Radosław Sikorski is a Polish politician and journalist who is currently a Member of the European Parliament. He served as Defense Minister of Poland from 2005 to 2007, and as Foreign Minister from 2007 to 2014.
In this week’s conversation, Radosław Sikorski and Yascha Mounk discuss whether a unified Europe could play a real geopolitical role on the world stage in the future, reasons to be skeptical of the realist view that NATO or the West is to blame for the war, and the role of sanctioning Russia (and Russians) now and in the future.
The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: You were both Foreign Secretary of Poland and also served as Defense Minister. As we're recording this on Wednesday, March 16th, the war in Ukraine has been going on for a number of weeks. As of right now, how would you describe just the military situation in Ukraine?
Radosław Sikorski: We are actually talking exactly during President Zelensky’s speech to the joint houses of Congress, and that fact alone tells you a great deal about the military situation. That the President of Ukraine—who was supposed to be de-Nazified within three days—is still in his presidential palace, and, in fact, is addressing world leaders means that the original plan of the Russian incursion has spectacularly failed.
Mounk: Does that give you hope that Ukraine will be able to hold Russia off for as long as it takes to come to a negotiated settlement? Or do you think that, eventually, the overwhelming Russian advantage in terms of just military apparel and manpower will likely vanquish the resistance?
Sikorski: Ukraine has been attacked from three directions: from Belarus, trying to go for Kiev; from the east, at the city of Kharkiv and beyond; and in the south. Only one city in the south has been captured. And even where the Russians are present, they are really present only on the roads and where they have direct military bearing, because the Ukrainian population has turned out to be uniformly hostile. More than that for a number of days, the Russian offensive is not progressing. They are bogged down on the far outskirts of Kiev. They have not even taken the city of Mariupol or even Kharkiv, which is only 40 kilometers from Russia's border. And Putin seems to have committed almost all his active professional army to this operation. He's still bringing up some reinforcements from Chechnya, from Syria, and from some mercenaries. But it looks like he's stuck. So the option is either to mobilize the population for total war or to negotiate. Negotiations seem to be progressing. And from what Russian officials are telling us, Russia has dramatically scaled down its level of ambition.
Instead of “de-Nazification”—which is absurd, given that Zelensky is a democratically-elected Jewish president of Ukraine—and “demilitarization", which meant basically taking over Ukraine, they now say that they have nothing against Zelensky staying on. By demilitarization, they just mean a non-aligned status—which of course is also absurd, because Ukraine has been, and is, non-aligned. The fact that a measure of realism is coming into the Russian position would suggest that they realize that they're not winning.
Mounk: So what would a settlement like that look like? Putin will need to justify a war domestically in some kind of way.
Sikorski: I wouldn't worry about Putin’s credibility. He has destroyed all the remnants of an independent press. He can push any line he wishes. Whatever happens, he will explain it as his victory.
I think Zelensky is preparing his country for changing the constitution and dropping the ambition to join NATO, which I think is a purely symbolic concession because NATO was not going to admit Ukraine anytime soon, anyway. The harder bits will be the territorial stuff. I don't think it's helpful of you and me to give advice on what's reasonable, because it's not our politics and it's not our country. The third demand is for some cultural rights for Russian language broadcasting and Russian speakers in the southeast, which I understand Ukraine had already passed into legislation a long time ago. So that should be no problem.
Mounk: What would neutrality look like? Because it's one thing to concede that Ukraine is not going to become a member of NATO. At the same time, Ukraine will obviously need some kind of realistic guarantee that Russia is not just going to restart the war at another point, or going to continue to lop off Ukrainian territory in the way it has over the last seven years. Is there some realistic set of arrangements that can guarantee those things?
Sikorski: Well, what guarantees of security are worth—both Russian and Western guarantees—Ukraine has just learned.
The spokesman of the Kremlin says that they'll be happy with Ukraine being like Austria or Sweden. Sweden has an army that can fight. Actually, it's Swedish-made anti-tank missiles that are hitting Russian armor very effectively. I think that's something that Ukraine could live with.
Mounk: You sound very optimistic about a resolution to this conflict. It will have inflicted terrible suffering on Ukraine, obviously. It will have been an incredible waste of human life. But it sounds like the outcome will actually be effectively a real defeat of Russia and the real triumph of Ukraine.
What is your outlook for what that would mean in terms of geopolitics, what that would mean for Putin domestically, and what that would mean for the strength of Western alliances?
