Can Radek Sikorski Save Europe?

Meet the Oxford-educated Polish foreign minister fighting to get a wishy-washy continent to stand up to Russia.

Photo by GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images

WARSAW, Poland — Radoslaw Sikorski has been at the center of the Ukrainian revolution since before it began. As one of two European foreign ministers to assiduously pursue an EU association agreement with former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych — whose rejection of it prompted the Euromaidan protests that led to Yanukovych’s flight from Kiev and ouster from power — Sikorski is well aware of the stakes in keeping Ukraine politically and economically stable, particularly before its May 25 presidential election.

This translates into keeping Russian tanks out of Ukraine and Moscow-choreographed militias from rendering the country’s east too dysfunctional to govern or poll. "I was pleased by the news out of Kiev this morning that the barricades there are being dismantled," the Polish foreign minister told Foreign Policy on April 23 at the Polish Foreign Ministry in central Warsaw. "This means that the Ukrainian authorities have managed to build a consensus in the capital for normalizing government functions and the life of the city. And, yes, we hope that Russia will do the same with respect to the people over which she has influence."

A former student activist who had to rely on foreign democracy in extremity — he was granted asylum in Britain after martial law was declared in Poland in 1981, and he was educated at Oxford University — Sikorski was discussing the fitful implementation of yet another diplomatic agreement signed this year in Geneva, the one among the United States, the European Union, Russia, and Ukraine to "de-escalate tensions" in Ukraine "and restore security for all citizens," as the countries put it in a joint statement. Yet the people whom Russia influences are the armed separatists in eastern and southern Ukraine, who not only haven’t disarmed or abandoned seized governmental buildings in Lugansk, Donetsk, and Slavyansk — a clear violation of the Geneva agreement — but may imminently be receiving conventional military support from the some 50,000 Russian troops amassed at Ukraine’s borders. "It will probably be called an intervention by ‘peacekeeping’ troops or a ‘humanitarian intervention,’" the foreign minister explained.

This was mere hours after his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, for the first time intimated that his government might send its tens of thousands of troops amassed at the border into mainland Ukraine in the event that Moscow’s "legitimate interests" were "attacked." Lavrov ominously cited South Ossetia and Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia as a precedent; a day later, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, said that, to justify a second invasion of Ukrainian territory, Moscow might invoke Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which relates to a country’s right of self-defense.

"It’s difficult to fathom Russian intentions, which is itself probably a Russian success, because various options have been mentioned," Sikorski said. One mooted compromise is a federalized government for post-Yanukovych Ukraine, which really means a decentralized one that would empower the eastern regions at the expense of Kiev. In this respect, Sikorski thinks that Moscow could do with a taste of its own medicine. He recommends the Polish prescription: "In Poland’s case, [decentralization] means that regions take a part of income tax and have local and regional taxes and large autonomous budgets. My hometown of Bydgoszcz, a city of just over 400,000, has a budget bigger than the Foreign Ministry."

Because Russian-Ukrainian interests are guided by mutual interests — and mutual limitations — Sikorski hopes that the Kremlin will behave logically and not self-destructively: "Ukraine and Russia have important business together. They depend on each other for the transit of Russian gas to Europe. Crimea, now under Russian control, depends on water and gas and electricity from Ukraine. The two countries’ armaments industries are interlinked." (Russia depends on Ukrainian manufacturing for everything from its combat helicopters and fighter jets to intercontinental ballistic missiles.)

Sikorski is seen as a possible successor to Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign-policy chief, when her five-year term ends this year. But has he been pleased with how Brussels has responded to the Ukraine crisis as compared with Washington, which has passed more stringent sanctions against Russia and has taken a generally more combative diplomatic line? It would be an unfair comparison, he said, to expect the European Union to act like the United States — or Russia, for that matter. "We will never be like that because we’re a confederation of 28 states. Also, we do not have the kinds of instruments that the U.S. or Russia have, like a powerful intelligence apparatus or a deployable army."

