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The outcome of the war is crucial not only for the future of Ukraine

An interview with Arkady Rzegocki, Head of the foreign service of the Polish ministry of foreign affairs. Interviewer: New Eastern Europe

February 15, 2023 - Arkady Rzegocki New Eastern Europe - InterviewsIssue 1-2 2023Magazine

Photo courtesy of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs

NEW EASTERN EUROPE: We would like to start our conversation with an idea that appeared on February 17th 2022, the week before Russia’s full-scale invasion in Ukraine. This was the idea of creating a new British-Polish-Ukrainian cooperation format. As you used to be the Polish ambassador to the United Kingdom, you might have your own perspective on this idea. In fact, initially there were a lot of discussions and a lot of people interested in this format, but we have not heard much about it since.

ARKADY RZEGOCKI: Let me start with the statement that at the moment Polish diplomacy is probably the most active in its history. We have dozens of missions worldwide and we are opening new ones every year. We are also an active member of many international organisations and different formats of international cooperation. One of these formats is indeed the idea of close cooperation between the United Kingdom, Poland and Ukraine. Even before the outbreak of war, cooperation between the UK, Poland and Ukraine within the new “triangle” in the region had intensified. Ukraine is working with Britain to modernise and build new ships for its navy and is building new naval bases. The UK has taken some of the most decisive steps within NATO to strengthen the capabilities of the Ukrainian military. Thanks in part to this cooperation, especially since February 24th 2022, both Poland and the United Kingdom are among the biggest supporters of Ukraine. Poland is a crucial hub for all kinds of help – humanitarian, economic, diplomatic and military. And the UK is a country that understands the threat of the imperialistic and aggressive Russian policies and is also one of Ukraine’s biggest supporters. Thus given this perspective, this cooperation is quite obvious. On the other hand, a close cooperation between these two countries is nothing new. Poland and the United Kingdom have had a strategic partnership for many years now. We have common interests and are like-minded countries. That is why we cooperate closely, not only in the area of economy, or at the people-to-people level, which is very important, but also in the area of security.

Do you foresee this cooperation to go further after the war?

There is such an idea and there are even members of the Polish parliament working with MPs and lords from the House of Lords on this cooperation to continue it and further develop it after the war. The UK and Ukraine also share a community of interests and long-standing defence cooperation. Ukraine, uncertain about the prospect of NATO and EU membership, is strengthening its international position by networking in cooperative formats. “Post-Brexit” Britain has ambitions to play a more important role in international relations and is involved in many directions, including NATO’s eastern flank. The truth is that Poland is engaged in supporting Ukraine, and that is why we are trying to mainstream the knowledge about the war in Ukraine, about Ukrainian culture, language, and basic information about Ukraine around the world. We are doing this because, unfortunately, Ukraine is not well-known everywhere. Therefore, this is one of the key tasks of our diplomatic missions to promote Ukraine. We are doing this with the representatives of the Polish diaspora and our Ukrainian, British and other friends. Together we organise cultural events, humanitarian actions and fundraisers, or events at universities.

Could you give us a bigger overview of what Polish diplomacy is currently doing to support Ukraine in its fights against Russian aggression? What are the priorities of the Polish diplomacy and which areas would you say are most important?

First of all, let me say that we are very proud that our embassy stayed in Ukraine at the beginning of the full-scale invasion when the situation was very difficult indeed. We also have a general consulate in Lviv, which is also very active, and recently we have opened a general consulate in Lutsk. Diplomacy, as we know, is always working in the shadows. Thus the truth is that Polish diplomats are behind a lot of the humanitarian help and aid convoys. They assist the NGOs and other institutions who receive aid, travel through Ukraine, get help to the border, etc. Our diplomats in Lviv are working with matters connected to visas or passports and Karta Polaka (a document giving special status to individuals who have familial or other close ties to Poland – editor’s note) and also help with many individual cases. At the beginning of the war, there was a huge problem with how to help people who were close to the area of the fight, so we provided additional support by bringing food, clothes and medicines. The Polish success in Ukraine is not only the successive aid tranches from the US and the EU, but also giving Ukraine the prospect of EU membership. Poland also organised aid conferences for Ukraine and held debates on the reconstruction of Ukraine. The activity of our diplomacy manifested itself not only in bilateral relations, but also in international fora: EU, NATO, the UN, as well as the OSCE where Poland took advantage of the chairmanship to present its point of view to delegates from around the world.

