Alexander Kwasniewski, ex-President of Poland
Putin made a historic mistake, and Russia will pay a huge price for this.
12.07.2022 18:40

The West demonstrates true unity and solidarity with Ukraine in the face of the ongoing war, unleashed by Russia. It will take years, not decades, for Ukraine to join the EU, while the nation’s membership in NATO becomes more realistic after Finland and Sweden will join the alliance. Russia's war against Ukraine may be a long one, while Putin and his entourage will most probably be prosecuted for their crimes in Ukraine in absentia. Such opinions were shared by the ex-president of Poland (1995-2005), Alexander Kwasniewski, in an interview with Ukrinform’s own correspondent in Poland.


- Mr. President, you recently visited Ukraine as part of the board of the YES (Yalta European Strategy - ed.) Foundation, you saw the towns destroyed by the Russians just outside Kyiv, and met with Ukraine’s officials. What are your impressions of the trip?

- This visit was connected with the preparation for the annual YES conference, which should take place in September. However, this year the visit was special – together with former Prime Minister of Sweden Karl Bildt, ex-president of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid, and former chairman of the Munich Security Conference Wolfgang Ischinger, we visited Bucha, Borodianka, and Hostomel. All this made a depressing impression on us, showing us the scale of Russian aggression. The most tragic thing is that the Russians deliberately attack the civilian population. We saw photos from the exhumation in Bucha, the town where the Kadyrovites, while already retreating, killed hundreds of people. We saw bombed-out residential buildings on Borodianka’s main street. There was no military reasoning behind doing so. For me, the attempt to destroy the monument to Taras Shevchenko in Borodianka looks very much symbolic. This shows that this war is not against the military or military facilities, this is a war against the Ukrainian people, Ukrainian culture.

But despite the war, Ukraine acts in a very organized manner. The determination and willingness of Ukrainians to fight are enormous, so we must help Ukraine. My foreign colleagues left Kyiv with the conviction that we must do everything in our power for Ukraine.

- What are the plans for this year's YES conference?

- We want to hold it on September 8-10. This is quite a difficult logistical challenge, given quite a long way to go from the border to Kyiv by train or car. Perhaps Kyiv will host the first day of the forum, then there will be a move, and we will finish it on the third day in Warsaw so that all the invited guests are able to attend. Traditionally, we invite representatives of Ukraine to take part, and expect that important guests from Europe will come, too. Now our enemy is war, so we are not yet sure whether we will be able to implement everything as planned.

- Do you remember your day on February 24? Did you expect that Russia would attack Ukraine from three sides?

- I never had any illusions and I knew Putin wants to have all of Ukraine in his sphere of influence. As early as 2002, during our long talks in the Kremlin, he said that his strategic goal is the reconstruction of greater Russia. And as we know, in Putin’s understanding, a great Russia is impossible without Ukraine. This is how I explained to myself the political and economic pressure on Ukraine, repeated gas blackmail, and obstruction of the signing of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement.

However, I sincerely admit, it seemed to me that Putin is a pragmatist and will not attack Ukraine, because that would look like madness. But he went for it anyway. Putin made a historic mistake, the price of which will be huge for Russia.

On February 24, I was in Israel, where we discussed assistance in creating the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center. I was waiting for my plane, which departed very early, and while in the hotel, I decided not to go to bed, but turned on CNN. There I saw that the war had begun. At that moment, I was almost certain that Putin would start a war after recognizing the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk "republics" a few days before. In his speech, he used very aggressive language, reminiscent of the worst Soviet speeches by Molotov and other figures of the communist era. Even then, I had no doubt that Putin had already pressed the "war" button.


- Now it’s the fifth month of the war. What are your predictions for how long it will last?

- That’s a difficult one. I believe the war will last a long time. Why? Putin doesn’t want to lose this war. He will continue this aggression with varying intensity. Recently, we have seen many missile attacks outside the Donetsk and Luhansk regions – Kyiv, Odesa, Kremenchuk, and other cities. This is part of a psychological war, intimidation, an attempt to show Ukrainians: be afraid, our missiles can hit you anywhere.

