Interview by Ewa Boniecka
WBJ Observer: We are talking the day after Russia annexed the Crimea Peninsula and after a speech delivered by president Putin to the members of Russian parliament, in which he presented his plan for building a great Russia. Is this a turning point in international relations and does the West need a new policy regarding Russia?
Aleksander Kwaśniewski: Yes, because while Putin has spoken before about his desire to make Russia a superpower and is keen on building a Euro-Asian Union, and has called the fall of the Soviet Union the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, now he is turning his words and ambitions into actions. He undertook military action and annexed a part of another country’s territory, breaking a peaceful European order, and this may not be the end of his expansion in Ukraine. What methods he will use to do so are still unclear. I am convinced that he will try and further destabilize the country so he can get rid of the present Ukrainian government in order to establish a pro-Russian one, thus returning to the situation before Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown, when Ukraine was in the sphere of Russian influence.
We in the West now have to abandon the illusion that we can deal with Putin as a reliable partner, because I think that we face a man intoxicated with power, which could be seen during his speech in the Kremlin when he displayed his Tsar-like behavior. The United States has to end its policy of a reset with Russia. It was a generous gesture on the part of the US, but it did not bring any response from Putin, and was seen by him as weakness on the part of president Obama.
Do you consider the West’s response to Russian actions in Ukraine as adequate? The personal sanctions introduced so far are being mocked in Russia and criticized by some observers and politicians in the West…
In my view the most important issue here is Western solidarity. Sanctions are only an instrument, but the Russians must know that their calculations – that the West is weak and divided – failed, and that the reaction of the US and the European Union was swift and united.
In my view, that solidarity of the Western institutions is a value in itself, and I hope that this solidarity will remain, as sometimes, after a period of great emotion, comes a period of calm and calculation. Sanctions are often difficult to introduce because they affect both sides, and especially when they apply to trade, but in the current situation they are necessary. However, in my opinion the most serious threat, which can be imposed on Russia, is the creation of a common energy policy by the West. If the Americans agree for the partial export of their shale gas to Europe, and the European Union will spend money for developing an efficient infrastructure to receive it, this could significantly hurt the Russian economy because currently the country has two economic advantages – gas and oil, which they can use as political instruments as well. Without such a common energy policy, even proposed trade sanctions against Russia will have a limited effect.
But building a common Western energy policy could at best take years, during which Russia can continue its aggressive policy.
Yes, but taking steps towards building a common Western energy policy will have political significance and act as proof of our determination to limit Russia’s aggressive ambitions. Putin’s idea of building a great Russia will also not materialize overnight, it will be a lengthy process. What happened in Crimea is now impossible to be reversed. Eastern Europe will be in crisis for years, but while war is out of question, we in the West have to think and act in a longer perspective.
How do you view the interim Ukrainian government led by Arseniy Yatsenyuk?
The Ukrainian government is now in a very difficult situation, and my suggestion is that the European Union should provide it with substantial financial help. At the same time, we shouldn’t have many expectations of him. Yatsenyuk and his government have to act in a situation that resembles a revolution. The state institutions are in disintegration, especially when it comes to its security forces and the army. The main task of the government is to save Ukraine from bankruptcy, consolidate the state’s structures and prepare for the presidential election scheduled for May 25. And the new president, whoever will be chosen, will have a popular mandate and the chance to consolidate the country. Currently not much can be done when it comes to substantial reforms.
In my view, Arseniy Yatsenyuk is the best man for the post of prime minister, I know him and his ambitions to reform the country, but for now he doesn’t have the conditions to carry them out.
The reforms should be realized after a new president is elected, so he can cooperate with the government and together they will act towards strengthening the state structures and help prevent the economic collapse of Ukraine. Now the West should deliver the first tranche of financial aid in order to help the Yatsenyuk government function, and after presidential elections, deliver the second tranche of aid to help further reforms in the country.
Meanwhile, Putin’s idea is to provoke tensions in the eastern part of Ukraine, which he hopes will end in an overthrow of Yatsenyuk’s government to make room for establishing a pro-Russian political set-up as we saw under Yanukovych, but with someone else in his position.
Yatsenyuk is doing everything possible to confirm the pro-European stance of Ukraine, is he seen by the West as effective in doing so?
Yes, he is very effective and during his meetings with Western leaders, he has proven that he is the right man for the job. He is trusted, so it was possible to sign the political part of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU.
However, I want to point out that I consider it very wise that Yatsenyuk declared he is not interested in joining NATO. It is a very realistic decision, because Ukrainian society will not be mature enough for such a decision for years, as former Soviet propaganda showed NATO as the enemy. From NATO’s point of view, the Ukrainian stance is also seen as wise. Besides, current relations between both entities are already strong. Ukrainian troops have taken part in various NATO missions and cooperate in many different ways.
Poland’s reaction to the turmoil in Ukraine and Russian annexation of Crimea is very strong emotionally and politically, as is our support for Ukraine. Is the government’s approach that Poland should act within the EU’s framework, while advocating the use of sanctions against Russia, seen as effective?
In my opinion the policy of the Polish government during the Ukrainian crisis is wise, because it is very active in supporting Ukraine but also very rational. The government understands that our reaction on the annexation of Crimea by Russia as well as a change in European frontiers will be the most effective if we push to obtain a common European approach to this case. I also want to point out that during the meetings organized by Prime Minister Tusk and President Komorowski with Polish politicians – which I also attended – there was unity regarding the crisis in Ukraine. This shows that when it comes to security matters, our politicians are able to cooperate.
I heard that Russia considers Poland to be its primary enemy, which could be observed when Putin accused us of training “Maidan activists.” How do you think Polish-Russian relations will develop given the current situation in Ukraine?
I will say that Russia has a very reluctant attitude towards Poland, but it began much earlier, before the present crisis. Russia and Poland have an entirely different attitude towards the position of Ukraine in Europe and this was demonstrated during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004. Poland stressed its support, and I was very active in Ukraine at that time, pushing for the pro-European aspirations of Ukraine, while those ambitions were never accepted by Russia, which can be now seen in its aggressive annexation of Crimea.
So I want to point out that the deterioration in Polish-Russian bilateral relations goes back to 2005, which was later accelerated by the Smolensk catastrophe [which killed President Lech Kaczyński and 95 other high-ranking officials], the Russian report on it, and the refusal of Russia to return the wreckage of the plane to Poland. Yet those tensions did not prevent the development of mutual trade, including the introduction of visa-free movement between the Kaliningrad exclave and the Polish regions which neighbor it. Now Polish-Russian relations are part of the general Russian attitude towards the West, which is hostile.