Sikorski: Of course, we don't know what will happen, because as long as Russian forces are in Ukraine, they can mount another offensive and this could all be a ploy to play for time in order to bring up the logistics for the invasion force. So no, I'm not optimistic. I'm just saying that the fact that the Russians have demanded less than before means that Ukraine has succeeded beyond almost anybody's expectations so far.
But it also shows you that, yet again, there is a solution there for the taking, if only Putin would take it. I never accepted this argument that he has to invade because Ukraine wants to join NATO. That's just absurd. You don't start a war on the hypothetical possibility that someone might join a military alliance in 10 or 20 years’ time.
Mounk: There is an argument, from people like John Mearsheimer, that NATO expansion to countries like Poland has provoked Russia and that it went against some guarantees that Western leaders supposedly made to Russia in the early 1990s. What’s the argument against that?
Sikorski: The argument against it is that smaller countries also have security interests. The reason we clamored to join NATO was precisely because Russia was already being threatening. So this is the hole in Mearsheimer’s argument; it’s as if only great powers existed. But there are other countries in the world, too.
Mounk: What are some of the ways that Russia was threatening to Poland, for example, before NATO expansion? How do we know that Russia actually seemed to be threatening its neighbors and perhaps had territorial ambitions even before the supposed casus belli was in place?
Sikorski: Well, it's because, for example, Russia has nuclear-capable missiles in the Kaliningrad exclave, and it regularly threatened their use against us. It's because they had already then pursued the genocidal First Chechen War, and were claiming to have some kind of particular role in the former Yugoslavia, which, as you remember, after the Stalin-[Josip Broz] Tito split, was not part of the Soviet sphere of influence. And it’s because of the ideology of Czarist and Soviet expansionism that was alive and kicking in Russia.
Mounk: You mentioned czarist and Soviet expansionism. I've been wondering about how the current attempt to rebuild a kind of Russian Empire should inform our understanding of previous Russian history. It was easy to see the Soviet Union as something quite different from the Russian Empire because of its radically different ideology. Of course, they had the commonality of trying to control a lot of territory beyond Russia.
Now, under a third kind of regime, Russia is trying to build an empire yet again. Do you think that should change our interpretation of what the nature of the Soviet Union was?
Sikorski: Well, in my part of the world, we thought it a totalitarian tyranny and a form of Russian Empire at the same time. Putin loves to re-examine past history. But the hard facts are that Muscovy was a small barbarian principality on the periphery of Europe in the 16th century. And through conquest, rather than marriage or union, it grew to be the largest state on Earth, and invaded Poland many times. So we have good reasons to be skeptical about Russia, particularly when in Russian schools and in Russian media people are fed this toxic ideology of Russia's right to dominate others.
Putin, in his essay of last July—which persuaded me that he was going to invade—blames Lenin for granting the rights of secession to Soviet republics, but he fails to mention why Lenin made that decision. It was because the Russian czarist empire was creaking at the seams. That [secession] was the only way to partially satisfy some of the nationalist public opinion in some of those republics; it was bogus, because the Party of the Soviet Union had overall control. But it was the reason why they were giving Ukraine large territory, and even a seat at the United Nations—because the czarist empire was already a “prison of nations” and Lenin was trying to square the circle.
Mounk: What does that imply for the coming decades? Let's go with the optimistic scenario for a moment (and I recognize you’re not predicting it): there is a negotiated settlement for Ukraine. It’s relatively successful and both sides can live with it, but the ideology stays in place. Putin likely stays in place. And the long history of Russian empire-building continues to influence its outlook on foreign policy.
What does that mean for Russia's role in the world? What does that mean for how our countries should deal, and can deal, with Russia in the coming decades?
Sikorski: Look, Putin invaded Ukraine because he wants Ukraine as part of a new empire, but also because he wanted to prevent Ukraine from becoming a successful, Europeanizing democracy. This he has done for an understandable reason: he correctly fears that if Ukraine becomes successful and increasingly integrated with the West, the people of Russia will eventually want the same. So my prediction is that if Ukraine succeeds—I define that by defending its democracy and keeping the great majority of its territory, and getting rid of Russian troops from its soil—then I think eventually Putinism will fail, and we will have some kind of new opening in Russia.
Mounk: One of the surprises to me of the last weeks has been the strength of the resistance in Ukraine. But perhaps an equally big surprise has been that Europe has actually woken up to the threat Putin poses, and has imposed sanctions that go much beyond what they've done in the last years and what I would have expected, even as a result of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
As a Member of the European Parliament, take us inside of that very rapid evolution. What made it possible and how likely do you think it is that this constitutes a real change of direction, as opposed to a wartime rush of solidarity that will start to fall apart as soon as there is, for example, a negotiated settlement of Ukraine?