On the other hand, Ukraine cannot surrender as Ukraine is now convinced of its rightness, it’s fighting for its land, for its rights, and for the safety of its people. If the West is going to help – and it has pledged to do so, especially militarily – it should provide as many weapons as needed, and more. Given all of the above, this means that the war can be long and exhausting.

I honestly admit that now it is difficult for me to imagine a turning point. Today, I don’t see a moment when both sides will say: enough, let's sit down at the negotiating table, we are ready to make concessions. I don’t believe Putin is ready to make concessions and return to the pre-February 24 situation in conditions where Russia has its presence in the south, where he opened a corridor to Crimea, and has control over the Sea of Azov and Mariupol. At the same time, I cannot imagine any Ukrainian politician who would start talking about any territorial concessions to Russia. Therefore, a peaceful solution to the problem is completely impossible today.

Instead, a scenario of a conflict freeze at a certain point is possible. This isn’t very good news. But if both sides, especially the Russians, admit that they have exhausted their power and resources and need time to recover, then some truce initiative may appear. Given the depletion of resources, forces, and means, it can also be accepted by the Ukrainian side. But we know what a frozen conflict is. In such conditions, it’s difficult to develop, to have far-reaching plans, because today the conflict is frozen, and tomorrow it can be unfrozen. Of all the scenarios, this seems to be the most likely one.

However, today I see no chance of a peace agreement between Ukraine and Russia, which would be guaranteed by the most important countries in the world.

- So you are not talking about months, but years of war?

- It could be the case.

- As you noted, the Russian army openly bombards Ukrainian cities – Odesa, Kremenchuk, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Kyiv, and many get killed every day. At the same time, in Russia, they cynically say that they do not attack civilian objects, only military infrastructure. Acts of terror against the civilian population are a manifestation of powerlessness because the Russians have no significant gains on the front, or do they manifest their hatred for Ukrainians?

- One does not exclude the other. Without a doubt, this is an element of psychological warfare. If the territories, which until now seemed calm, are now under threat, then the state of public anxiety is growing. Someone goes shopping, and a missile hits the mall. Of course, people start to get scared. The psychological factor is of great importance.

On the other hand, it is also a manifestation of powerlessness. This war is not going according to the Russian script, and such bombings are about satisfying their ambitions by alleging that some success has been achieved.

Therefore, these factors complement each other.


- Russia also suffers huge losses as over four months of war, about 40,000 servicemen were killed. In terms of the death toll, this is several times more than they lost in the war in Afghanistan, but that one lasted 10 years. Could this lead to mass protests or a coup leading to a loss of power by Putin?

- If the war drags on for a long time and the death toll keeps rising, public resistance will grow, too. However, I doubt that this will result in any mass protest effort. Putin's propaganda is a non-stop act of brainwashing people. The array of lies and falsifications is outrageous. But it does work. The power of propaganda is still really significant as the public is poorly informed about the real situation. In addition, note that Putin is trying not to make the main mistake of announcing general mobilization. Now he is sending to the front lines young people from Buryatia and Siberia. If there was general mobilization, then it is necessary to mobilize young people from Moscow and St. Petersburg, who know very well what is really happening as they have access to the internet. If Putin wanted to hold a general mobilization, I can imagine demonstrations of young people outside the Kremlin with slogans: "Enough of war", "Let us live," and so on. But he won’t make this mistake.

The next element for possible public protest is sanctions. Without a doubt, the standard of living in Russia is declining. On the other hand, we know the Russians: if they have to die for their homeland, they can make such sacrifices. This is not a typical consumer society that highly values comfort and a high standard of living. Therefore, I don’t really believe that mass demonstrations can happen there in the near future. However, if the war lasts long, then this can be possible. If we have more than 37,000 killed, then multiplying by 3 or 4 means that more than 100,000 people – families who are already mourning their dead – are aware of what is really happening. In the long run, this may lead to social tension.

Instead, two groups could potentially set up a coup in Russia. The first group is generals. Disgruntled, Putin began to sack his generals and even put some under house arrest. The threat level for this group is very high. So at some point, they may decide that instead of being thrown to jail, it's worth ending this war. And this is possible only after the top guy is gone. Any successor to Putin, even with very similar views, will still have a free hand and can always say: this is not my war, so we have to do something about it.

