Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski on how the West must stand up to Russia’s aggression

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Radosław Sikorski
Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland


Ambassador Paula J. Dobriansky
Vice Chair, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council; Senior Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

RADOSŁAW SIKORSKI: Ladies and gentlemen, my heartfelt gratitude for the invitation. Thank you for sparing the time and the willingness to listen to my arguments.

I will be discussing issues of national interests, international alliances, how to beat dictators, win freedom, stability, and strength.

But let me start on a personal note. 

Although I am Poland’s foreign minister, my wife, as some of you know, is American. But most of you may not know that our son is actually an American soldier. My heart and duty are therefore with Poland but my interest lies also in keeping America prosperous and confident enough to stay faithful to its allies.   

As Fred [Kempe] already mentioned, I grew up in a Poland that was still a Soviet colony. After decades of struggle, we won our independence. Partly thanks to America, Poland has joined the larger family of democratic nations, and my own family has joined yours.

But not everybody celebrated our victory. In 2005, Vladimir Putin said that the collapse of the USSR was—and many of you know the quote—“the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” His invasion of Ukraine is part of an effort to restore the power and cruelty of what President Ronald Reagan called “the evil empire.” 

But he is not alone. The murderous invasion of Ukraine is aided and abetted by a crime family of dictators from Iran, North Korea, but also lauded by, among others, those ruling Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria. Putin, in turn, helps his fellow despots fuel chaos in the Middle East, Asia, and here on your southern border. He welcomes Hamas in Moscow, and his propaganda supports the terrorists.

China helps Russia economically, and in turn benefits from cheap oil and gas that Putin is selling to fund his war machine. They all desire to destroy the stability of America and to create victory where it is not deserved.

All this is now under threat. The peace that we achieved after two murderous world wars, the taboos that we set, which was that you may not change borders by force. This is threatened, but we can still set it right.

There are only three steps separating us from a more secure and stable world. Take them together and we will prove we can stand up for our interests and defeat these dictators. Fail and we invite more thugs onto the world scene and this will have dire consequences. What are these steps?

First, back Ukrainians with the ammo they urgently need.

Second, invest in our security to create a deterrence so powerful that it dwarfs Putin and his cronies.

Third, deepen and widen our alliances to secure a lasting peace from a position of strength.

We need to take these steps not to escalate the war in Ukraine but to prevent an even bigger global conflict, which currently slides ever closer towards our borders.

In what follows, even if you contest some of the arguments that I make as a politician, please do not doubt that as a father I have no desire to see my son deployed to fight Putin’s aggression. I seek to deter and prevent it.

Ladies and gentlemen, many of you know that Winston Churchill once observed that: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.”

It turns out that sometimes even Churchill was wrong. When Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he thought America would show weakness. Instead, to my very pleasant surprise, America was the first to do the right thing and made sure Ukraine got the backing it needed. With Britain, actually. Poland also rallied round. The use of American intelligence to warn Ukraine and to deprive Putin of a casus belli was brave and brilliant and I’d like to salute the US intelligence community and the United States for this creative use of intelligence.

Then, the US—with overwhelming cross-party support—invested over seventy-five billion dollars, including forty-six billion in military assistance. This bipartisan effort should not be forgotten. And on behalf of—I think I can speak in this case—Ukraine, certainly Poland, and the European Union, I’d just like to say thank you, so far.

Inspired by US leadership, the European Union and its member states rose to the occasion, pulling together an even higher amount. I’d like this to be noted. We have contributed financially more: $92 billion already. Of that, $33 billion in economic and humanitarian support; $18.5 billion in supporting the refugees; and $10 billion in the form of grants, loans, and guarantees. Almost $30 billion in military support. And this month, the EU has already passed another fifty billion euro package. That’s real money.

This coalition of strength and solidarity is not limited to the US and Europe.

Democracies on the other side of the globe—Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand—soon joined. They saw obvious parallels in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the assertiveness of China. 

And it’s been a good, sound investment. The Ukrainians fought back and retrieved 50 percent of the lands once occupied by Russia.