How about your work in other countries? Is support for Ukraine part of the Polish diplomatic activities in countries such as Germany or France? Do Polish diplomats who are working there focus on bilateral relations or has the war added a new dimension to their work?

As I mentioned before, all Polish missions are now working on the promotion of knowledge and assistance to Ukraine. Of course, diplomats traditionally work with the elites, namely other governments and diplomats; but we know that it is even more important to work with the societies and public opinion in different countries. That is why, our embassies and cultural institutes organise events related to Ukraine, often together with Ukrainians. One of the most important tasks is to mainstream the knowledge about Ukraine and to keep western countries united in this cause. Unfortunately, in some parts of the world the knowledge about Ukraine and the Russian aggression is still very small.

We assume you are referring to the so-called Global South. Are you active diplomatically there regarding Ukraine?

Yes, everywhere. As I said, we are doing our best. All our diplomats are working hard in every country. We have about 160 different diplomatic missions. In fact, it does not matter if it is North America, South America or Asia. We are trying to support Ukraine everywhere and inform others about what is happening in Ukraine.

What challenges are we to face in 2023? Do you expect that there will be some kind of Ukraine fatigue in many countries worldwide? Is Poland prepared for the long haul, to continue this type of diplomacy?

Maintenance of support for Ukraine will remain the biggest challenge in 2023 because the outcome of the war is crucial not only for the future of Ukraine but also that of Central and Eastern Europe. This war matters not only to Europe. Its result will shape the whole world, and that is one of the reasons we support Ukraine and want to see Ukraine win. We want Ukraine to survive as a country and a nation. To remain sovereign with full integrity of its territory. This is crucial. If Ukraine does not win, aggressive policies could succeed, and we are worried about that. They would affect not only Poland, but also other countries. That is why we are so eager to help Ukraine, but also that is why we are active and cooperate with many nations. We are active in NATO and within the EU, which are the most important players. But we are also an active leader of the Three Seas Initiative, which is an important project through which 12 countries from the south to the north of Europe can improve their infrastructure and collaboration. We can see that nowadays these kind of projects are more important than ever.

There is another challenge that we have and will continue to have in 2023 and that I want to mention here, namely compensation that Poland should receive from Germany for the damages and crimes that were committed against our country and our people during the Second World War. Our diplomacy is now working on expanding knowledge about the Second World War from the perspective of Central Europe, mostly Poland. We want people to know how many Polish cities were destroyed during that war and how many Polish citizens were killed.  Unfortunately, until now there is not enough awareness about these tragedies in many countries around the world.

Has the war in Ukraine given an additional context to it?

Yes, also because when so many Ukrainian war refugees arrived in our country we saw this amazing reaction of the Polish society. This shows how the memory of the times when Poles were war victims came back. Also seeing the images from Mariupol or Bucha, the stories about the destruction of the Polish cities by the two totalitarian regimes (Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia) return. In this light, the compensation that we are demanding from the Germans is an unresolved issue. Yet it remains important for Poland, even now decades after the Second World War to receive this historical justice, and it will be important for Ukraine to receive compensation from Russia after this war.

Let’s come back to the current times and the different formats that Poland has been playing an active or leadership role in. For example, as the chair of the OSCE Poland hosted the ministry council in Łódź in November 2022. Russia was not invited to this event and was told not to come, which caused expected tensions. How does Poland use its role in these different formats to adequately respond to Russia’s imperialism now?

Regarding other formats, we served as a non-permanent member of the Security Council in the United Nations a few years ago and as a member of the Council on Human Rights in the United Nations. Zbigniew Rau, Poland’s foreign minister, served as the chairman of the OSCE last year, which was a very difficult year indeed. In December 2022 our leadership was rounded off with the conference and ministerial meeting that you mentioned. However, there actually was a Russian delegation…

But minister Lavrov did not arrive…

No, he did not because there are European sanctions against him and Poland is one of the countries which supports all of the sanctions against Russia. That was the reason. But in general, all countries were represented on different levels, mostly on the ministerial level.

