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Sikorski on Ukraine, Europe, Poland, NATO, and Putin

Radosław Sikorski, Photo: POLSOC.ORG.UK
Sikorski on Ukraine, Europe, Poland, NATO, and Putin
Article by: Serhiy Sydorenko, Pavlo Sheremet
Translated by: Anna Mostovych

Polish politician Radosław Sikorski is the former marshal of the Polish Sejm (2014-2015) and former minister of foreign affairs in Donald Tusk’s cabinet (2007-2014). Previously he served as Poland’s minister and deputy minister of national defense and deputy minister of foreign affairs. Highly respected for his international experience and credibility in the West, Sikorski, together with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, was one of the main architects of the EU’s Eastern Policy. He has recently joined President Poroshenko’s International Advisory Council on Reforms in Ukraine. This interview was conducted during the 12th annual meeting of Yalta European Strategy (YES) in Kyiv, September 10-12.

Surviving Russia

Many say that Ukraine and Russia now appear to be in a race for survival. Russia is attempting to survive sanctions, and Ukraine is trying to maintain its economy during wartime, and this will continue until one collapses or retreats. Who will be first?

This is true, but still the main economic difficulties in Russia are caused by the drop in oil prices. However, Western sanctions are significantly complicating Russia’s ability to repay or refinance huge corporate debts. And this is making the Russian elite nervous.

This is why I really welcome the Ukrainian reforms, especially in the energy sector. Over the past 10 years, several Ukrainian governments have complained about rising gas prices and promised to change the relationship with Gazprom, but the current Ukrainian government was the only one to do so.

And you must understand that this is a heroic act for a politician — to do something that definitely will not to add to his popularity. This is why Arseniy Yatseniuk will be remembered the same way we remember the Polish Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz, who 25 years ago carried out difficult and unpopular economic reforms. The reforms were painful and very unpopular, but they laid the foundation for Polish success.

But let’s face the truth. Can Ukraine defend itself against Russia for a long time even in the face of falling oil prices and Moscow’s weakening economy?

It is difficult to predict. The future of the Middle East, Iran’s return to the oil market — all this has an impact on the general global situation.

Putinism is stable only because of the huge profits from oil and gas, which suddenly have dropped sharply. This way you now have a chance to surpass your rival. I have been saying this for many years now: Ukraine has long been governed by a gas and oil kleptocracy, which did not have its own oil and gas. Now you have a chance to build a normal economy. After all, Ukraine potentially is a rich country, richer than Poland.

You have more natural resources, you have better soil, you have a nuclear industry and nuclear power and a huge gas transportation system. We did not have these advantages when we started our reforms, but now Poland is richer than Ukraine. If you simply begin to take advantage of what you have more effectively, you will achieve much.


Right now the unanimous support of the EU is helping us “survive.” What is the danger that European solidarity with Ukraine will weaken? After all, Russia is not really hiding the fact that it is supporting right-wing radicals in the EU.

The radical left as well. Or both the extreme left and extreme right, as in Greece. Yes, this can endanger the solidarity with Ukraine. We know that the extreme-right and extreme-left parties in Europe are sponsored by the Kremlin. I am convinced that they want to make the general mood in Europe more xenophobic and hysterical.

Five years ago when we launched the Eastern Partnership, and the Arab Spring began in the south, we really thought the world had shifted and that development and stabilization in the countries neighboring the EU lay ahead. And today the south and the east are on fire.

Europe has not faced similar challenges since at least the end of the Cold War. I hope this will force European leaders to develop a plan of action for implementing this program, which I still think is the right one — the expansion of European values among our neighbors.

However, with the rapid exacerbation of the refugee crisis in several countries, it is possible that the radical right will come to power. And then, in a few years, there will be serious problems with the continuation of sanctions against Russia.

There will be problems even earlier, in fact as soon as December this year. President Putin again is attempting to demonstrate that he is so agreeable, that the ceasefire is holding in eastern Ukraine. So I cannot guarantee that the unanimous consensus of 28 EU countries on the sanctions will continue.

As I remember, we introduced the sanctions for the downed Malaysia Airlines plane. I’m afraid that without that there would be no sanctions.

And who in the EU is against them?

There are countries with huge Russian investments, where Russian media is very active and trusted and where the leaders are paying much more attention to the crisis in the south and not here.