And then they liberated—In the liberated areas, what they have witnessed made them even more determined.

Putin’s army, as you know, left behind towns and villages full of atrocities—atrocities that we thought belonged to the twentieth century in Europe. Mutilated bodies were scattered on the streets of Bucha and Irpin, just fifteen miles from the heart of the Ukrainian state. Victims of rapes and indiscriminate bombardments, including pregnant women in maternity hospitals.

And on top of all that, the systemic, mass abduction of tens of thousands of children from their families to forcibly turn them into Russians.

This is what Putin has in mind for Ukraine as a whole. He seeks to oppress an entire country with a prewar population exceeding forty million people and the territory the size of Utah, Nebraska, and Missouri combined.

Unless he is stopped—he will continue his march of cruelty.

Russia may have suffered over 350,000 casualties, both dead and wounded—but in a dictatorship, human life is cheap. Putin has crushed dissidents, murdered Alexei Navalny, moved the country’s economy to a war footing, boosted production of artillery shells. And around the clock, Russia has started building more factories and running its existing plants on triple shifts. 

During my last trip to Kyiv in December, Ukrainians described how the invaders were so much better equipped, that they fired eight artillery rounds for every one that the Ukrainians can muster. That’s not a way to win.

Putin isn’t working alone. Today, many bombs falling on Ukrainian schools, churches, and apartment blocks come in the form of Iranian drones and hypersonic missiles with microchips smuggled through other countries. Most recently, North Korea has sent long-range weapons to sow more terror among civilians.

This mix of terrorists and dictators are united by one thing—their hatred of America, the West, and of democracy. Hatred fueled by fear.

They’re hungry to show that the US is weak, ineffective, and hopelessly divided. That America can no longer act effectively, or be a force for good in the world.

Ukraine is a test case for them. All are eagerly watching to see if Putin can crush freedom—and our resolve.

The invasion of Ukraine is by no means a regional squabble. It is a war with global consequences.

If we choose to abandon Ukraine, or do it by default, Putin will come to understand—as will other adversaries around the world—that he can get away with whatever he wants.

He will push up much closer against the borders of NATO states, threatening further military incursions in Europe where our children will have to fight him. After all, Putin has openly stated that the Russian border “doesn’t end anywhere.”

Losing to him will open the gates to more chaos, more instability, more wars.

Americans, more than anyone, apparently, understand this.

A poll conducted last October found that 84 percent of US voters believe that the Russian leader is a threat to American interests. They are right.

In the same poll, 71 percent said that Ukraine should win the war. They are right.

And 68 percent said that a Russian victory over Ukraine would make the world less stable. Again, they are absolutely right.

Americans from across the country, both Republicans and Democrats, all agree that Putin should be defeated.

Ladies and gentlemen, I realize that appeasement may seem an easier path but it is in fact a dead end.

If America cannot come together with Europe and enable Ukraine to drive Putin back, I fear that our family of democratic nations will start to break up. Allies will look for other ways to guarantee their safety. They’ll start hedging. Some of them will aim for the ultimate weapon, starting off a new nuclear race. I’m thinking of the Far East.

But this can all be stopped.

Putin has a great weakness. He attacks only when he thinks he can get away with it. He shrinks in the face of strength, willpower, and credible deterrence.

Here’s just one example.

At the start of the war, Russian warships illegally blockaded Ukraine’s ports, stopping Ukrainian grain from sailing to feed the world.

But, supported by American investment, the Ukrainians pioneered the use of sea drones. And these zip unseen across the waters of the Black Sea to strike at Putin’s warships. And apparently, 25 percent of this once mighty fleet has now been disabled by a country without a navy.

Ukraine’s grain exports via the Black Sea have almost returned to prewar levels.

When American and European investment is combined with Ukrainian innovation and courage, Putin retreats. He’s had to withdraw some of his ships from Sevastopol to ports further afield, where he can’t strike at the grain ships. Let’s help Ukraine become his nemesis.

The first step to defeating Russia is to immediately supply Ukraine with the ammo they urgently need.

