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Ukraine's Refugees and the Breakup of the West

The balance of power in Europe is shifting as displaced Ukrainians flow westward.

Protest NATO Close The Sky In Krakow
Members of the local Ukrainian diaspora, war refugees, peace activists, volunteers and local supporters during the 109th day of the 'Protest Nato Close The Sky' at the Adam Mickiewicz monument in the Main Square in Krakow. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Russian war in Ukraine—now into its fourth month and with no end in sight—has exposed some of the fault lines that divide the nations of the West. Most analyses, however, focus on material considerations such as troop counts and artillery capacity and neglect to notice the profound lack of effective leadership at every level. As a result, the West, led by the European Union in principle and the United States in practice, suffers from the lack of a strategic vision that could unite the disparate interests of its constituent nations and drum up enough pathos to convince them to hold the line. Nowhere is this lack of leadership more evident than in Europe’s policies on Ukrainian refugees. Neither the president of the United States nor any of the presidents of the European Union seem capable of balancing both the quotidian needs of their citizens and the strategic demands of the conflict against the greatest humanitarian crisis in Europe since the Second World War.

I recently spent a few weeks studying this issue in Poland, both in the border city of Przemyśl and Kraków, in Poland’s heartland. In my many conversations with Poles, foreign volunteers, and Ukrainian refugees, a clear narrative emerged: Despite their amazement at the heroic generosity of individual Poles, my interlocutors were troubled by the lack of a unified European Union response to the refugee crisis and worried that waning popular interest in the conflict would deliver most, if not all, of Ukraine into the hands of a relentless Russia. Almost everyone expressed concern over the sustainability of the response, especially as news began to emerge of Ukraine’s setbacks in the Donbas.


To assess the West’s response to the more than five million refugees who fled Ukraine, one must first dismantle the false assumption that there exists a "typical" Ukrainian refugee. The bulk of Ukraine’s refugees—not knowing where to flee and lacking the resources to flee far—remained in Ukraine. Nonetheless, no one doubted that the Ukrainians who crossed into Poland in the first days of the Russian invasion had indeed fled violence and the obliteration of their ways of life. They were mostly women and children who had gathered their lives into a single backpack. One could see them loitering in large groups outside Ukrainian cultural centers and Greek Catholic or Ukrainian Orthodox churches in search of basic necessities such as food, water, and shelter. As the military situation stagnated and Polish largesse grew, however, a different type of Ukrainian began to arrive: the economic migrant. Such people headed directly to Poland's bigger cities, such as Kraków, Warsaw, and Wrocław, where they collected government benefits and took up low-skilled jobs, largely alongside other Ukrainians in the food-service and hospitality industries.

The path of Ukrainian migration into Europe runs through established centers of Ukrainian expatriates, which explains why roughly 80 percent of them took refuge in Poland. While nearly all passed through Przemyśl, very few stayed there, as those who had friends or relatives in Poland went to join them and those who had neither were assisted by the networks of Poles that had sprung up to provide humanitarian assistance and lodging.

As the conflict persisted and Poland’s government began to offer more free services, such as discounted or free lodging and monthly social security payments, the proportion of economic migrants increased. Such people may have been internally displaced refugees who needed the money, or they may have been opportunists who made the trip to supplement their incomes. It is difficult to tell in the first place, and the goodwill of Poles and their government continue to give Ukrainians the benefit of the doubt. Yet the presence of that doubt and the depth of the average European's frustration over rising costs and proliferating refugee settlements belies the air of confident competence that E.U. and national leaders work so hard to project.

Indeed, exasperation pervades Poland. It lurks in the tents set up for refugees and it sneaks into everyday conversation, not only among Poles but among foreigners as well. Everyone wonders how long Poland's extraordinary generosity toward Ukrainian refugees will last and, more importantly, who will pay for it. The ruling Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, abbreviated PiS) Party has permitted Ukrainians entering Poland to obtain a PESEL number (the equivalent of a Social Security number in the U.S.) and to receive all the legal and financial entitlements afforded to Polish citizens without extending citizenship itself.

As with any form of charity, this has led to abuse. In Przemyśl, I heard numerous anecdotes from a wide variety of sources about Ukrainian women entering the country to set up their PESEL, then promptly returning to Ukraine to enjoy the monthly family stipend, paid per child, under the “500 Plus” (500 PLN per month) program. While lingering at the train station in Przemyśl, I observed dozens of well-groomed women with fresh pedicures and children with iPhones disembarking from their trains, walking past the refugee station, and heading into town to dine out and do some shopping before returning to Ukraine. In Przemyśl, one taxi driver told me, enterprising Ukrainians had bought up all the used cars and driven them back over the border.