However, my opinion is as follows: European solidarity means there will be reasonable Polish support for the positions of Spain or France on the issue of illegal migrants, but we also expect that these countries will act the same say when it comes to the war in Ukraine.

What should we do to prevent the collapse of European solidarity with Ukraine?

You are basically doing everything right. You addressed the changes to the Constitution and this demonstrates to the European leaders that you respect the Minsk agreements and therefore the other side must fulfill them now as well. You rightly demand that elections in the Donbas take place according to the rules, recommendations, and standards of the Venice Commission.

Even if slowly, but you are carrying out reforms, and the IMF is commending you. Eventually you will be able to explain to your population that it is necessary to put solar panels on their buildings if they want to see Ukraine become financially stable and able to resist aggression. Alternative energy sources will increase the energy security of your economy. This is one of your major challenges. And every Ukrainian should do something in this area.

Russia’s proposed partition of Ukraine

Few doubt that in the forthcoming parliamentary elections in Poland your opponents will win — the Law and Justice party.

Let’s not rush. As Stalin said, the problem with democracy is that you never know who will win elections. We expected to win in the presidential elections, but we lost. Now our opponents are expecting to win, but things may turn out otherwise.

But let’s imagine that Law and Justice wins after all and forms a government. How much would it change Poland’s Eastern Policy?

There is a national consensus in Poland on policies regarding Putin and relations with Ukraine. There may be disagreements and loud declarations, but the strategic course of the new Polish government, no matter who forms it, will remain the same. I would like to point out that the new Polish President Andrzej Duda made his second visit to Germany recently. Although our government was blamed for being very close to Germany, it seems this policy will continue.

And you can be sure that Poland will continue to be your friend. And I hope that Ukraine will also be Poland’s friend.

However, we can see that Russian propaganda and Russian lobbyists are hard at work in Poland. They do not advertise the Russian World and President Putin to the Poles because this would be futile. But they are criticizing Ukrainians and are attempting to create a split between Poland and Ukraine. How dangerous is this and how can it be countered?

Russia had invited us to participate in the division of Ukraine into parts. And we received a letter from Zhirinovsky about it. Why are you laughing. He is the vice speaker of the Russian State Duma! (Sikorski laughs ).

Seriously, there are many people who are intoxicated by the painful chapters of our history, especially the Volyn tragedy. Today attempts are being made to use that to incite us against each other. However, the former governments, presidents, and parliaments of our countries did everything necessary regarding the errors and harms caused by both sides.

Regarding Russian propaganda, look at how much money they spend on it. Entire troll factories are working to label Ukrainians as Nazis, and so on. But facts are facts: the Russian soft power and its influence on the international arena has decreased over the past 5 years. However, there is much that we must leave to the historians. We believe the government when it says that those guilty of crimes against civilians do not become heroes of Ukraine.

Putin must be given a clear message

There was an article in the Washington Post by an American analyst (Marvin Kalb — Ed.) entitled “Putin won his war in Ukraine.” How widespread is this idea in the West?

Washington Post is an excellent publication. But just because it publishes a certain article does not mean it is the truth; they simply respect different opinions. I personally don’t think Putin has won the war in Ukraine. On the contrary.

What is happening now is the result of the failure of the attempts to create Novorossiya. Kremlin’s Plan A was based on the idea of establishing Novorossiya according to the Crimean model throughout southern Ukraine. And this plan failed almost everywhere except for Donetsk and Luhansk. And the Russians are stuck there now, and the sooner Putin understands that this is consuming their resources and that the price of this fiasco is too high, the better.

We must convince Putin that even if he attempts to seize new territories he will face a guerilla war for decades, as was the case in Afghanistan. First of all, Ukrainians will resist. And secondly, we will help Ukrainians resist.

This is why it is very important to explain to Putin clearly, concisely, accurately, demonstrably, and in advance exactly what we will do in the case of further aggression. President Putin is a very practical person. The language of values and appeals to common sense are foreign concepts for him. The language of Abrams tanks, F-22 fighter planes and Javelin missile complexes on the NATO border, or perhaps even closer to Russia is what he will find more convincing.

When you spoke at the opening of YES (Yalta European Strategy meeting) you suggested that NATO troops be placed near the eastern boundaries of the Alliance and even that weapons be given to Ukraine. But does this depend on NATO?