Many [Americans] are asking—at what price? Well actually, quite low.

Over two years, the United States has contributed roughly 5 percent of an American annual military budget in security assistance. And with that money, Ukraine has already managed to destroy Putin’s combat capacity by 50 percent. Without any American troops firing a single shot. A truly stunning return on investment.

And most of this money is spent here in the United States. According to some analyses up to 90 percent goes directly to create American jobs on American soil. 

Researchers at the American Enterprise Institute, I realize the competition, have identified—and I quote—“117 production lines in at least 31 states and 71 cities where Americans are producing major weapons systems for Ukraine.” You can find them in deeply blue states like California, deeply red states like Mississippi, and purple states like Pennsylvania or Ohio, where Abrams tanks are made, which Poland, for example, is also buying.

Much of the newly made equipment ends up not in Ukraine but in the hands of American soldiers. It replaces stockpiles of older weaponry already sent to help defeat Putin’s invasion.

American investment in Ukraine’s capacity to defend itself is a literal proof that “by helping others you help yourself.” Helping Ukraine is not only a good deed. It’s also a good deal.

At this moment, only America has the military capacity and might to enable Ukraine so that she can survive this dangerous moment. This urgent action is a life-saving bridge.

On the other side, the nations of Europe are ramping up to build a deterrence that together with America can contain Putin in this long run—in the long run. Actually in the medium term. But this year is crucial. And this year, we cannot do without America. 

This is the second step to victory.

Let us imagine a scale of investment in security that dwarfs Putin and other dictators. And we can afford it much more than he can. The production vital for our security should be based in America and among allied nations. This “friendshoring” will ensure that we are not, as we are now, at the risk of supply chains that rely on our adversaries, and which could subvert at any vital moment.

This is the path to security in the twenty-first century. We should be driving it forward together.

Ladies and gentlemen, over the years, subsequent presidential administrations have expressed their exasperation with European countries for not sharing an equal burden of defending freedom and maintaining peace around the world.

But here’s some good news. We heard you and it is now happening.

In recent years, many European countries have increased their military budgets, some of them significantly. My country, Poland, has doubled its defense spending to almost 4 percent of [gross domestic product (GDP)]. And we were 2 percent for fifteen years before that. I believe we are now, actually, in percentage terms at the top of NATO members—including the US.

Where are we spending the money? Well, between 2018 and 2022, 56 percent of what we’ve contracted is due to come from the United States. We are buying Abrams tanks as I’ve already mentioned, HIMARS launchers, F-35s, Patriot batteries, Apache helicopters, and many others. 

The contracts recently signed add up to thirty-four billion dollars. I’m told that since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Europe as a whole has placed ninety billion dollars of fresh orders in the United States.

Other European countries that donated their weapons to Ukraine are, as I’ve said, replenishing their stocks with American gear, thus creating another stream of money that flows to the American people, including the American middle class. We are also rebuilding Europe’s defense industrial base.

This trajectory needs to continue. Putin and his henchmen must realize they can neither outproduce or outlast us. 

Together we are much stronger than the enemy. Our collective GDP is vastly greater than Putin’s.

The numbers speak for themselves. We have the drones, we can have the ammo, we have the money, too. All that is needed to win is our will to act. 

Only if we remain determined, can we take the third step to victory and achieve peace through strength.

We have done it before.

In 1999, exactly a quarter of a century ago, Poland was invited to join NATO and the transatlantic family.

Twenty-five years later, not least because of the security guarantees that NATO provided us, we have become the fifth largest economy of the European Union, and the main buyer of US military equipment as I’ve already mentioned.

Victorious Ukraine may follow a similar path. 

Ladies and gentlemen, whether we want it or not, Putin’s decision to start the biggest war in Europe since the defeat of Nazi Germany has already changed the course of history. It is up to us to decide if we want to shape that course ourselves, or let it be shaped by others—in Moscow, Tehran, or Beijing. 

Helping Ukraine by defeating Putin is the right thing to do in the broadest sense of the word. 