Sikorski: I think Putin managed to genuinely shock those who are not Russia-watchers, because his actions resembled so much what the Chancellor of Germany in the 1930s did. Politics is very often a sort of competition of parallels.
I had this long-standing discussion with my colleague [Frank-Walter] Steinmeier, the former foreign minister, and now president, of Germany. Frank-Walter's argument was that we mustn't go prematurely into wholesale deterrence and isolation of Russia, because we don't want to repeat an accidental war, like in 1914. My argument has been “look, this guy's telling us what he wants to do, like a previous dictator in the 1930s. We should take this seriously. We should take him at his word, and we must not encourage him; we have to put up resistance to him in good time.”
I think by bombing Ukraine, by invading Ukraine, Putin persuaded even the Germans that the second paradigm is correct. That's how he lost Germany. Germany, on the ethical, sociological, and political levels mostly shared our assessment of Putinism. What they didn't share with us was what to do about it. They thought, “you know, we have a stable relationship, there is business; surely, they wouldn't be so crazy as to upset all that.” And then Putin did the unthinkable. So we now have a different paradigm, even if Putin withdraws from Ukraine, because the world in which the Germans thought they were living—the rules-based order, negotiations, eternal peace, and all that—clearly doesn't exist anymore.
Mounk: I would like to agree with you, but I'm not quite sure I do yet. So let me state the most skeptical argument. And I'd love to hear your response. [...]
I certainly think that the changes which [German chancellor] Olaf Scholz announced in terms of spending more money on the military are significant. I certainly think that there's a deep sentiment of solidarity with Ukraine, which moved and surprised me. But I still worry that if there was some kind of negotiated settlement with Russia—if, for a few years, there was no new provocation from Putin—German politics would backslide quite quickly. [People would ask] “shouldn’t we be spending money on other things rather than the military. Shouldn't we be rekindling relationships with Putin? Hasn't he learned his lesson?” And so on.
I would like to hear how you assess that aspect of German politics and of the politics of other European nations. What do you think the country should, in fact, do over the next decades?
Sikorski: I would even back your argument with a further argument. Until about 2010-2011, it was possible to think that Russia would come onto some kind of trajectory that approaches ours. Remember, we were negotiating an association agreement with Russia. Putin came to Gdansk in 2009 to recognize the European paradigm of the Second World War. In 2010, he was the first leader of Russia to visit Katyn. Not a small thing.
It all went downhill after the protests in Moscow against his return to the presidency. I think that was the pivotal moment. And yes, you're right, some people will want to go back to business as before. I don't think it will work. If Putin were brought down quickly, that could help. But I think those German generals who've been testifying to the depths of German disarmament will not be silenced anymore. I think the Germans got a real scare. And therefore, some rearmament, at least, will happen.
Mounk: I've heard the observation from a number of people in the last weeks that suddenly Europe seems to be awakening as a superpower, and that this will fundamentally change the shape of geopolitics in the next decades.
Do you think that this war in Ukraine, and the relatively unified European response to it, shows that? In a real crisis in the future, is Europe likely to be by the side of other Western nations and is it likely to be a very significant force, or is that premature?
Sikorski: Well, in the current crisis, Germany and France completely sidelined Europe's High Representative for foreign policy. He had that embarrassing trip to Moscow, and then his role in the MiG-29s affair was not happy. That doesn't encourage me to think that Europe is becoming strategic.
On European defense, I'm a strong advocate, but I'll believe it when I see it. It would make sense particularly in the context of German rearmament, because—this is me warning my German friends—the very people who are now encouraging Germany the most to rearm will be the first to criticize them when the Germans actually do it, because all the old fears will come back to the fore.
So it would be in Germany's interest to put its rearmament in a European context—European decision-making about the use of European armed forces, including the German armed forces—so as to make this German and European rearmament safe for Europe and for Germany. It's difficult to conceive of all that, because it would require more compromises on sovereignty and, some people even tell me, changes to the German constitution. But it might still be a good idea.
Mounk: I guess there are two different questions here. One is whether the European Union as an actor is going to be central to this. The other is whether Europe as a continent is going to be a major player on the world stage. As you're saying, a lot of this has happened in a bilateral form or through the coordinated actions of individual nations, rather than through formal mechanisms of the European Union.
Is it imaginable that Europe will emerge as a real force even though, as Henry Kissinger famously complained, “There's not one telephone number you can call in Europe”—that the EU itself will not have a strong voice in its foreign policy, but that it will be supplanted by many of the member states of the European Union acting in concert?