The oligarchs are the second group that can dare to organize a coup because they are bearing colossal losses. These people are used to a good life and are not ready to give away all their wealth. Oleg Deripaska made a statement recently, and this seems to be the first influential oligarch who has spoken out against Putin and the war. In these circles, the idea may arise: there is no point in this, this must be stopped because all our businesses are collapsing, our money stocks will be either seized or lost.

- You mentioned the Russian youths. Many of them operated as part of the Russian army in Ukraine with exceptional brutality: torture, the killing of the civilian population. It is unlikely that anyone forced them to do this...

- No one forced them, but no one forbade this, either. They are allowed to do it. Had their commanders forbidden them to rape and rob, and had the perpetrators been held accountable by Russian military courts, then the element of discipline would have done its job. But this is not the case as they were allowed to act like this because it is difficult for commanders to explain to their subordinates why they need this war in the first place. The morale is really low in the Russian army. They don’t know what they are fighting for. In exchange for this, they are allowed to loot, get rich, and rape. These are the arguments of barbarians. We have seen photos of Russian soldiers taking some household equipment out of Ukraine, which could often be scrapped instead of being taken to the other end of the world, to Siberia. However, since there is no ban on this, it is being done.

In addition, every war dehumanizes the enemy. If Russian propaganda portrays Ukrainians as Nazis, dehumanization takes place, so it is easier for Russians to justify the killings of Ukrainians.

- Is something like the Nuremberg process possible for the Russian leadership, military, and propagandists?

- In the legal aspect, there are appropriate instruments, there are also such bodies as a tribunal in The Hague. At the same time, if you look at history, you can see that the leadership of Germany, which lost the war and signed off the capitulation, appeared before the Nuremberg tribunal. Now it is difficult to imagine that Russia signs a capitulation in connection with Ukraine’s victory. Putin will remain in Moscow, and no one will attack Russia. Therefore, the scenario of surrender of the aggressor and respectively bringing them to justice will be impossible.

Another scenario is to try the Russians as war criminals were tried from the former Yugoslavia. However, the international trials against Karadzic or Milosevic happened only because the government in Serbia changed and was ready to cooperate with the Hague Tribunal and hand these people over to international justice. Can you imagine such a change of government in Moscow and that Putin's successor will hand it over to The Hague? I think that this scenario is unrealistic.

Therefore, it is possible to bring Putin to justice in absentia and hold him accountable like this. Some countries could make such a decision. However, both Putin and his entourage will continue to remain in Russia or countries that remain available for them to stay in.

It would be very good for the world order if it were possible to bring to justice the Russians who are responsible for the crimes in Ukraine. However, it will be difficult to do in practice.


- How do you assess international aid and solidarity with Ukraine in the conditions of the ongoing war with Russia?

- I think we can talk about historic events: since the beginning of Russian aggression, we have seen the true unity and solidarity of the West with Ukraine. There was concern about the attitude of other countries towards Russia. Poland and the Baltic nations have no illusions about Russia because we have been living alongside the Russians for a thousand years and know what they are capable of. But in Italy, Spain, or Portugal, this attitude is already different, the Germans or the French have always had a special relationship with Russia. It is very important that, despite these differences in views and historical experience, it was possible to build unity among both EU and NATO countries. Military aid is significant and must continue. Ukraine now needs modern military equipment, and this requires some time. Everyone feared that the Ukrainians would not be able to operate modern Western weapons, as there was no time to master them. However, Ukrainians are a very capable people, in a very short period of time they have mastered modern Western technology.

Humanitarian aid is also significant, for example, in Poland it is set up at all possible levels. Poles welcomed many Ukrainians into their homes, now there are 1.5-2 million of them in Poland. Many positive decisions have been made. Other countries are also doing a lot in this sense.

Another element is financial assistance, which should proceed in three directions. Ukraine needs 5 billion dollars every month to maintain its financial stability, and this assistance is being provided. The second direction is assistance to "calmer" regions for the reconstruction of destroyed buildings and bridges. This is important, because it will contribute to the return of Ukrainians back home. The third direction is the new Marshall Plan, or the new Brussels Plan, not so much for the reconstruction of the destroyed country as for the construction of a new modern infrastructure. This should be a new Ukraine. But this plan requires the war to end. It will be difficult for the Ukrainian authorities to think about war and reconstruction at the same time.