It is morally sound, strategically wise, militarily justified, and economically beneficial. 

It outweighs politics. It transcends partisanship.

Now is the moment to act. Let’s get this done. Thank you.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: Thank you, Minister Sikorski, for opening up our discussion, and with most powerful remarks that you have presented. A warm welcome to our virtual audience on Zoom, and also our in-person audience here at the Atlantic Council. I especially want to thank again the many ambassadors who are here in the audience, and also embassy staff. But I do want to single out Poland’s ambassador to the United States, who is here, Marek Magierowski. Thank you for being here.

And before we begin with the moderated conversation, just a few administrative notes. To ask a question to Minister Sikorski, for those who are in person please stand at the microphone. It is just right over on this side. And I will make sure that we incorporate your questions into the conversation. And to our audience watching virtually, please make sure to follow along on X, formally Twitter, at @ACEurope, and using the hashtag at #ACEurope. Let me go right to it.

You really gave the most powerful remarks. Basically, at this time in the United States, there’s a real focus on NATO and the upcoming NATO summit to be held here in the United States. So an immediate question for you is, can NATO have a successful summit, by the way, if the war in Ukraine is either stalemated or Ukraine is losing territory? What can be done in this regard? And given this is happening just in a few months?

RADOSŁAW SIKORSKI: The best way to deter Putin and to—the success of the summit and of NATO, is passing this supplemental in US Congress. I, again, appeal personally to Speaker Mike Johnson. Please let democracy take its course. Please, let’s give—let’s pass this to a vote.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: OK. Do you think that we in the West have overestimated, by the way, the risk of Russian escalation? This issue keeps coming up in our overall calculation. You laid out a very clear and articulate strategy forward. Do you think that we’ve overestimated the risk of Russian escalation in response to Western support to Ukraine?

RADOSŁAW SIKORSKI: I think Putin overestimated his own army. I think it turned out that it was just as corrupt as everything else in Russia. He underestimated Ukraine. He underestimated Europe. And he underestimated the United States. I don’t think this thing has gone according to his wishes. But you’re referring to the nuclear threats, right? Well, I don’t think he calculated correctly what the response of the rest of the world would be. When China and India tell him to stop threatening Ukraine with nukes, they do it not only out of the, I hope, respect for the taboo of not using weapons of mass destruction, but also I think, out of self-interest. Because if Ukraine were attacked with nuclear weapons, I think Korea and Japan would go nuclear, which would not be good for China, for example.

And then I think he has discovered, like other countries have discovered, that having nuclear weapons is actually quite difficult to turn into reality. There are experts here, I’m sure, on nuclear matters. But as I understand, we would know at least a week in advance that he was up to something. If he were to use these one-to-five kiloton weapons, he would have to withdraw his troops from the frontline. And the Ukrainians could take advantage of that. And if he used the weapon, either on the battlefield or perhaps in the atmosphere, he would have to deal with a contaminated environment for which his army is not prepared. So actually these, I think, are mostly empty threats that should not lead to us deterring ourselves from doing the right thing.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: By the way, you know, in your remarks you mentioned about the need to move forward with the supplemental, so we’re very focused on that. And you were a former speaker, and Johnson is the speaker. What’s the core message that you have put forward that you think is compelling and that can convince some of the doubters?

RADOSŁAW SIKORSKI: I think Speaker Johnson has in the past spoken warmly about Ukraine. And therefore, I’d like him to know that the whole world is watching what he would do, and if this supplemental were not to pass and Ukraine were to suffer reversals on the battlefield it will be his responsibility.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: OK. And what about NATO? Is NATO as an institution doing all that it can be doing? Again, you laid out very clearly the kinds of aid that should be given and the assistance. But as an institution, can it be doing more here?

And may I, before you answer, let me encourage those of you who want to go up and ask questions. Please do, because this is meant to be interactive. We’re not going to wait for questions at the end. So, please, the microphone is right over there.

