It's not a secret that Ukraine’s aspirations to have closer economic and political ties with the West -- and with the European Union in particular -- are at the center of its current face-off with Russia. But developing those ties is much easier said than done. In its present state, no one would mistake Ukraine for a European country. Its economy and its political institutions have hardly progressed since 1991, the year the country broke away from the Soviet Union.

Ukraine is fortunate that Poland -- a neighbor that successfully managed a similar transition after winning independence from Moscow after the communist period -- has shown extraordinary interest in Ukraine’s integration into Europe. Ukraine’s European future will largely depend on the special relationship that has quietly developed between Kiev and Warsaw. 

The friendship should not be taken for granted. Poland and Ukraine have a long history, very little of which is cordial. In 981, Vladimir the Great, grand prince of Kiev, expanded his empire by sacking a number of Polish cities. For centuries afterward, the populations of both countries fought viciously over territory, using forcible population transfers and heavy-handed cultural imperialism to cement their regional influence. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were especially violent. It is estimated that 100,000 Poles and 20,000 Ukrainians were killed in ethnic purges during this time. 

The modern history of Polish-Ukrainian relations isn’t much rosier. Between 1942 and 1944, some 60,000 Poles were murdered in purges carried out by Ukrainian nationalists in Volyn, a region to which both countries had historic ties, but which had recently been absorbed by Ukraine. (Ukrainians were concerned that Poland was intent on reclaiming the territory for itself.) In 2009, the Polish parliament passed a resolution calling those purges a “mass murder that has the character of ethnic cleansing.”

Like most of central Europe, Poland and Ukraine both gained political independence from Moscow at the close of the Cold War. But Poland had two distinct advantages. It was not burdened by actually having been part of the Soviet Union, as Ukraine had been. It was also blessed by its immediate proximity to Germany, which had Europe’s strongest economy and which was one of the most influential players in the European Union. Berlin believed that Europe’s stability would depend on expanding prosperity and good governance to the union’s immediate neighbors. Poland officially became a member state in 2004.

Ever since it first experienced the benefits of the EU’s embrace, Poland has wanted to bring others into the fold. Today, the country is playing Germany’s old role of advocating for an expansion of the EU’s influence along its eastern frontiers. A major plank of Polish foreign policy since joining the EU has been the further Europeanization of its neighbors, including through the Polish-designed Eastern Partnership program, an EU project designed to build closer economic and political ties with six non-EU countries in eastern Europe, including Ukraine.

In some sense, these policies are simply a product of Poland’s geography. Now that Poland is the EU’s easternmost frontier, it has the greatest interest in a further expansion into eastern Europe. But there is a missionary zeal in Polish diplomacy that exceeds a purely rational calculation of economic interests. In evangelizing for the EU’s embrace of other eastern European countries, Poland is also expressing its historically conditioned skepticism of Russia. Warsaw believes that if Russian President Vladimir Putin had his way, he would reestablish Russia’s sphere of influence throughout eastern and central Europe. Many Poles believe that the EU has a moral duty to protect eastern European countries from such imperial designs. 

Poland’s challenge has been to channel these motivations into effective policies. In the case of Ukraine, Warsaw believed that the Eastern Partnership would gradually wean Kiev away from Russia by encouraging it to align its economy with the West’s. But Polish officials may have overestimated what gradual change could accomplish. Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was hoping to have his cake and eat it too -- he wanted to benefit from access to the European market without making any changes to the way Ukraine is governed.

Poland must now turn its attention to helping Ukraine out of its desperate political and economic situation. The Ukrainian economy is on the verge of bankruptcy; it needs a credit line from Europe simply to preserve its most basic functions. As soon as basic stability is achieved, Europe should focus on helping Ukraine establish a more entrepreneurial culture. A large part of that challenge will involve rooting out the corruption that hinders foreign investments. As the example of Central Europe shows, emerging economies are unlikely to turn the corner unless they establish relatively transparent institutions.

But Poland will also have to take the lead in helping Ukraine make a cultural transition. After the stagnation of the last two decades -- including the failed attempt at democratization in 2004–2005 that was dubbed the Orange Revolution -- and the upheaval of the last two months, Ukraine is a profoundly demoralized country. For too long, Ukrainians have seen themselves as victims of Western neglect or Russian imperialism.

Poles know that being at the mercy of outside powers can inflict psychological trauma. But they can offer Ukraine the positive example of their own transition. Polish diplomats have the credibility to firmly remind Ukraine’s political leadership that integrating with Europe will not simply be a process of being bailed out by Brussels but will instead require that Ukrainians themselves take the initiative to modernize their economy and their government. The revolutionary energies that deposed the last government will now have to be channeled toward improving their country’s institutions. 

Ukraine’s transition toward the West must also involve an open and honest accounting of its history. Just as Germany was ready to account for its war crimes against Poland, Poland should now deepen its historical dialogue with Ukraine. There will be some residue of tension between Warsaw and Kiev until their governments openly discuss their mutual past. By helping clear the air of any historical resentments, Poland can help integrate Ukraine into Europe while preserving the EU’s greatest legacy: peace among its member states. 

Poland can also guide Ukraine through the process of overcoming its status as a land caught between East and West. Today‘s Ukrainians, like the Poles of two decades ago, carry the trauma of being at other people’s mercy. If Poland’s history can offer a positive lesson to Ukrainians, it’s that they need to begin counting on their own strengths. Europe and the West must and will help. But only the Ukrainians themselves can be their own saviors.

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  • PAWEŁ ŚWIEBODA is President of demosEUROPA -- Centre for European Strategy, a public policy institute in Warsaw.
  • More By Pawel Swieboda