Above all, Poland is acting in the interests of the entire region by choosing a strategy of distancing Russia. Weeks before Russia’s aggression, Poland presented proposals for sectoral and individual restrictions to be adopted by the European Union in connection with Russia’s policies, which facilitated and accelerated the introduction of sanctions after February 24th. Polish diplomacy consistently supported the toughest proposals to impose sanctions on Russia, and in subsequent stages presented ideas to expand and tighten them. Some of the Polish proposals gained approval, even if reaching consensus required weeks of arduous negotiations and compromises. Among the most significant were the extension of sanctions on trade in coal, oil and technological sanctions depriving the defence industry of essential components. Poland’s international pressure contributed to exclusion of Russia from the Council of Europe. The government also made the decision to freeze Russian assets in the country, including taking control of the Yamal pipeline and reclaiming real estate. Poland has launched its own criminal investigation into Russian war crimes and is working closely with EU partners and the International Criminal Court prosecutor on that issue. Of course a multilateral organisation, like the OSCE, faces numerous challenges. Its aim is to foster cooperation, mutual respect, integrity and sovereignty of the countries, but also human rights. Unfortunately, Russia has been destroying the established international order and violating human rights. That is why, it is a huge challenge: how to keep the OSCE together and how it can survive in the current circumstances. You can see that we addressed this issue through our very active leadership. Minister Rau travelled worldwide during his term as the organisation’s chair. He also visited Moscow. 

Speaking about this visit, can you then tell us what is the state of Polish-Russian relations at the moment? Are there diplomatic contacts between the two states?

Of course we maintain diplomatic contacts. We have an embassy in Moscow and consuls in some cities, even in Irkutsk. However, there is no full-scale diplomatic activity because of the reciprocity between the countries. Some Russian diplomats had to leave Warsaw, and some Polish diplomats were forced to leave Moscow. Still, our ambassadors are in Moscow and the Russian ambassador remains in Warsaw. Indeed, the relations between the two countries are very difficult now and our diplomatic activities are limited, primarily because Poland cannot agree with Russia’s aggressive policies towards Ukraine.

Last November in Poland there was an incident when two missiles come into Polish territory and killed two people in a small locality called Przewodów. At first, when the news reached the public there was fear that these missiles had been fired by Russians, which could have been interpreted as an attack on the Polish territory and bring on serious consequences. However, after a while it turned out that these were parts of missiles shot down by Ukrainian anti-missile defence, which changed the interpretation of the event dramatically. Nonetheless, the fact that a missile fell on Polish soil and killed two people revealed, at least to some people, that the war also generates direct risks to Poland and other NATO countries. Are you worried that with a possible escalation of the war it could go beyond Ukraine?

In my view the reaction of the Polish government and society to the incident in Przewodów was that of great responsibility. In the beginning there was indeed a lot of disinformation and fake news, but nobody jumped into the conclusions too fast and the government waited for the investigation results to make any interpretations. I think this was very responsible. It also showed that Poland is treating security-related issues very seriously.  The restrained and crisis-coordinated response with NATO partners was praised by the allies. There was an unprecedented consensus in Poland at the time. The government met with the opposition, which helped build cross-party cohesion regarding the response to the incident.

The Polish position is that Ukraine should win the war, which is also the hope of most countries in Europe. Logically speaking, if Ukraine wins this war, Russia will lose it. How do you see Poland’s role in international affairs, and especially towards Russia, after Ukraine wins the war and Russia loses it?

The war against Ukraine is important for the future of Russia, its political system, maintaining the dependence of the centre over the regions, its economy and security. We do not rule out any scenario. In the short term the most likely scenario in Russia is the further consolidation of the Putin regime. Rather, we must prepare for the long march. It is in Poland’s interest to stop the imperial ambitions of its eastern neighbour. We will need many allies and partners to do so, led by the embattled Ukraine. Therefore, this moment of relative unity should be used to promote Polish interests, including the strengthening of NATO’s eastern flank, independence from Russia, maintaining sustained military support for Ukraine, supporting Ukraine’s EU accession process, deepening regional Polish-Ukrainian cooperation and strengthening the trilateral infrastructure along with maintaining a strong US presence in Central and Eastern Europe.

In my view, Ukraine’s victory in this war will also mean a change for the Russian civil society. It will show that it is possible to be a free and democratic country in a post-Soviet space. I hope that in Ukraine people will reform the country so it continues to develop without the oligarchs, without corruption. It is a huge challenge that Ukrainians will be faced with but in my view their success will be a good example for the Russians as well. I do not think that when Ukraine wins, Russia will lose. No, Ukraine’s victory will pose a huge incentive for Russia to change.

You are more optimistic than we are…

There is no better way to help Russia than to help Ukraine first. That is why we should not only think about sanctions, but also the norms of international law, the genocide acts and how the perpetrators should get punished after the war. This is the key.

Arkady Rzegocki is the head of the foreign service at the Polish ministry of foreign affairs. He previously served as the Polish ambassador to the United Kingdom. He is also an assistant professor of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.

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