Ukraine’s ‘encounter with history’: an interview with a key Polish EU leader

Washington

Radoslaw “Radek” Sikorski looks exhausted. He made media appearances all day – both US and international – and was just on the phone with the State Department, before sitting down for tea with reporters on Friday night.

Mr. Sikorski wears many hats: he is chairman of the European Union committee on relations with the United States and former defense minister and foreign minister of Poland. And, this long-planned visit to Washington just so happens to coincide with the Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

The stakes are extraordinarily high – for Ukraine, for Russia, for Europe, for the United States, for the world. As images of ordinary Ukrainians taking up arms, cowering or fleeing the country fill the airwaves, it is impossible not to see the invasion as a pivotal moment for humanity, beginning with the people of Ukraine.

Why we wrote this

Radoslaw Sikorski, chairman of the European Union’s committee on relations with the United States and a former defense minister and foreign minister of Poland, said this moment “will decide, perhaps for decades, whether Ukrainians are a free nation”.

“It’s their encounter with history,” says President Sikorski. “He will decide, perhaps for decades, whether this is a free nation or some kind of untermensch of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” he adds, using a Nazi term for inferior people.

In a conversation with journalists from the United States, Poland and Croatia hosted by The Christian Science Monitor, Mr. Sikorski discussed the West’s response to President Putin’s aggression; the impact on Ukraine’s neighbours, including Poland; the effect of sanctions; and how key players, including President Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, handled the crisis.

Here are excerpts from our discussion, slightly edited for clarity:

Is Mr. Putin crazy? Ukraine has been independent since 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved, and this nation of 44 million people was clearly not going to fall over.

He’s not crazy in the sense of being mentally ill. He is crazy in the sense that his logic is different from ours. We believe that leaders of countries should generally work for the prosperity of their people and want to be remembered well. He’s on a kind of neo-imperial ego trip.

What is the worst-case scenario, the best-case scenario and the most likely scenario for Ukraine?

The worst case scenario would be that Ukraine gives up and capitulates and doesn’t care about its country, and the Russians come in and win. This is clearly not the case.

The best thing is that the Ukrainians destroy more than 300 Russian tanks, shoot down more than 100 Russian planes, the offensive stops and the Putin regime withdraws.

Yes [the Ukrainians] manages to inflict high enough losses in a sufficiently compact time, so I think Putin has a problem at home.

Was there any deterrent value in the Western economic sanctions announced on Friday? They include limiting Russia’s access to the global financial system and freezing the assets of Mr. Putin and other senior officials.

No, Putin laughed at the threats, and I blame Western European politicians for brandishing that. He must have been offended by their attitude. What they should have done was say, “Look, we’ve already delivered arms to Ukraine. If you move in, we’ll multiply those deliveries and you’ll have a guerrilla for 10 years. We’ll do to you what we did [Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev in Afghanistan’ [which the USSR invaded in 1979].They don’t have the courage to say it.

In Europe, diplomacy is assumed to be like, you know, your aunt’s teapot. You don’t have to say anything directly.

What if we cut off trade with Russia?

The West needs to learn the basic facts. Germany trades three times more with Poland than with Russia. Russia is not an important economy or trading partner for them.

But what about Russian oil and gas? Exports provide 36% of the national budget. Germany has just frozen its Nord Stream II gas pipeline project from Russia, although it is not yet operational.

We have alternative sources. Germany gets a third of its gas from the North Sea, a third from North Africa and only a third from Russia, and Russian material can be replaced by LNG [liquefied natural gas]. And you know, it’s kind of a self-imposed German myth: “We can’t do anything because we depend on Russia. Well, what they really mean is, “Our petrochemical plants would lose a bit of their profit margins.”

How does your country, Poland, which borders western Ukraine, deal with the influx of refugees?

It won’t be a problem. We already have a million Ukrainians in Poland. They actually saved our job market, so we can take a million more. … the EU [European Union] countries will help us. We are the richest economy on the planet. We can deal with it.

How did Ukrainian President Zelensky handle the crisis? The Russian military has been building up its forces around Ukraine for months.

Zelenskyy found his bearings, but he made two mistakes. For too long he thought it was a bluff, and he left mobilization too late. This could be the fatal mistake, because if he had started it 48 hours before the invasion, he could have had a million people under arms.

Is there a way for Mr. Putin to lose power over this?

There is no procedure for his dismissal; it’s worse than in the Soviet Union [when the Politburo could remove a leader].

So Mr. Putin can rule Russia for the rest of his life?

Ah, these dictators… there is the Najibullah option, there is the Ceausescu option, there is the Gaddafi option, there is the Mubarak option. You know, take your pick!

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