RADOSŁAW SIKORSKI: NATO is doing a great deal. We have AWACSes in the air so we have awareness of the situation. We now have 10,000 US troops in Poland alone and other troops in the Baltic states. We are currently carrying out the largest military exercise in decades.

And you know, we have—we’re also proving how misleading Putin is when he says that he had to invade because of NATO expansion. As far as I know, in the Kaliningrad Oblast of the Russian Federation that sits between Poland and Lithuania, also along the Finnish borders, there are now hardly any Russian troops left; they’ve all been sent to Ukraine. Now, would you do that if you believed that NATO may attack you?

Surely this is best proof that he believes that NATO is a defensive alliance; that we would not even think of taking advantage of his military weakness, because we won’t.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: What do you think it will take to convince Putin, by the way, to give up on these ambitions, or even will he give up on these ambitions regarding Ukraine, or at least to enable Ukraine to win the war on its own terms, and fast?

RADOSŁAW SIKORSKI: What it will take is defeat in the field. I debated the Russian ambassador in the Security Council on Friday, and he tried to convince us that Russia can—has never been defeated. Well, that’s not my recollection. Russia—we have the British ambassador here. The Crimean War was not exactly a Russian victory. I don’t know if we have anybody from the embassy of Japan, but the—

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: We have some officials here from the embassy of Japan.

RADOSŁAW SIKORSKI: Right. Well, the Russo-Japanese War was won by Japan. Russia was knocked out of World War I. Russia already, under Lenin, tried to grab Poland, and we defeated them at the gates of Warsaw in August 1920. I was, as Fred mentioned, a reporter in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Very few people at that time gave the mujaheddin hope of victory; yet, on the 15th of February 1989 I watched through my binoculars—I was with Mullah Ezat outside Kabul—the last Russian/Soviet tanks withdrawing from Kabul. And the Cold War was not exactly a Russian victory.

But you know, the encouraging thing is that every time they were defeated, they had reforms, you know? The—when was the Duma first and freedom of the press and a constitution in Russia? After the loss in the Russo-Japanese War. And the liberal Kerensky government was when they were knocked out of World War I. Gorbachev reforms when they were defeated in Afghanistan. And so it can be this time as well.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: By the way, I had the privilege of meeting you when you were a journalist and covering Afghanistan. I remember that very well.

Let’s go over—we have—I’m going to introduce him because I know him—and we have Ambassador Dan Fried, former ambassador to Poland. Dan, please ask your question.

Q: Excellent remarks. And excellent on Russian history.

I want to ask about what you didn’t say. If the United States does the right thing and votes the funding for Ukraine, for the ammo, and we build up our military capability in the West, what’s the theory of Ukrainian victory looking in the medium term? How do we get to—from a rearmed Ukraine to a defeat of Russia, which would, I think, trigger political changes in Russia? That’s not our objective. It’s merely a bonus, if we get everything else right.


RADOSŁAW SIKORSKI: Well, we’ve talked about it, Dan. And you know that my base scenario is, unfortunately, a long war. These colonial wars usually take a decade. And let us not be fooled by the fake statistics of [the] Russian economy supposedly rising. GDP rises when you produce tanks and ammo. But it actually ruins your country. So we should plan for a war that lasts a few more years. Hopefully, Russia will run out of stuff to throw at Ukraine way before that. But the trouble is that Putin doesn’t have an incentive to make peace. He’s already indicted at the Hague for stealing Ukrainian children. And he probably thinks that he—that it’s better for him to have a bad war than an unsatisfactory peace. So I’m afraid we have to—we have to stay the course for the medium term.

Q: Thank you.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: Let’s go next to Fran Burwell of the Atlantic Council. Fran, please.

Q: Thanks very much. And first off, Minister Sikorski, thanks very much for coming to the Council and for making this argument. I think it’s a great time for Americans to hear this message.

But at the same time, we’re seeing Polish farmers protesting against Ukrainian grain, even though the grain is not actually supposed to be there. But nevertheless, it is disrupting the markets in Poland and other central European countries. How do you plan—how does your government plan to address this? And how should we, Americans, interpret this? Is this the beginning of weakening domestic support for the war? Or are you confident that European leaders will be able to keep their populations on board through your scenario of a long war? Thank you.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: Glad you’ve asked that question. Over to you.