Since the crisis kicked off, many in the American media — myself included — have seized upon not only Europe’s energy dependence on Russia but also the unending Volga of rubles that yearly flow into European banks, properties, and trading firms as reasons that Brussels has been more skittish than Washington about confronting the Kremlin. To Sikorski, the accusation is hypocritical: "You can continue to talk about Russian money in London or among European NGOs, but the last time I was in Washington, I noticed that American think tanks, law firms, and PR firms were not that reluctant to [take Russian money]," he said, laughing, though, unsurprisingly, he declined to name names.

As for Poland’s relationship with Russia, it’s complicated. For one thing, the two countries’ economies are interlinked almost to the degree that Russia’s and Germany’s are. Poland trades close to $38 billion annually with Russia, making it its second-biggest source of imports. Poland is also the only country inside the European Union to share a border with both Russia and Ukraine. Yet whereas Berlin is seen to be Europe’s squish when it comes to confronting Moscow with rhetoric and financial penalties, Warsaw is quicker to apprehend a continental security threat gathering. No doubt this owes to the fact that Poland technically ceased to exist as a country after the joint invasion and occupation by Nazi and Soviet forces in 1939. Its grim history as one of the "bloodlands" of the 20th century has foreclosed on any optimistic gloss on neo-imperial ambitions.

"We tried to normalize our relations with Russia, and it succeeded to some extent," he said, adding that Poland backed Russia’s application to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, for example.* Warsaw established a local border-traffic agreement between its provinces and Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, and "millions of people on both sides are taking advantage of visa-free travel," he said. "[Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin came to the 70th anniversary of the start of the Second World War, which might seem like a routine thing, but it was a new departure for Russia to acknowledg
e that the Second World War started in Poland rather than with the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union." Another milestone was Putin’s 2010 visit to the Katyn memorial, which honors the more than 20,000 Polish military officers and civilians who were massacred by the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) 70 years earlier; Stalin placed the blame on the Nazis. This visit, the first by a Russian leader, occurred three days before a plane carrying 96 people, including Polish President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of government and military officials, crashed in Smolensk, Russia, killing everyone on board. It was a Polish national tragedy deemed "the second disaster after Katyn" by Solidarity dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Walesa.

"Then things started going not so well," Sikorski said, "when they refused to return the wreckage of our Air Force One to us." The pretext is that Russia is still conducting its investigations, he said, but "the reality is that they’re holding it hostage until our prosecution services clear their ground-control personnel from any guilt. This is of course my supposition."

A day before Sikorski sat down with Foreign Policy, 150 U.S. paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team arrived in Poland for military exercises (450 more soon followed). Clearly a symbol of deterrence against Russian revanchism, this garrison doesn’t constitute "big news," according to Sikorski. It is the least that NATO and the United States could do for a fellow 15-year NATO member, which takes its own national defense extremely seriously. Poland’s defense spending, mandated by a law to be around 2 percent of GDP. Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski’s eponymous security doctrine envisions an end to expeditionary Polish wars in favor of homeland defense, fortifying Poland in the event of an invasion of its territory by guess-who. And though George W. Bush was derided at home for referring to Poland’s participation in overthrowing Saddam Hussein, it is no trivial or laughable thing that this small country dispatched its men and women into brutal combat zones in both Afghanistan and Iraq. "Now we feel that it’s payback time," Sikorski said. "NATO needs to go back to basics because whereas conflict inside the European Union has become unthinkable, conflict on the periphery of the European Union is not just all too thinkable but is rather a very concerning reality." 

Prior to these military exercises, the only NATO institution in Poland was "really just a house with some computers in it," he said, and "literally a dozen guys at an airfield enabling occasional exercises." What’s the point of admitting new NATO members, Sikorski asks, if they’re not to be actually fortified militarily?