Sikorski: Well, remember that if the European Union has any seat of power, it is the European Council [comprised of the heads of state of the various member states]. It is the member states. Particularly with defense, security, intelligence, the European Union's institutions are, in fact, quite weak. They can only do what the member states will let them do. And in this case, and for quite a while, the member states have not even fulfilled the Lisbon Treaty, which is actually very strong on how we should be carrying out our foreign policy in common, and what strong ambitions we have for joint defense policy. But the treaty is not being observed. A new commitment to what's already been agreed could go a long way.
Mounk: Another interesting argument that I've heard in the last few days is people saying that the war might be the beginning of the end of populism—that, similarly to the pandemic, it might make people recognize the importance of responsible political leadership and make some of the authoritarian populists in places like Hungary and Poland less appealing.
On the other hand, in places like Poland, it may create a “rally around the flag” effect, a boon to the incumbents. What do you think the future of embattled European democracies like Poland is, and how might it be influenced or changed by the events of the last month?
Sikorski: I agree with you that it will have an effect. Populism has roots in many things, including frivolity. Electorates were voting for outlandish politicians in the UK, in the United States and elsewhere, out of a sense that nothing can go wrong, and therefore we can have these weird individuals. And now we know that things can go very badly wrong, and we need steadier hands.
I'm fascinated by the fact that there seems to be a revival of the Reaganite wing of the Republican Party, because Trump so thoroughly discredited himself in his attitude to Putin and to Ukraine. And what's quite amusing is that if you talk to the Democrats in Washington, they say that “That's what we want. What's wrong with the party of Reagan?” Which is not exactly what they were saying when Reagan was still alive.
You know more about internal US politics than I, but I couldn't help noticing that Ukraine, after China, has become perhaps the only other issue on which it is legitimate for Democrats and Republicans to agree with each other. The condemnation of Putin I think passed unanimously. When did you last have such a vote in Congress? And of course, if you have bipartisanship, that takes oxygen away from the ideological wings, from the populists. So I think this is having some effect.
Mounk: What about Poland? [...] There may be a temptation within European capitals to make nice with Warsaw because the very real and important concerns that they have about rule of law and democracy in Poland seem less pressing than having a united front against Putin. Is this more of an opportunity or more of a threat to the current Polish government?
Sikorski: All these tendencies are there. But in addition, there's been a split in the ruling establishment. The president who previously vetoed a law that would have expropriated the last independent TV station (and simultaneously the largest American investment in Poland) has clearly gone to the center now. He made a speech in Parliament last week in which he stressed that EU membership is as important for Poland as NATO membership, which is anathema to the ruling party. There will now also be tendencies to make peace with the European Union.
And there are conflicting tendencies. On the one hand, the ruling party has always been verbally anti-Putinist, while simultaneously aping some of Putin's political ideas. But they were seen to be taking us away from the Western mainstream—and it's now perceived that being firmly anchored in the West is the most secure place to be for Poland.
There are no significant changes to the opinion polls. The fissures in Polish society are very deep. But it's an opportunity for the ruling party to return to the fold of the Western civilization. Its leader [Jarosław] Kaczyński may imagine that he can do a Franco or Salazar: namely, have a National Catholic dictatorship with a blessing from Washington. This is why it's so important that if and when President Biden comes to Warsaw next week, as is expected, he sends a double message: a) Poland is not alone and NATO territory will be defended, but b) Putinist ideas and methods must be dropped forthwith.
Mounk: Let me ask you a couple of questions about sanctions.
There’s a very strong and urgent moral case for all or most of the sanctions that we have imposed on Russia. It is the most effective way to come to the assistance of Ukraine, to weaken Putin's ability to go on further military adventures, and perhaps to weaken his domestic standing as well. That involves suffering for many ordinary Russians, which is sadly unavoidable, at this point given the nature of their political leaders. And I think while morally costly, it is morally justifiable.
We've also seen some tendencies within Western countries to vilify Russian culture. We've seen some silly attempts to cancel courses on Dostoevsky and other Russian literary figures. Some of that is really just silly excess, and I don't want to overstate the extent of it. But where do we draw the line? Where does it cross the line into a form of Russophobia that is morally wrong and probably politically counterproductive?
Sikorski: As regards suffering, being deprived of an iPad, or not being able to go for coffee to Starbucks, or to poison yourself with McDonald's—I wouldn't exactly call suffering. And those are individual decisions by these companies. Russia has become a net exporter of food. So there's not going to be real suffering. You mentioned Dostoevsky. Well, let's look at that. Dostoevsky was a Russian imperialist, and a crazy person.
