This is Ukraine’s ‘meeting with history’: a talk with key Polish EU leader

(AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)
Polish local hospital employees and volunteers make hundreds of beds to prepare for an influx of Ukrainian refugees in Rzeszow, Poland, Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022.

Radoslaw “Radek” Sikorski looks exhausted. He’s been doing media appearances all day – American and international – and was just on the phone with the State Department, before sitting down for tea with reporters late Friday.

Mr. Sikorski wears many hats: He is chair of the European Parliament’s committee on U.S. relations and a former defense minister and foreign minister of Poland. And, it so happens, this long-planned visit to Washington coincides with Russia’s 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, hunkering down, or fleeing the country fill the airwaves, it’s impossible not to see the invasion as a hinge moment for humanity, starting with the people of Ukraine. 

Why We Wrote This

Radoslaw Sikorski, chair of the European Parliament’s committee on U.S. relations and a former defense minister and foreign minister of Poland, says this moment 'will decide, maybe for decades, whether Ukrainians are a free nation.'

“This is their meeting with history,” says Chairman Sikorski. “It will decide, maybe for decades, whether they are a free nation or a kind of untermensch of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” he adds, using a Nazi term for inferior people.

In a conversation with reporters from the U.S., 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 neighbors, including Poland; the effect of sanctions; and how key players, including President Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have handled the crisis. 

The following are excerpts from our discussion, lightly 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 clearly wasn’t going to roll over. 

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

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

The worst case scenario would be Ukraine just giving up and capitulating and not caring about their country, and the Russians just walking in and taking it away. That clearly is not happening.

The best is, the Ukrainians destroying 300-plus Russian tanks, shooting down 100-plus Russian aircraft, the offensive grinding to a halt, and the Putin regime folding.

If [the Ukrainians] manage to inflict sufficiently high losses in a sufficiently compacted time, then I think Putin has a problem back home.

Has there been any deterrence value in Western economic sanctions announced as of Friday? They include limiting Russia’s access to the global financial system, and freezing the assets of Mr. Putin and other top officials. 

No, Putin laughed at the threats, and I blame Western European politicians for brandishing this. He must have been offended by their posturing. What they should have done is to say, ‘Look, we've already delivered some weapons to Ukraine. If you move in, we will multiply those deliveries, and you will have a guerrilla war for 10 years. We will do to you what we did to [Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev in Afghanistan’ [which the USSR invaded in 1979].They don't have the guts to say it.

In Europe, it's assumed that diplomacy is like, you know, your auntie's teapot. You mustn’t say anything direct. 

What about cutting off trade with Russia? 

The West needs to be taught basic facts. Germany trades three times as much with Poland than with Russia. Russia is not an important economy or a trade partner for them. 

But what about Russian oil and gas? Exports provide 36% of the national budget. Germany just froze its Nord Stream II natural gas pipeline project from Russia, though that was not yet operating. 

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 the Russian stuff can be replaced by LNG [liquefied natural gas]. And you know, this is a German, kind of self-imposed myth: “We can't do anything because we are dependent on Russia.” Well, what they actually mean is, “Our petrochemical plants would lose their profit margins by a bit.” 

How is your country, Poland, which borders on western Ukraine, dealing with the flood of refugees? 

It won’t be a problem. We have a million Ukrainians in Poland already. They've actually rescued our labor market, so we can take a million more. ... The EU [European Union] countries will help us. We're the richest economy on Earth. We can cope with it.  

How has Ukrainian President Zelenskyy handled the crisis? The Russian military has been building up forces around Ukraine for months. 

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

Is there any way Mr. Putin loses power over this? 

There's 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 Qaddafi option, there is the Mubarak option. You know, take your pick!

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