- German intellectuals recently called on their own government and the governments of other Western nations not to support Ukraine with weapons and to start negotiations with Putin. In other words, they are pushing Ukraine to surrender. How strong are these sentiments in the West and will they intensify?

- Such statements appeared and will continue to appear. I would not be surprised by this. In Davos, Henry Kissinger said that we will have to live with Russia, that it is an important element of global security. Therefore, with the mediation of the West, it is necessary to find some solution between Russia and Ukraine to return to the positions as of February 24. He also made Ukrainians nervous when he said that he hoped that the wisdom of Ukrainians would be the same as their heroism. I listened to this speech in the circle of my Ukrainian friends, for whom these theses were absolutely unacceptable.

In simple language, what the German intellectuals, Kissinger and some people from other countries are talking about means the following: let's try to influence both sides and agree that Putin will keep what he already has in his hands, and then he will stop his aggression. In return, the West will guarantee the security of that part of Ukraine that remains under Kyiv's control. That is, there will be a division into the eastern and central-western parts of Ukraine, and Putin is supposed to agree to this. And the Ukrainians have to agree to this because of the decision to stop arms supplies from the West. Well, all this is presented as a success of common sense, a kind of romantic approach to politics. It’s just that, first of all, this is a 20th-century kind of thinking, the one of the past. Secondly, these proposals are unrealistic, since we’re dealing with Putin. If he wanted to make that kind of proposal, he would have done that already, at first opportunity. But he deceived all partners in the West – Biden, Scholz, Macron – that there would be no war. So who will believe Putin today is he says he will stop? Maybe this 99-year-old Kissinger would, as well as some German intellectual who would really like to believe it. However, any adequate person living in this region will never believe it. It is safe to say that in this case, after some time of peace, everything will start again, because the goal of Putin and Putinism is to have not only a third of Ukraine, but all of Ukraine and all of Belarus. Soon the same problem will arise with Kazakhstan, Central Asia, because if we are talking about great Russia, then Kyiv is the key, but this empire also included Transcaucasia and Central Asia.

Kissinger and German intellectuals don’t understand the problem well: it is not about some sentiments Putin has towards Ukraine and the Russian-speaking regions in the country’s east and Crimea. The best definition of this confrontation was given by U.S. President Biden during his visit to Warsaw this March. He then emphasized that this is a conflict between democracy and autocracy. Putin cannot destroy democracy. He would love to destroy the EU and the West, but his hands are too short. His actions led to significant hikes in energy prices, overall inflation, etc. It is impossible to fight with Putin with concessions. He pursues an aggressive policy against the entire Western world. President Zelensky is right: this is not a war with Ukraine, it’s the war with democracy and Western values.


- How should we counter any war fatigue and apathy on the part of the West?

- Fortunately, these voices are in the minority. They will appear, and perhaps even intensify over time. War fatigue will continue to be observed. Therefore, I’m convinced that President Zelensky is doing a great job. His media and PR activity plays a very important role.

It is very important that this work be done by various Ukrainian politicians, intellectuals, and journalists. At the moment, the Ukrainian side is coping very well with this.

However, no matter how paradoxical it sounds, Putin himself will not allow us to grow weary of or emotionally exhausted from war. He will periodically introduce some new elements but the main thing is that they are not completely tragic, for example, tactical nuclear weapons. He will heat up this confrontation all the time. Therefore, interest in the situation of Ukraine will always be relevant, and the West's solidarity with Ukraine will further strengthen.

- That is, you think he may actually use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine?

- He may. It would be a disaster for everyone, including him. But he is detached from reality. I am convinced that after February 24, he lost his sense of pragmatism, common sense. Maybe he has been in power too long… Twenty-two years is a long time.


- Recently, two summits were held – EU and NATO. They attracted considerable attention in Ukraine. Ukraine received the status of a candidate for EU membership. Is this the light at the end of the tunnel for Kyiv's European prospects?