RADOSŁAW SIKORSKI: Well, you almost answered it, because to maintain strategic support for Ukraine we have to solve the grain issue. Some of the farmers that protest about the grain actually feel for Ukraine, but you need to know what happened. When Putin blocked the Black Sea, Ukraine couldn’t exploit its grain. And in an act of solidarity, the European Union—and the Polish government included—lifted all restrictions on Ukrainian exports. And Ukrainian agriculture is very competitive. You have huge farms, great soil, you can use any pesticides you want, that the EU doesn’t permit for good environmental reasons. And this depressed prices on the Polish side of the border. Two-thirds of the Ukrainian grain that crossed the EU border stayed in Poland, OK?

But that was then, when Ukraine couldn’t export its grain through the Black Sea. Now it can again. So this is just my view, but we should go back to the pre-war rules of trade, and then start negotiating with Ukraine her entry into the European Union and the single market, with all the adjustments and all the—all the rules that will have to be obeyed. Because we have politics too. And Polish farmers cannot bear the brunt of all of EU’s solidarity with Ukraine. That wouldn’t be fair. So we need to resolve it. I agree that the optics of it are not good, but we need to both help Ukraine and save Polish farming.


I’m going to suggest I ask another question and then we’ll come back up here, to intersperse. So a different—not, per se, on the core issues we’ve been discussing, but about the EU. You know, there’s been quite a bit of debate in recent months about the development of a common defense policy in the European Union. And in fact, the internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton, he was here at the Atlantic Council last month. And you know, for the EU to set—to unveil its long-term procurement and production strategy in the coming weeks, that’s what he was focused on. So what is the view from Warsaw on these plans? How is Poland—you know, what do you see as Poland’s role in developing, supporting, or for that matter critiquing the ideas proposed in Brussels to centralize Europe’s defense industry? And especially given already what you’ve been doing in an incredible way in the modernization of your own defense industry, how does this mesh?

RADOSŁAW SIKORSKI: The common European defense idea is very old. They were proposed for the first time already back in the 1950s and were actually shot down in the French parliament. Then, in the 1990s when we had to wait for the United States to intervene in the wars of Yugoslav succession, we were promising ourselves a standing force of fifty thousand. Nothing came of that. The British, while they were still with us, proposed the concept of battle groups, and they’ve been on standby for years. But none of them has ever been used because the concept is, in fact, politically difficult to effect.

So my political group in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party, proposed in the process of the Conference on the Future of Europe that we create some European capacity—a reinforced brigade, five-thousand-plus; a joint command; a European budget—we have that; some intelligence and reconnaissance capability; and the post of a defense commissioner of the EU. And things seem to be moving in that direction. Just like COVID has taught us that Europe needs a health policy, needs some active ingredients and some pools of capacity, so we need a second insurance policy in case you, irrespective of who’s president, get involved somewhere else and you need to free up resources for that emergency. We should not be incapable of addressing even small-scale emergencies on our southern or eastern border.

That’s the idea, to develop it in strategic harmony with the United States. And I think it’s an idea whose time has come. And from my conversations at the Pentagon in my former capacity, I take it that there would be support for this idea here, too.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: All right. Well, thank you for putting that issue in context.

Let’s get these three questions. I’m going to let you each introduce yourselves. All right. Please.

Q: Thank you. I’m Ian Brzezinski. I’m a senior fellow here at the Atlantic Council. And, Minister Sikorski, thank you for coming to the Atlantic Council and for your strong call of support for Ukraine and reanimation of US support for Ukraine.

The alliance is going to host a summit here in Washington whose main purpose is going to be to celebrate seventy-five years of success. It should also be a summit to kind of underscore its continued relevance and credibility going forward. Can NATO have a successful summit if Ukraine is on its back foot, losing territory or even at stalemate, in light of the tremendous advantages you inferred that the alliance has over Russia—forty-five times the GDP, ten times defense expenditures? How tied is NATO’s credibility to the outcome of this war between Russia and Ukraine? Thank you.