Yet it isn’t only Russian hard power that has Poland’s top diplomat concerned. In 2012, he delivered a speech near his alma mater of Oxford in which he essentially begged Britain to abandon its Euroskeptic attitudes and not even think about withdrawing from the European Union. "Do not underestimate our determination not to return to the politics of the 20th century," he told his audience on that occasion. "You were not occupied. Most of us on the continent were. We will do almost anything to prevent that from happening again." He also said that Poland did not want to be considered a "buffer" between the democratic West and the authoritarian East, but regarded as a full-fledged political and economic partner with Germany and France.

This was especially powerful stuff coming from a center-right European minister who was, at least for a spell at the end of the Cold War, a habitué of the conservative British establishment. At Oxford, Sikorski was a member of the Bullingdon Club dining society, recent members of which have included British Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson, whose populist dispatches from Brussels for the Daily Telegraph were once seen as Euroskepticism’s high art form. But, contrary to Tory conventional wisdom now, Sikorski thinks that Britain’s greatness is not reduced by its participation in supranational institutions; rather, it is enhanced by such participation. As he observed in 2012, London would simply not be taken as seriously as it is abroad — particularly in Washington — if it backed out of the European Union and thereby lost its influence on multilateral policymaking and on the continent as a whole. Now, Sikorski says with a smile, his old host nation should filter his minatory comments through its internal debate about the possible dissolution of the United Kingdom. "I was making the same argument about the EU as the U.K. government makes about remaining in Scotland: Together we’re stronger."

In a way, Putin may have just helped make the Pole’s case for him. Russia’s behavior in Ukraine may have alarmed establishment politicians in Westminster, but it has impressed outliers seeking to shape British foreign policy. Nigel Farage, the clownish leader of the U.K. Independence Party, has said that of all leaders, he most admires Putin. Scottish National Party First Minister Alex Salmond, who would determine Scotland’s foreign policy if it did secede from Britain, has similarly praised Putin for "restor[ing] a substantial part of Russian pride." Elsewhere, and further to their right, other European political parties such as Hungary’s Jobbik, France’s National Front, and Austria’s Freedom Party, sent "observers" to monitor March’s so-called "referendum" on Crimea’s incorporation into the Russian Federation.

"We’re very concerned by this alliance — and not just its practical expressions but, above all, by its ideological affinities," Sikorski said of the reactionary embrace of Russian belligerence. He went on to say that those who admire Putin’s forceful actions are similar to those who favor the dismantlement of the European Union: They both "tend to be suspicious of national minorities in their own countries and tend to be culturally very conservative." Needless to add, in the midst of economic uncertainty, demagogic assertions of traditional social and religious values and great-power nostalgia are catalysts for world wars and totalitarianism. Russia also employs what Sikorski calls a "formidable propaganda apparatus that has reached millions of homes, both in Wes
tern Europe and the United States." Indeed, that apparatus now appeals to many non-Russians: Witness the success of the English-language channel RT in North America.

That Putin might find solace in a kind of Fascist International may prove to be the one thing that ultimately unites opposition against him. "I don’t think most Europeans would accept the return to the politics of the 20th century," Sikorski said, echoing a line from his aforementioned Oxford speech. "So I think Mr. Putin has made the case for us for an EU that is more capable of stabilizing its neighborhood, both in terms of foreign policy, but also neighborhood policy and eventually defense policy." As such, Sikorski thinks that the continent faces two hard tasks ahead. First, it must stop expecting or demanding the United States to assume control of all its manifold problems. He points to the European Union’s leadership on Mali and the Central African Republic as examples. Second, the countries of the former Soviet Union must finish what they started in 1991, which is arguably what Ukraine is trying to do today.

"We were always somewhat skeptical of this end-of-history nirvana proposed by some," he said. "But now I think it should be appreciated that the project of making Europe ‘whole and free’ truly isn’t finished and that Europe cannot be ticked off as ‘mission accomplished.’"

*Correction, May 1, 2014: The article originally misstated the name of the organization to which Russia had applied. It is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, not the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Return to reading. 

 Twitter: @michaeldweiss

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