- Yes of course. This is a very important decision made jointly by all EU member states. It finally confirms that Ukraine will be a member of the Community. We are not talking about the timing now, since everything will depend on two factors: how the war will develop and what Ukraine's preparations for membership in the European Union will progress.

Few people are talking about it now, but Ukraine is not starting this process from scratch, multiple reforms and amendments to its legislation have been implemented over the recent years. Therefore, it can’t be claimed that Ukraine's preparation for EU membership begins today as it has been going on for years. I don't think this path should be a really long one. It will take years, but not decades. The most unpredictable factor is war. If Russia starts an assault on Kyiv again, all talks about reforms will be put on the back burner. I think that granting Ukraine the status of a candidate country is a historic decision. I see Ukraine as part of the EU, even with unresolved territorial disputes. There are countries in the EU with similar problems – Cyprus is such an example.

The NATO summit was also positive from the point of view of Ukraine's interests. The decision to invite Sweden and Finland to NATO means opening the door to Ukraine's membership in the Alliance. This has a direct connection, since the concept by which Putin explained his steps in relation to Ukraine has been completely denied. He said that Ukraine cannot be in NATO because Russia wants to have a buffer zone consisting of countries that will not be part of the Alliance. When Sweden and Finland join NATO, this buffer zone will cease to exist. Therefore, after this decision, the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO is more realistic than before.


- Do you agree with the suggestion that now Ukrainian-Polish relations are at their highest point? Did you expect this solidarity to be so impressive?

- And that’s very good, too. We have come a long way, and I also see my small contribution to this end. When Leonid Kuchma and I signed the declaration on Polish-Ukrainian unity, there were many skeptics. Now the situation is different, but history has not ceased to be history, because we remember what happened in Volyn, what the "Visula" operation was. We know all about it, but we have faced not history, but modern times. And it turned out that in this modern times, Poles and Ukrainians manifest their beautiful sides.

Now a new page in Polish-Ukrainian history is being written. It actually started a bit earlier, which is due to a large number of Ukrainians staying in Poland. This is a positive factor for bilateral relations. Instead, the humanitarian aid that has been provided since the new stage of the Russian war against Ukraine opens a completely new stage in our relations. I hope that we will pass this test, that the Poles will be patient enough, because I, too, fear a certain manifestation of fatigue that may manifest itself in Polish society. A guest for a month is good, three months is a bit more difficult, but a guest for a year can be an issue. I really hope that Poles and Ukrainians will show a lot of mutual understanding and patience. The complex history will remain in our relationship, but it will no longer dominate.

- Is this the right time to put all the dots over the "and" in the issues of the Volyn tragedy? We cannot rule out that pro-Russian forces will once again carry out some provocations in order to cause tension in the relations between the two countries...

- History is now shadowed by war and new challenges have arisen. If I were president now, I would do everything possible to get wise professors, academics from both sides to sit down and start looking into the ways to draft a joint history textbook that would cover this period - even considering that wherever our views don’t coincide, we draft separate opinions. But it should be done with a positive approach, not to show hostility, but to truthfully tell about the conditions of this period, the death toll, and the crimes.

- To what extent does the good relationship between the leaders - Zelensky and Duda - influence Ukrainian-Polish relations?

- The role of presidents is always significant, as they are figures in the special limelight. The fact that relations between the presidents of Ukraine and Poland are now really good is a favorable factor for bilateral ties.

- Does this climate in the relations between Ukraine and Poland provide grounds for creating some kind of strong Polish-Ukrainian union, perhaps with the participation of the Baltic states and Great Britain?

- Currently, in the context of the war, it’s important to preserve unity of both NATO and the EU. No new alliance can weaken this. If Great Britain or Poland is willing to help Ukraine more actively, that’s really good. But today I wouldn’t suggest shaping concepts of new unions, as no one knows how Russia might react to this. The Kremlin might use this as an excuse for some even more active actions. On the other hand, the forces in Europe skeptical of Ukraine could then suggest letting Poland, the Baltic nations, and Great Britain deal with Ukraine. Today, we must focus on strengthening European unity, as it will be needed for years to come.

Yuriy Banakhevych

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