Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski on Putin’s Recklessness

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 18 2014 1:37 PM

“The Risks Are Enormous”

Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski on Putin’s reckless course.

Radoslaw Sikorski
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski speaks in Paris on March 5, 2014.

Photo by Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

WARSAW, Poland—Poland's foreign minister, Radoslaw "Radek" Sikorski, has been intimately involved in the Ukraine crisis, including in the negotiation of an agreement in February that then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych
walked away from, further fueling the Maidan protest. Sikorski spoke with Lally Weymouth Wednesday, ahead of the diplomatic talks in Geneva aimed at defusing hostilities, about the crisis, U.S. global credibility, and what Vladimir Putin has his eyes on next. Excerpts:

What do you think is going to happen in Ukraine?

I think President Putin wants to prevent Ukraine from becoming a successful European/EU-associated country. To that end, he needs to destabilize Ukraine and to upset its electoral calendar and make it more difficult to carry out economic reforms.

You worked hard to make Ukraine an EU-associated country, didn't you?

It was under the Polish presidency that the text was agreed, and we had persuaded most of the EU to say officially that the association agreement would not be the last step in our collaboration. If Ukraine had carried out the reforms, it would eventually have been able to lodge an application to the EU.
Of course, Ukraine wasted a lot of time. For 20 years the country was bled by corruption, by stealing of assets, and by a populist economic policy. Twenty-five years ago, Poland and Ukraine had the same standard of living. Today we are three times richer. They also wasted the public enthusiasm after the Orange Revolution, 10 years ago. So, over time it gets harder. But I think this is the best team in Kiev we are likely to get. Prime Minister [Arseniy] Yatsenyuk is honest, competent, and knows what needs to be done.

Do you think he will be able to get things done with the Russians at the door and Russian agents occupying these 10 towns in eastern Ukraine? Aren't those Russians in the 10 towns?

Of course they are Russians. They have equipment that only Russian armed forces possess. And we had seen the pattern in Crimea. It’s an extremely hard task to reform the country, introduce an [International Monetary Fund] adjustment program, and defend its territory at the same time.

How would you explain why Ukraine matters to Westerners?

It matters because for the first time since the Second World War, one European country has annexed a province from another European country. And that matters because it is a rejection of our entire legal system and international norms and treaties that we have regarded as the foundation of peace.
Remember, there is not a country in Europe that does not have national minorities. If we went back to protecting them through changing borders, we would be back in the hell of the 20th century and before. This is why what President Putin has done in Crimea and is now doing in eastern Ukraine is so threatening to all of us.

What would you like to see the United States do?

The United States is in the lead on sanctions and hopefully can tell it like it is to the Russians. And the United States is helping Ukraine, too. A $1 billion loan has just been passed in Congress.

It is a $1 billion loan guarantee.

Yes, a guarantee. Which is the same thing. ... And then the United States should reassure those allies in Central and Eastern Europe that have been warning about this sort of thing for years. We have an American base and a brigade in Germany, we have American bases in the U.K., in Spain, in Italy, in Turkey, but only a very small presence in Poland.

So the U.S. should move troops to Poland?

Yes. I have talked about it to [Secretary of State] John Kerry and the supreme allied commander of Europe [Gen. Philip Breedlove]. We believe that after 15 years of our membership in NATO, and in view of the events in the Ukraine, this region deserves a reassurance package.

Do you think the U.S. should arm the Ukrainians?

These are difficult decisions. And the risks are enormous. These calculations have to be done by the Ukrainians themselves because they will bear the consequences of any such actions.

How can they fight the Russians if they do not have any arms?

Actually, Ukraine has an arms industry, which is, I think, the fourth-largest exporter in the world.

So they do not need to be armed by the West?

They need to get their army functioning again. I think Ukraine is paying the price of 20 years of strategic illusions of being able to be neutral and of not paying enough attention to their security sector.

What happened the night you and the German and French foreign ministers made that deal with former president Yanukovych? Why did it fall apart?

Point one of the agreement was that the previous constitution would be brought back, with less presidential power and more parliamentary [power]. The president and the parliament had 48 hours to sign on. The parliament voted it through the same day, within two hours. Then the next day the president announced on TV that he would not sign it into law. So the parliament voted him out of office.

That was how the Maidan started?

The Maidan started when Yanukovych refused to sign the association agreement with the EU back in November. And then it became an anti-Yanukovych movement. ... The snipers killed about 100 people while we were there, literally outside the building.

Do you think U.S. credibility is at stake?

Or Russia's credibility is at stake because Russia was a signatory of the [1994] Budapest Memorandum, and it is not the United States but Russia that broke it. But yes, if you were North Korea or Iran thinking, "Should I trust Western security guarantees if I give up my nuclear ambitions?" ... That is why what President Putin is doing is so dangerous.

