case."
However, these threats and hints never turned into public statements.
The only statement by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki that linked grain and security assistance provoked such a reaction in Berlin, Brussels, Washington and even in Poland itself that it even reassured the hawks. Warsaw began putting out the fire, assuring everyone that they had misunderstood.
The grain conflict has not disappeared, but it mostly remains within the boundaries of trade issues.
USA – No Plan B; Europe – Firmly with Ukraine
Another issue that is undoubtedly key is current developments in the United States.
No US Congressmen made it to Warsaw: they had to cancel their trips at the last moment due to the ousting of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives.
The conference participants had to acknowledge that American military aid to Ukraine is irreplaceable. "Europe is physically incapable of covering the military aid provided by the United States," explained Andrii Zahorodniuk, former Minister of Defence of Ukraine.
Is there a significant risk that US assistance will indeed collapse?
Despite the complex political situation in the United States, the disaster scenario is far from guaranteed,
even if Donald Trump is elected president in 2024.
"We are not a monarchy. Congress would also have a say in that decision," General Herbert McMaster, former National Security Advisor to President Trump, reminded forum participants.
Even if the US reduces its assistance, it will not drop to zero. But even a partial reduction would be extremely painful, so maintaining American support during the war is essential for Ukraine.
Despite ruling it out publicly, Europe is preparing a Plan B. Increasing defence capabilities was undoubtedly the number one topic at the Warsaw Forum, as was increasing military budgets. Moreover, even in countries that have been seen as Ukraine-sceptic for decades, there is no longer any question about this.
"We are in the middle of an election campaign, but continuing support for Ukraine and increasing the defence budget to 2% of GDP are not campaign issues because both positions are widely supported in society," explained Dutch Defence Minister Kajsa Ollongren.
Ultimately, the larger Europe's contribution to Ukraine's defence, the greater the chance of maintaining American support.
Even though it is unable to supply weapons in the quantities that Kyiv receives from the US, the EU can help Ukraine withstand the transition through cash injections. "The key task is for Ukraine to maintain stability, and for this, it needs sufficient financial assistance. If this happens, Ukraine will be able to resist even under a worse scenario than Trump-2," former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt believes.
Path to NATO
In Warsaw, there seemed to be a turning point in Western expert (and political) thinking about what the NATO Vilnius Summit meant for Ukraine.
Kyiv largely acknowledged that Ukrainian expectations had not been met and did not conceal its dissatisfaction about the US and German leaders’ insistence that Ukraine should not be given a clear prospect of NATO membership. Then, NATO's decision included a formula that allowed for even the initial formal steps towards Ukraine's accession to the Alliance to be delayed indefinitely.
Meanwhile, Western officials and experts made out that the decision was a victory for Ukraine. Although this was not the case.
However, the tone of most of the speakers at the Warsaw Forum came closer to the Ukrainian perspective.
"In Vilnius, we saw that NATO does not agree on Ukraine's membership. Even before the summit, it was clear that the US and Germany did not really want this. This failure was not a surprise, but it was still disappointing," explained Claudia Major from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
Even now, not everyone is ready to admit that in Vilnius, Ukraine was denied the rapid NATO integration it had anticipated, but a shift in balance was palpable.
One key dialogue was between conservative diplomat and head of the Munich Security Conference Christoph Heusgen and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis. The German diplomat asked the Lithuanian minister, as the host of the Vilnius summit, to talk about the positive consequences, but he flatly refused to do so.
"Are we happy with the outcome of the summit? My answer is that we are happy with how the logistics worked out at the summit. In that sense, it was all great. But regarding the adoption of geopolitical decisions... that didn’t happen," Landsbergis replied, not hiding his disapproval of the fact that some NATO members did not have the courage to invite Ukraine to join.
Landsbergis also criticised certain countries (i.e. the US and Germany) for being afraid to talk about Ukraine's victory: "When we say that we will help Ukraine for as long as it takes, we still need to define what that means. It's enough to say that we will help until victory – and everything becomes clear."
Both of these statements by Landsbergis were well received in the hall, confirming that these ideas are now becoming mainstream.
The main question remains unanswered: how to change the US position by the next NATO summit in Washington in July 2024. But on that point we heard nothing in Warsaw.
Written by Sergiy Sydorenko
Editor, European Pravda