Although the E.U. has granted Ukrainians the right to live and work in any of the bloc's 27 nations for up to three years, it has left its member states to deal with the economic and social costs of the influx. Many in Poland gripe about the generosity extended to Ukrainians, pointing out that Ukrainians are receiving all the benefits of Polish citizenship without any of the tax burden or civic responsibilities. Most Ukrainians themselves have noticed this disparity. While some take it in hand as a sign of Poland’s Christian solidarity with the oppressed, others worry that it would lead to enmity in the future if the conflict continued to drag on.

One Slovakian woman I happened to meet at the train station told me that she worries what effect this influx of people will have on social cohesion and stability in the affected nations. She described the train ride from Vienna to Bratislava as a window into the Ukrainization of central Europe, driven by sprawling tent cities and festering with resentment for the lifestyles that were left behind and could not be replicated in Europe, despite the best efforts of host nations and their citizens. One of my interlocutors, an Austrian volunteer, described the E.U.'s policy in recent months as "a vanishing act" and wondered how it could delay so long in providing long-term solutions to the pressures posed by refugees in E.U. nations such as Poland, Romania, Moldova, Hungary, and Slovakia.

Nonetheless, it is telling that the vast majority of Ukrainian refugees have settled in Poland, where nearly 1.5 million have applied for temporary resident status, rather than proceed to the wealthier countries in the E.U. One Ukrainian woman told me about a news item circulating among her peers through WhatsApp, which relates that a Ukrainian woman in Germany had been raped by refugees from North Africa in a refugee-housing facility. This woman told me that she knew that such a thing would never happen in Poland, where she felt safe and welcome despite the relatively low amount of aid she was receiving.

At a playground in Krakow, where I went with a friend and his kids, a Ukrainian woman who had been living in Poland for several years before the war told us that most of the refugees she had met intended to stay in Poland for the long term. This woman, who had always spoken Russian as her first language, also noted that Putin’s aggression had led most Ukrainians she knew to begin speaking Ukrainian instead of Russian. Furthermore, Putin seems to have rekindled amity between Poles and Ukrainians despite the historical trauma that has cast a pall on relations between the two nations since the Ukrainian nationalist uprising and ethnic cleansings of Poles during the Second World War. Now Putin has provided both nations with a common adversary.

Despite the complexity of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its ramifications for all of Europe, two questions illuminate the behavior of every actor: "Who benefits?" and "What are the stakes?" For nations like Poland and Czechia, which have donated impressive amounts of military equipment and humanitarian aid, the stakes are no less than the current global balance of power. Should Ukraine defeat Russia and send its once-formidable army back over the border, it will shift the whole balance of power in Europe. Countries like France and Germany, whose interests largely define those of the European Union as a whole, depend on a secure and regionally influential Russia for cheap and stable energy to power their economies, which depend on industrial output and a commuter workforce. If an ascendant bloc of Central and Eastern European nations, led by Poland and Ukraine, were to assume Russia's current role in the geopolitical order, their new power would displace that of a weakened France and Germany.

The United States stands to benefit from either outcome of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The U.S., of course, won the Cold War with Ukraine a part of the Soviet Union, so it does not need Ukraine or its resources to pursue a successful Russia policy. On the other hand, a Ukrainian victory would see the U.S.'s investment in Ukraine pay off handsomely in terms of goodwill, political cooperation, and perhaps even access to resources in the mineral-rich Donbas region. Furthermore, the ascendancy of Poland, one of the most pro-American nations in Europe, would give the United States more influence over the politics of Europe writ large. At present, the E.U. seems to prefer the status quo of dealing with Russia as a regional power rather than ceding more ground to the United States. This might explain the European Commission’s reluctance on the issue, except for the occasional platitude or grandstanding declaration that everyone knows is less a policy prescription than a reflexive attempt at ensuring the E.U.’s relevance.

On one side, Poland, Czechia, and other states have thrown money and materiel at Ukraine in the hope of bringing about an order defined by a weakened Russia, a humbled Franco-German axis, and an ascendant Central-Eastern Europe. Even the United Kingdom has grasped the potential of such a shift and rushed to play a part in the dismantling of Russian power, in a series of plays that evokes its support for the White Russian armies during the Russian civil war. On the other side, France, Germany, and Italy have conducted diplomacy that seeks nothing more than the immediate restoration of the status quo of cheap fuel and ready access to Russia’s enormous consumer market. Meanwhile, somewhere on the sidelines, the European Union and its commissioners make increasingly desperate plays for relevance by announcing some ineffectual sanctions package or other.

Ukraine’s refugees, then, are not ground between the gears of a revanchist Russia and an indifferent West; rather, they are suffering the birth pangs of a new geopolitical order struggling to tear itself out of the old one. In either case, the United States will benefit from stability in Europe and the restoration of brittle global supply chains. The U.S. must decide, however, which countries to side with as we head toward a multipolar world. To that end, Joe Biden and his administration would do well to look at the five million Ukrainian refugees who have already made their choice.


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