A consolidated NATO decision is not necessary; the decision of one country is enough — the USA. After all, there are no sanctions against Ukraine for now. According to international standards, Ukraine can buy or receive everything that NATO or the partner countries are able to offer.

Besides, this is the issue of US leadership. If Washington decides to help Ukraine in this fashion, so will NATO.

Do you thing this is possible before the end of the presidential race in the US?

Unfortunately, the schedule of world events is not coordinated with the pre-election calendar in the US, but is set by Mr. Putin.

The EU and refugees

Right now Europe has been hit with the refugee crisis. Of course it is caused by the influx of refugees from the Middle East. How will this affect Ukraine?

There is a fundamental difference between refugees from the Middle East and Ukrainian refugees. The refugees from the Middle East have been forced to leave their country. Ukrainians are able to resettle inside their country, from the east to the west. Therefore, it may be better to help Ukrainians solve the problem of refugees inside Ukraine rather than help Ukrainian refugees in Poland.

Maybe Ukrainians should be completely denied refugee status in the EU?

It is an interesting idea that is being discussed. There is also a debate about whether to cancel the granting of political refugee status to citizens of countries that are candidates for entry into the EU, for example the Balkan countries.

I’ll tell you something else. As recently as five years ago there were Poles who claimed the status of political refugees in Great Britain! In the end (the British) said: “Enough. Poland is a democratic country where human rights are respected and we must stop this practice immediately.”

If the Balkan countries that have received EU candidate status meet all the criteria of respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, then any political refugee status for their citizens is questionable.

I can tell you this as a former refugee. I fled Poland for Britain in the 80s, but this was Poland under martial law. I don’t think you want the question of Ukrainian refugees to come up in Europe because this will mean that Ukraine is a country that people want to flee.

We are fighting for a visa-free regime with EU countries. Won’t the refugee crisis destroy Ukraine’s plans in this area?

I remember the year 2000 and the first projects of the George Bush administration. The first official visit to Washington was the arrival of the president of Mexico. Bush wanted to orient his foreign policy toward South America and solve the problem of illegal immigrants in the US But all these plans ended with the attack on the WTC towers on September 11. Therefore, you’re absolutely right that certain developments that are not directly related to Ukraine can radically change the public mood. Society begins to view the idea of free movement of foreigners in Europe and the US more negatively. Although I believe that introducing additional restrictions would be a mistake.

Besides, we promised Ukraine and Ukrainians that if they fulfill all the technical requirements they will receive a visa-free regime. But as a politician and the former foreign minister and defense minister, I want to tell you that we would solve 80% of our problems if people did everything they promised.

Can Ukraine have any hope for the visa-free status as long as there is war in the Donbas?

– Moldova has Transnistria, but it has received visa-free status with the EU. If Moldova can do it then so can you. The visa-free regime can even help you in the Donbas conflict because it will make your passport more desirable for the residents of those territories.

On being in government

At the beginning of our conversation you praised Yatseniuk for the reforms he had carried out, but in Ukraine attitudes toward his achievements are more critical.

I don’t want to get embroiled in an argument about the internal affairs of Ukraine since I am not that well versed in the matter. However, I can tell you one thing: when you’re not in government you think that there is some room in the prime minister’s office where there is a remote control with a bunch of levers. And that all that is necessary is to pull these levers in the proper order and everything will turn out. But I’ve also been in government for the past 10 years. I will tell you what happens when you are the politician, the minister, the speaker of parliament. You then have the impression that the real power is somewhere else, not with you.

And really it is very difficult and requires incredible human effort to make anything happen. This was true in Poland, and in Ukraine even more effort is required. But I’m an optimist because you simply have no other choice but reform. And this is why I think you will carry out these reforms.

What do you plan to do personally after the parliamentary elections if you party loses?

I’m writing a book about the time when I was foreign minister. And universities invite me to give lectures. And your president has asked me to join the National Reform Council.

Moreover, after 10 years at the top of Polish politics, I have decided that this is enough for a while. I’m not a man who sees himself exclusively in politics and nowhere else. Before I became involved in politics, I wrote books, I was a journalist. Sometimes it is necessary to take a little break from politics to look at the real world.

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
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