In recent months, Polish, Lithuanian and Ukrainian officials have met several times to discuss forging stronger trilateral military relations. These plans for deeper military ties are not new, but they have been postponed over the years largely because of a lack of political will in Kiev. The political transition in Kiev has given Vilnius and Warsaw an opportunity to assist Ukraine and finally strengthen ties.
During an April 22 meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart, Mikhail Koval, Lithuanian Defense Minister Juozas Olekas said Lithuania was willing to offer Ukraine assistance in restructuring its defense forces. Since Poland and Lithuania went through drastic military reforms to join NATO after the fall of the Soviet Union and are still making reforms, their assistance and experience likely would help Kiev improve ties with Western military forces on a technical level and could aid potential reforms within the Ukrainian military.
Beyond assisting Ukraine with reforms, Poland and Lithuania are pushing for more long-term institutional ties through a three-country joint brigade. Warsaw, Vilnius and Kiev agreed to set up this force in 2009, but tensions between Poland and Lithuania as well as Kiev's lack of political will to strengthen defense ties kept the brigade from materializing. The agreement to form the joint brigade was made while the Western-oriented Viktor Yushchenko was the president of Ukraine, but its implementation was delayed after Viktor Yanukovich's victory in the presidential election of 2010.
The aim of the joint brigade would be to have a small permanent staff with representation from all three countries headquartered in Poland to plan joint training and eventually joint missions under NATO, EU or U.N. mandates. Setting up the joint brigade likely would not encounter many technical hurdles, especially since operational ties between Poland and Ukraine were quite strong from 1998 to 2010. Ukrainian forces were engaged in the Iraq War under Polish leadership, and Poland and Ukraine jointly participated in the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, at times with Lithuanian forces. The past collaboration between Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine was tied into NATO operations, several of which Ukraine has been a part of as a partner country. Warsaw and Vilnius likely hope that their efforts to strengthen trilateral ties will also help Ukraine integrate further with NATO.
As a result of the confrontation between the West and Russia, calls from the West and within Ukraine to give Kiev clearer prospects for joining the European Union and NATO have grown louder. However, Ukraine's membership in these institutions remains unlikely. The new government in Kiev has noted that it is not seeking NATO membership at this time. Moreover, important Western European countries such as Germany and France are willing to support the new Ukrainian government but — as in the past — are hesitant to fully integrate Ukraine with Western institutions, fearing the high cost of integration and the possibility of souring relations with Russia.
However, Poland and Lithuania are more interested in Ukraine's Western orientation than other European countries are, and thus want stronger military ties with Ukraine in anticipation of the difficulties associated with formally integrating it with NATO. Whether Warsaw and Vilnius succeed greatly depends on the future political stability of Ukraine and the nature of the Ukrainian government. The current leadership in Kiev is interested in strengthening military ties with Western countries as tensions with Russia persist, so more formal ties with Poland and Lithuania are likely. However, because domestic instability has created numerous new challenges for the Ukrainian military — ranging from defending the country's territorial integrity to dealing with leadership changes and the emergence of armed groups — foreign partnerships that do not directly help Kiev deal with these challenges will be a low priority.
Ukraine's Western orientation is by no means cemented. Thus, Warsaw and Vilnius are likely to see Kiev's enthusiasm for military collaboration fade again depending on the evolution of the relationship between Kiev and Moscow in the coming years.