Radek Sikorski: Ukraine + the Dangers in Europe

Radek Sikorski: Ukraine + the Dangers in Europe

Why you should care

Poland, a key U.S. ally, lives in a dangerous neighborhood that’s going downhill. Foreign minister Radek Sikorski has some straightforward ideas to fix this.

Poland’s straight-talking foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, landed himself in the doghouse last month when a waiter serving a private dinner released a recording of him saying that Poland’s ties to the U.S. were “worthless.“

The Polish government, naturally, backtracked on the comment. Sikorski explains here for the first time in detail what he actually meant in a wide-ranging interview that goes to the heart of the crisis in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, which is facing a much more aggressive Russia. He warns that the situation could get much worse, and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine is only the start.

Our national trauma goes back to September 1939.

Poland is a front-line state — sandwiched between Germany and three former Soviet republics, including Ukraine — that was ruled by a communist puppet government for 44 years until 1989. It’s also a poster child for post-communist success: with a strong economy and an even stronger democracy. It’s a key ally for the U.S. and a NATO member, which obligates other NATO members, including the U.S., to come to Poland’s defense if it’s attacked.

Sikorski talked to Clemens Wergin and Julia Szyndzielorz for the German Sunday newspaper Welt am Sonntag and for OZY:

OZY:

What did you mean when you said that U.S.-Polish ties were worthless? Isn’t the United States obligated by treaty to defend Poland against aggressors?

RS:

In January, Russia was already putting huge pressure on [our neighbor] Ukraine, but we still didn’t have any NATO reinforcement [at that time, although this] has happened to some extent since then. We had 10 NATO troops on our territory, [hardly enough to impress Russia]. And you have to remember that our national trauma goes back to September 1939, when we had the guarantee of the superpower of the time, the British Empire, to open a second front on Poland’s behalf on the 14th day of the war [if Germany invaded], and then nothing happened [when Germany did invade]. So when you are the Polish foreign minister, you need to test your allies.

OZY:

So will Poland have to be ready to stand alone, without the help of NATO or the United States?

RS:

I hope not. But it’s not good enough for us to have paper guarantees [to fight an invader] in the [NATO] treaty without the actual capability of the alliance to fulfill them. Because we know that moving large numbers of troops around the globe takes months. Before Desert Storm, it took Americans nine months to concentrate troops around Kuwait. And before the invasion of Iraq, six months. That’s too long for us [because we are so close to Russia].

OZY:

Are there contingency plans in case of Russian aggression against Poland?

RS:

Yes, there are. I can’t discuss them in detail, but my point is: We expect countries to fulfill those plans when it’s hard [during an attack], if they are willing to also exercise and put troops in Poland when it’s easy, [before conflict breaks out].

Get back to basics, to NATO’s core mission, which is defending NATO territory.

OZY:

Can we expect a major breakthrough during the next NATO summit in September to increase NATO’s forward presence in Poland?

RS:

I hope so. I hope Western Europeans feel our concerns that the basic NATO bargain holds [for mutual defense]. We, for example, sent a brigade to Afghanistan [to help NATO]. But … now [we] get back to basics, to NATO’s core mission, which is defending NATO territory, of which the Baltic states and Poland are the most exposed part.

OZY:

What’s going to happen in Ukraine?

RS:

The moment Ukraine started having successes on the battlefield [against separatists], Russia escalated and delivered more and more sophisticated weapons to separatists and her own personnel operating in the east of Ukraine, thereby also breaking Europe’s red lines. Remember, two weeks ago we said that Russia needs to hand over the control over the border if she wants to avoid sanctions. Instead, huge convoys of equipment, APCs and tanks have crossed that border into Ukraine. [The Ukraine government cannot function effectively in these circumstances.]

Soldiers on tank during the day

Ukrainian armed forces patrol its troops as the clashes between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists

Source Getty

OZY:

How does the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines plane change the situation?

RS:

Of course, all circumstances have to be investigated, but it is clear to see that instead of a de-escalation in eastern Ukraine, we have a tragic escalation.

OZY:

Do you think we could have prevented Russia’s intervention if we had acted differently in the past?

RS:

Yes, I do. I think as Europe, we did much less than the bare minimum to affect Russia’s behavior at each stage of that crisis. I appealed to colleagues last year when Russia imposed a trade boycott on Ukraine in response to Ukraine’s wish to sign the association agreement [with the European Union]. If we had then scared off Russia and showed solidarity with Ukraine, perhaps the escalation could have been avoided.

OZY:

You offered many warnings about the threat from Russia, early on. Do you now feel vindicated since those warnings were ignored?

RS:

I know it is sad that the most delicious words in politics are “I told you so.” And it is true that we had fewer illusions. But we had the same hopes as the rest of Europe, that Russia truly is converging with Europe. And as Poland, we did our best, although we had our doubts, to encourage Russia in the right direction. We started a reconciliation process, which wasn’t easy for us [after Russia imposed communist government on us after World War II]. We dealt with difficult issues. The kind of things we did with Germany 30 years ago, we tried to do with Russia. But when boundaries are changed by force on the pretext of protecting national minorities [as Russia did in Crimea], we all know what the historical connotations are [such as Nazi Germany], and we all know what a dangerous process that is. We can’t pretend that we don’t notice.

OZY:

The rest of Europe seems to be rather slow to respond to the completely changed geopolitical situation after Russia turned aggressive. Why?

RS:

You are slow because you can afford to be slow [since Germany and others are further from the front line]. What we don’t understand is why you resist strengthening your forefield [in Eastern Europe] even if it were to be done by others [such as the United States].

Europe is surrounded by a crisis crescent.

OZY:

Like putting more NATO troops in the Eastern countries?

RS:

Like doing for Poland what was done for Germany at a somewhat similar time, [when U.S. bases were fortified during the Cold War]. Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that this is a new Cold War, or that we are back to this kind of confrontation. But the forces that we are asking for are 1 percent of what [Germany] had in the 1980s.

OZY:

So you say that Germany is blocking this?

RS:

The reality is that there are major bases in countries [like Germany] that are secure, and there is a reluctance to establish them in countries that feel exposed [like Poland].

If you look at a map, you see that Europe is surrounded by a crisis crescent that stretches from Ukraine to the Caucasus, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Egypt to the Maghreb, Mali and Central Africa. At the same time, the U.S. doesn’t want to play the world’s policeman anymore.

OZY:

So can this get even worse for Europe?

RS:

It will get worse. That’s why I have been advocating that Europe should get serious about defense. To the south of us, there are hundreds of millions of young people without the prospect of a job and of living in a successful country. We haven’t found a way of bringing that prosperity to them, and therefore they will either come to us as refugees or they will fight us, and it is happening already.

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