When Putin talks about de-Nazification of Ukraine, he just means de-Westernization. But the country that really does need de-radicalization, and whose people and whose curricula media need changing, so that they stop poisoning minds with imperialist ideology is Russia—the Russian school and Russian universities and Russian media. [...] Russia needs to be deradicalized.
We had this process in Poland during our reset with Russia—establishing the facts of difficult history, and it worked very well. We produced a book of Polish and Russian historians' essays, but this work needs to be transmitted into the Russian school books, so that we break this chain of generations being brought up to build or rebuild an empire. And as regards ideologists, and propagandists of what Putin is doing, I'm afraid I'm in favor of sanctioning them. I have personally moved in the European Parliament to sanction the director who published a pro-invasion YouTube documentary on the day of the invasion. Cyril the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who blessed the invading tanks and proclaimed that Putin is trying to save humanity from gay parades. And the leaders of Russian state media who are threatening us with nuclear war and with broadening hostilities—all these people have declared themselves to be enemies of peace and of the Western civilization. And I personally believe they should spend their holidays in Vorkuta and Kolyma rather than the South of France.
Mounk: I completely agree when it comes to people who are actively complicit with the invasion, people who have the regime and connections to Putin to thank for most of their wealth—the oligarchs, and even people like the head of the Orthodox Church.
I suppose I'm wondering how we should think about people like Alexander Malofeev, who's a young Russian pianist, who actually has spoken out against the Ukrainian invasion, but whose performance was canceled by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. I don't think this is the most important issue, but I was trying to figure out where we draw the line. How do we avoid punishing individuals who are actually being relatively brave and avoiding giving the impression that we are in enmity with Russian culture as a whole?
Sikorski: Of course we shouldn't be. I will answer you in the words of Comrade Stalin at the height of collectivization: some comrades are “giddy with success.”
We mustn't overdo it, particularly given the fact that actually the attitudes of the people of Russia are one of the centers of gravity of this conflict. We're not reaching out to the Russian people with what's happening in Ukraine. But we must hope that if they learn the true cruelty of what the Russian army is doing, then they might change their attitude. Of course, they live under a media monopoly. There are horrific punishments for telling the truth. But telephone links are not cut with Ukraine. We need to get those Russian speakers in the Baltic states, in Ukraine above all, to talk to their acquaintances and relatives in Russia and to tell them like it is.
One of the weirdest and most depressing pieces of news about this conflict is when children call their parents in Russia, [during] the bombardment, and their parents don't believe them because they believe in the propaganda. We need to get the message to the Russian people—and, of course, punishing Russian culture would be counterproductive.
But let me just finish with one sentence: Lavrov in the Russian Foreign Ministry discovered that as a result of the invasion, there is much Russophobia in the world. Well, I have this to say: phobia means fear, and of course, people are afraid of Russia when Russia does crazy things.
Mounk: Another question that I've had is about this regime of economic isolation. Should we keep up sanctions essentially until Putin is no longer the dictator of Russia or until Russia gives back Crimea—or should an end to sanctions, or softening of sanctions, be on the negotiating table when we're trying to reach a settlement? What, from your perspective, is the right set of conditions on when some of the sanctions would be lifted?
Sikorski: Some sanctions should be permanent. We should stop making money out of oligarchs who have stolen the money from the Russian people. That should be the new normal. We should liquidate the tax havens and the anonymous companies—the very concept of them—that have allowed those people to function in the West. We don't need these vehicles. Their only function is to avoid taxes and hide ill-gotten gains. The freeze of Russian Central Bank reserves I don't believe should be reversed either, because Ukraine will have a very good claim for reparations, and will need the money to rebuild itself if there is a cessation of hostilities. The money that was going to be Putin’s war chest should be Ukraine's reconstruction fund.
Mounk: You've invited a number of refugees from Ukraine into your home in Poland. What are some things that listeners to this podcast can do to help Ukraine?
Sikorski: Well, there are foundations, including in Poland. I can recommend a very good one called the Polish Humanitarian Action, which started with deliveries to besieged Sarajevo back in the 1990s and which is the largest and best Polish foundation. It has a webpage in English. And you can contribute there both for the refugees in Poland and for helping people inside Ukraine. Poland has rallied round because we feel that this is our war, that the Ukrainians are also defending our borders, and the least we could do is to protect their women and children. Of course, we don't have a million spare places at schools or hospitals. But I think the European Union will help us with that. The most important thing to be done is to help Ukraine to win this. And Ukraine is not without chances. So the best thing is to support those congressmen and senators who demand more military assistance to Ukraine and to the eastern flank of NATO.
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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.
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