Americans are transfixed by the horrendous news bulletins coming out of Ukraine—and by the mystery that is Vladimir Putin. What does Putin want? What is he thinking?
One longtime diplomat with a ringside seat for observing both the war and the dictator is Radoslaw Sikorski, chair of the European Parliament’s committee on U.S relations and a former defense minister and foreign minister of Poland. On a visit to Washington, DC last week, Sikorski sat down with reporters from the United States, Poland and Croatia for a conversation hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Is Putin crazy?
Not crazy in the sense of being a mental patient, but he’s crazy in the sense that his logic is different from ours. We think leaders of countries should generally work for the prosperity of the people and want to be remembered well and so on. And he’s on some kind of neo-imperial ego trip. He has unlearned the lesson of 2014, when it was Russian speakers in Ukraine that fought back the Russian Army.
The British have a saying that after eight years, a prime minister goes mad. And Putin has been in power for 22 years. He believes his own propaganda. He no longer has anybody around him who will tell him, “No, this is a bad idea, Mr. President.” If you saw the video of him with the Federal Security Service, they were all clearly terrified of him. It’s one thing to support your president, and quite another to launch an unprovoked war.
There’s no procedure for his dismissal. It’s worse than under the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, when the Politburo tired of [security chief] Lavrentiy Beria, they hid some generals next door, they voted his dismissal through and the generals came and arrested him. And that was it. When Khrushchev screwed up over Cuban missiles, they voted him out of office. Who is to vote Putin out of office?
Are people in Poland worried that the conflict may escalate beyond Ukraine’s borders?
He’s threatening us if we get involved, and we don’t know what his definition of involvement is. And, you know, in military exercises, he practices exploding a tactical nuke over NATO territory. And I think he’s capable of doing that.
Will the sanctions affect him?
Putin doesn’t have accounts at Riggs Bank like some former generals did. And the sanctions don’t cover the wives of sanctioned officials, the mistresses, the daughters. Alina Kabaeva, president of the National Media Group, Putin’s girlfriend, isn’t mentioned. He bought a London apartment in her name, apparently. That’s what we need to know: Are these Mickey Mouse sanctions or are we getting real? Are we trying to express our moral outrage? Or are we trying to change Putin’s mind?
What does he want from Ukraine? What would a potential surrender look like?
I’ve heard a rumor that they would take the government and the armed forces chiefs hostage and at gunpoint force them to sign capitulations, and also tell us, “If you don’t influence them and if you don’t agree to the demands on NATO and all that, we will shoot them.” And the plan apparently is that we, of course, won’t agree, and they’ll shoot them, and then they’ll blame the whole thing on us. It’s our fault because we didn’t capitulate.
He talks about “denazifying,” but if anybody is a fascist in this game, it’s Putin.
Are the people around Putin in fear of their lives if they dissent?
Yes, they’re scared. My old friend Sergei Lavrov has gone full Ribbentrop. I hope he doesn’t end up like Ribbentrop. [Editor’s note: Joachim von Ribbentrop, minister of foreign affairs for Nazi Germany, was hanged for war crimes in 1946.] Apparently, Lavrov tried to resign three times, but in regimes like that, you can’t just say, “Well, I disagree with the policy, I resign.” Then you’re the enemy and you’re dealt with. So you have to stay.
Would Putin have done this if Trump were president?
Maybe Trump would have said, “Genius! Here, take it, Vladimir!” Or maybe he would have nuked him. Who knows? Remember, the Russians only started helping Trump when he said something negative about Ukraine at the 2016 Republican convention, which they asked him to do. That was the test of his loyalty.
Why didn’t Putin do all this when Trump was in office, so that he could count on no pushback at all, and an alliance in disarray?
He wasn’t ready. It was premature even now, because he should have waited until the U.S. was inextricably engaged with China.
Do you give any credence to the idea that China will now grab Taiwan?
No. The Chinese are not ready.
How are you feeling about the influx of refugees in Poland?
It won’t be a problem. We have a million Ukrainians in Poland already. They’ve actually rescued our labor market, so we can take a million more.
Will there be a humanitarian crisis?
Look, it’s the European Union. The EU countries will help us. We’re the richest economy on earth. We can help if we cooperate.
Is there a feeling of cultural affinity?
We were the same country for 400 years.
Were you surprised that Hungary’s Viktor Orbán put out a strong statement supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty?
Yes, I was surprised, because I’d been suspecting him of having a secret deal with Putin to dismember Ukraine. I’m impressed. He moved some troops up to the border with Ukraine as well. So maybe the game is that later on, if Ukraine should fall, he can say, “Well, I supported them. But now that they no longer exist, well, there are 150,000 Hungarians on their side of the border. We have to protect them.”
How much influence do you think Russian propaganda and disinformation has on American opinion?
It has influence on the fringes, on the far right and the far left. But in places like Germany, which have a large, Russian-speaking diaspora—three million German citizens only watch Russia Today. And then they vote AfD [Alternative fur Deutschland, the German far-right party]. And in America, they see RT, and they don’t even know it’s Russia Today. They think, “Oh, it’s kind of another Fox.” And we think that’s fine. My cable provider in Poland—I’m proud to say, unprompted by the government—is removing Russian content from its offerings.
If you were in one of the Baltic nations, how worried would you be?
I’d be worried that I’m next. Putin said that Lenin was wrong to have given the former Soviet republics the right to secede.
How did they get away with joining NATO without a massive pushback?
That was under Yeltsin. Yeltsin wanted a democratic Russia. He was corrupt, but his intentions were actually all right. And he had a real parliament.
It’s a grim time for my part of the world. We were patronized for 20 years by Westerners who said we were oversensitive on Russia. Toomas Ilves, the former president of Estonia, said: “Accepting apologies now here for all the patronizing nonsense from Western Europeans I had to listen to for 31 years telling me we Estonians were ‘paranoid’ about Russian behavior.”
So does Putin stay in power until he dies? Or does he get bored and quit? We’ve been hearing for years that he’s bored, that he has all the money he could ever need.
I knew the invasion was coming when he ordered his yacht to be removed from the dock in Germany, and brought back to St. Petersburg. They were doing a refit in Germany, but they stopped when he told them to.
With these dictators, as you know, there is the Najibullah option, or the Ceausescu option, or the Gaddafi option, or the Mubarak option. Take your pick. I saw on Twitter someone was holding a placard referring to the movie Downfall: “Mr. Putin, let’s speed up to the moment where you shoot yourself in the bunker.” That’s the territory we’re in.
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Top photo: Radosław Sikorski (Credit: Center for American Progress via Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0)