RADOSŁAW SIKORSKI: I agree with the implication in your question that the best thing that we can do for ourselves as the alliance is to come through for Ukraine. It’s—our credibility is at stake and it’s the surest way of ensuring our own security.

You know, if Putin were to prevail in all of Ukraine, he would do to all of Ukraine what he did in Donbas. He would—and what the then-chancellor of Nazi Germany did to Czechoslovakia. He would use the industrial, but in this case also human, resources against us. You know, Ukrainians who are today resisting him would be forcibly drafted into his army. And therefore, our cost of deterring that would exponentially rise.

So, yes, I think unless we help Ukraine, unless this supplement passes, we will have a very weird NATO summit.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: I hope the next questioner you won’t mind, I’m just going to inject a related question. Should Ukraine be brought in as a member—a member of NATO? And the question would be, if that’s the case, should it be part of a strategy for success for it to win the war, victory? Or should it be bought in as part of a peace process?

RADOSŁAW SIKORSKI: That’s a tricky question, because of course my heart goes out to Ukrainians. And they need all the help that they can get. And if I were Ukrainian, I would be betting that if they were admitted, you know, tomorrow morning then maybe Putin would give up and leave. But it’s tricky because it—membership in NATO means that we are willing to go to war for that country. And so we have to ask ourselves, are we willing to go to war with Russia for Ukraine? And I’m afraid the answer in many current member countries is, not yet.


Q: Hi. I’m Lance Kokonos from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

I also have to start by saying, sir, just had the privilege of being in your beautiful country in a delegation last week. Got back on Saturday. And I left inspired by the resolve of every facet of your society to continue standing up against this—

RADOSŁAW SIKORSKI: Thank you. I apologize for the weather.

Q: It was beautiful, I promise.

To change tack a little bit, the day before we departed here we were all hit with the tragic news of the death of Alexei Navalny in a Russian prison in the Arctic Circle. Which has me thinking, what does a future look like post-Putin? Because frequently when Russia loses military conflicts, throughout its history, there has been a change in the regime—either reforms or one dictator is traded for another.

RADOSŁAW SIKORSKI: Actually, usually reforms.

Q: But when Ukraine wins, because we’re all hopeful that it will, what does the future of Russia look like? Does Putin fall down? Does he—is he overthrown? Who comes next? Is it better, is it worse for European security? And how are we preparing for that potential future? If you could just respond to that.

RADOSŁAW SIKORSKI: Well, it won’t be worse. He is the war party. Every time people in the West say that, you know, it could be someone worse, I am reminded of an obituary in The Times of London on the death of Stalin. I paraphrase: He was not an angel, but a good ally during the Second World War. And now the extremists might take over. He is it. Anybody who replaces him will have less power, and therefore less capacity to do evil.

What was the second part of your question?

Q: How we are and should be preparing for a possible post-Putin world.

RADOSŁAW SIKORSKI: Well, you mentioned Alexei Navalny. He impressed me not only with his courage to face up to Putin, but he also had the courage to say to his Russian supporters, his anti-Putin supporters, that Russia should withdraw from Ukraine and pay reparations to Ukraine. In other words, there are some people in Russia who would like to do the right thing, who would like their country to become normal, in the sense of investing in their own people. You know, it never—it never ceases to amaze me, and I was thinking about it during the infamous interview by Tucker Carlson with Putin where Putin was, you know, going back to the thirteenth century.

Well, in the thirteenth century, Russia was a tiny principality around Moscow. They’ve grown to the largest, territorially, state on Earth. And yet still they crave other people’s land. Whatever for? Don’t they have enough land? Isn’t it time to invest in your—in what you’ve got, and your own people? I mean, it’s a no brainer, really.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: All right. Thank you.

Let’s take the next question, please.

Q: Edward Luce from the Financial Times. Thanks for a very clear address, Radek.