Do you think Putin will next go to the Baltic states? Does he have a strategy?

I think he is honest in what he says. The [Crimea] annexation speech was his bold and, I think, genuine statement of his new foreign policy. I think he is going to be strategically bold but tactically flexible, in response to what others do. You know, where there is resistance, he will draw back.

Do you think Putin's plan is to annex eastern Ukraine or just to destabilize it and make the government in Kiev irrelevant?

If I were to guess, and this is what the Russian side is telling us, they would be satisfied with a federal arrangement for Ukraine. By federalism they do not mean U.S.-style federalism, they mean Bosnia-style federalism. In other words, having an overwhelming influence over a part, which can then paralyze the whole. And preventing Ukraine from reforming and becoming successful that way without having to invade.

So Russia sends agents to towns in eastern Ukraine, and they then hold the towns?

They are sending [military intelligence] operatives and spending a lot of money on these separatists, and there does not seem to be much public enthusiasm for it. I do not think that the Ukrainian government is in the mood to lose control and to be partitioned politically.

People have been surprised by the passive response of the Ukrainians—the Russians walked into Crimea, and nobody lifted a finger.

Remember that on that Russian-Ukrainian border, people's identities are not as strong as we are used to in Europe. They were ploughed through by decades of Sovietism. They reflect Ukraine’s failure over the last 20 years and Ukraine's stagnant standards of living. You know, when you are a Ukrainian miner or soldier, and you earn half or a third of what your colleagues just across the border in Russia earn, that questions your identity.
But at the same time, look at what happened on the Maidan. In the middle of winter, people stood for weeks in the cold, sometimes reaching minus 30 degrees, because they wanted to associate their country with the European Union and to get rid of a corrupt leader.

Do you think the whole post-Cold War order has changed now?

Russia has declared itself to be a revisionist power, unhappy and ready to break the political and legal consensus [established] after World War II and after the Cold War. That is why everybody is so concerned. The people who should be most worried by what they have heard from the Kremlin are the countries that have large concentrated Russian minorities. That is Kazakhstan, Belarus, and indeed, Latvia. But the first thing we should do is to take stock of where we are in terms of security in Europe and abandon postmodernist illusions that conflict is unthinkable.

Somebody told me that you heard Putin talking out loud about dividing Ukraine awhile ago. Is that true?

Oh yes, President Putin made a speech at the Bucharest NATO summit in 2008, at which he spoke about Ukraine as an artificial country put together from bits of other countries. And yes, we have received a letter from the deputy speaker of the Russian Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, proposing that Poland take five provinces of Ukraine. He sent similar letters to Hungary and Romania, also making territorial proposals to them.

When?

It was a month ago. We told him we were not doing it.

Europe has enormous business relationships with Russia and is dependent on Russian gas.

Poland's relationship is bigger than most. We trade with Russia as much as the United States does. But our economy is smaller, so you can imagine that it is a bigger part of our economy. Seven percent of our exports go to Russia. That is why we are reluctant to impose sanctions on Russia. We would rather Russia stop doing what is giving rise to the need for sanctions.
We should do the energy union in response to these events. Remember, the European Union started as the union of coal and steel, which were the strategic commodities in the 1950s. Today’s strategic commodity in Europe is gas, and we take about 30 percent of our gas from Russia, as does Europe. But we overpay because Russia has managed to create monopolistic arrangements.

So if you are dependent on Russia for energy …

Not very much, no, no. One-third, and remember, gas can be exchanged for other forms of energy. We only extract about a third of what we consume in Poland, but that is enough for all our households. Russia needs our money more than we need its gas.

But meanwhile you have German and American businessmen going to Moscow to make deals.

Which is understandable. People want to make money.

But it is hard to put a lot of pressure on Mr. Putin in that circumstance, is it not?

I think Russia will realize that she is far more interdependent with the rest of the world than they've realized so far. ... Genius is knowing where to stop. Russia probably has enough resources to digest Crimea. I think all of eastern and southern Ukraine might give them indigestion.

What are your other concerns about the Ukraine situation?

What I think has changed is that many people assumed that Russia was on a convergence path with the West. They joined the [World Trade Organization], we were helping them to join the [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], they were already a member of the Council of Europe, and actually the Russians were the country with the most cases brought before the European Court of Human Rights. So it looked like Russia was rejoining the real world after the Soviet detour. This has now been questioned. ...
The question is whether or not the Russians will invade in force in response to Ukraine trying to regain control over their own territory.

That could lead to the Russians saying: Aha, we warned you.

Yeah, but it is an unacceptable type of warning.

Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor of the Washington Post.

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