Paula kind of stole the question I was about to ask, but you didn’t answer it very precisely so I will ask it to you again, about Ukraine’s future NATO membership. But more specifically, how do you define Ukrainian victory? This is what this whole thing is about. What is your definition of Ukrainian victory?

RADOSŁAW SIKORSKI: My definition of Ukrainian victory is very, very simple. Return to the internationally recognized border. And I put to you that it’s very difficult to imagine any other stable state of affairs. Either you get a frozen conflict or a return to the international border. Anything in between requires negotiations with Putin. And I put to you that negotiations with Putin are impossible because his credibility is zero. In a negotiation with Putin, in return for whatever you are prepared to do, you will get a piece of paper with his signature on it. What is the worth of that piece of paper in your eyes? Would you trust it in any way, if it was your country, or your property, or your whatever that was at stake?

So those are the two outcomes, I think, that are possible because, you know, Russia already has treaties with Ukraine. They have a 1990 agreement on recognizing the intra-Soviet border between Ukraine and Russia as the new international border. Russia, remember—not only the United States—but Russia is also a guarantor of Ukraine’s independence and inviolability of borders in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. And they also have a bilateral border treaty specifically of 2003, I think. So anything but recovery of the international border requires us to say, well, he broke those treaties, but this one he’s going to honor. Really? If you were a Ukrainian, would you accept that?

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: Let me go to an issue that you did raise, and progress that you did raise in your remarks. You mentioned about the 4 percent GDP of Poland’s defense spending. What are some of the elements of success, how you did this, that might be useful for other countries in Europe who haven’t gotten there?

RADOSŁAW SIKORSKI: It’s a bit like [the] drive to join Western institutions after the fall of communism. We actually had—in the 1990s, we had national consensus that after forty-five years of being downtrodden, we’ll do whatever it takes. And you know, there was a lot of pain. You know, many enterprises went bust, and so on. But we did it. And today, we are benefiting from it.

And today, we have fractious politics and we had a populist detour in Poland, but on this—on Ukraine and on defense—we have national consensus. As I mentioned already, Poland has been spending 2 percent for fifteen years. The previous government, that I was critical of, rose it to 3 percent. And we’ve not only kept it; we are going to increase it.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: So it’s that strong public support that was—

RADOSŁAW SIKORSKI: Yeah. There is a—there is a feeling we will eat grass rather than become a Russian colony again.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: OK. Very clearly stated. OK.

I understand that also one of the priorities of your visit to the US is to discuss the fight against Russian disinformation. The whole issue about cyber and hybrid warfare, you know, has been a longstanding tactic of [the] Kremlin. What has been Poland’s experience with Russian disinformation? And what are you doing to counteract it, and what are you—what’s your message while you’re here?

RADOSŁAW SIKORSKI: The key thing to remember is that, unlike in Soviet times, today’s Russia doesn’t want you to like Russia. They know that Russian nationalism is not a good for which there is much demand in the world. What they want is for you to fight with one another. What they want is to create extremes and to make our systems unstable so as to be able to say to your—to their population: Look, they are just as bad as we are, therefore lose all hope. It’s, rather, to weaken us—I mean, to drive a wedge between America and Europe, obviously, but also to drive wedges inside our societies. And some of their tactics are very successful.

So, for example, they discovered that in Eastern Europe there is a time lag in attitudes on some social and religious issues, right? So they started reinforcing that. They struck lucky because they were actually promoting anti-vax theories before the pandemic, and then they hit the jackpot when the pandemic actually happened and some people believed in those—in those anti-scientific lies. And so on.

Anything that delegitimizes democracy, anything that spreads conspiracy theories, anything that makes us weaker, they support.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: Minister Radek Sikorski, it was a privilege to have you here today at the Atlantic Council. And we just want to thank you for your remarks and also for this wide-ranging conversation. Please join me in thanking Minister Sikorski.

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Related Experts: Ambassador Paula J. Dobriansky

Image: Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski speaks at the Atlantic Council on February 26, 2024. Credit: Konrad Laskowski/MSZ.