Exclusive: Poland Envoy Says Winter Will ‘Test’ West’s Unity Against Russia in Ukraine
As the Western cost of supporting Ukraine in a war launched by Russia over nine months ago mounts, in a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with Newsweek Senior Foreign Policy Writer Tom O’Connor, Polish Ambassador to the United States Marek Magierowski made the case for an ongoing need to back the neighboring nation, even if the path forward for the conflict remained uncertain.
Before entering the world of diplomacy, Magierowski worked as a journalist, taking up editorial positions in a number of outlets, including Newsweek Polska. He went on to pursue public office, having served as Poland’s ambassador to Israel before being appointed as envoy to the U.S. last year.
In this capacity, he discussed with Newsweek his nation’s role on the frontier of the former Soviet bloc and his experience living under both communism and capitalism. He argued that this collective history helped to inform Poland’s current approach to the Russian Federation, and compared the present-day feud between the West and Moscow to a “clash of civilizations.”
Poland’s position as a frontline state in this rivalry became all-too real just two weeks ago when a missile crossed into Polish territory, killing two men. Although it was at first suspected to be a Russian missile that had gone off course in an attack on Ukraine, the consensus grew that it was most likely fired by a Ukrainian defense system attempting to intercept a Russian missile barrage. The incident immediately sparked new fears over how the war next door could spill over at any time.
While Magierowski does not believe Russian President Vladimir Putin harbored any intentions to deliberately strike NATO territory, the Polish diplomat also thought it difficult to imagine a negotiated end to the war in Ukraine with the longtime Russian leader still in power. Until a resolution of any sort does materialize, however, he remains concerned over potential fissures emerging in the Western willingness to continue supporting Kyiv. As for the U.S., Magierowski considers it his personal duty to ensure lasting bipartisan backing for this endeavor amidst a polarized political climate in Washington.
Magierowski warned that the Kremlin was betting on war fatigue taking hold in the U.S. He appealed for a long-term U.S. role not only in terms of aid to Ukraine, but a robust military presence in Europe. And, with no signs of peace in sight, he felt Western countries would have to accept the price of arming themselves and Ukraine for a long time to come.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Newsweek: Poland is in many ways a nation on the frontlines of the broader dispute that has emerged over the course of a number of years not only between Ukraine and Russia, but also NATO and Russia. How does this position and the history surrounding it influence Poland’s position on the current conflict, and how does Poland balance its role in the alliance with promoting the country’s national interests?
Magierowski: I was blessed to have to have lived under both systems. I was born under communism, and I experienced command economy, and then I lived under democracy, savage capitalism. And I know the difference. I witnessed that particular contrast between both systems and, believe me or not, I can now see and sense the vestiges of Soviet mentality in contemporary Russia, for instance, that blatant, incomprehensible disregard for human dignity and human life.
It’s not only about attacking civilian targets, destroying critical infrastructure and trying to make the lives of Ukrainian citizens harder in the time of the war, but also that particular and absolutely baffling disregard for human life on the other side. At the beginning, we all read and heard reports about crematoriums being brought to the frontlines in order to burn the bodies of the fallen Russian soldiers, which is absolutely unimaginable in our case. The Americans, the Poles, the Germans, the French, the British always had a particular respect for human life. We used to evacuate not only soldiers from behind enemy lines, but also dead bodies, so the contrast couldn’t be more striking.
Now, I’ve also had many discussions with my colleagues from all the EU embassies on whether we can talk, in this particular situation, about a clash of civilizations. We both remember Samuel Huntington’s famous book. He was talking about a clash between Islam and Judeo-Christianity. Now, the question is a very difficult one to answer, whether we are now witnessing a clash of two different cultures.
There has always been the tendency, mostly in Western Europe, in countries like Germany and France, to consider contemporary Russia as inherently European. Also because of Russian literature, Russian culture, Russian ballet, Russian music, we can all see that the roots are identical of both the European or Western European culture and Russian culture.
And that’s why, for example, there is a such a distinct difference between our approach to Russia and our approach to China. China has always seemed to be absolutely remote in terms of our cultural affinity. And that’s why we also are shocked when we see Russia behave so differently from what we are used to, not only terms of their warfare, of what they do on the battleground, but also in terms of approach to day-to-day life.
I think this is a crucial question, whether we should consider Russia as an existential threat, not only to Poland, but also to Europe and also maybe to the United States.
What I can see now is a very particular realignment within the European Union and within NATO. Seemingly, there are some countries that understand contemporary Russia, that understand Putin himself much better than other countries. And I would include Central Europe, but also the Baltics, quite obviously, the Scandinavian countries and the Anglo-Saxons.
Some other countries do not perceive Russia as an existential threat. I wouldn’t want to generalize my view, but they still believe that Russia may one day become as democratic as Germany or the United States, as liberal as some Scandinavian countries, as progressive as Denmark, as European as all of us. My personal view is that it is absolutely impossible, at least in the short-to-medium term.
Russia is in a different pool, if you will. And that’s why, this is a crucial, crucial question when you’re thinking about a long-term relationship with Russia.
Putin is smart, he’s not an idiot. He’s absolutely a very, very smart politician. And he tries to capitalize on that war fatigue, which is increasingly visible, mostly in Western societies. And that’s why, for example, he is trying to use that energy blackmail, he’s trying to take advantage of quite an obvious presence of people — we used to call them useful idiots — who try to justify Russia’s attitude, regardless of Russia’s behavior, both in diplomacy and on the battleground.
In the eyes of many Russian politicians today, diplomacy remains a zero-sum game, someone has to win in order for someone else to be defeated. For us, diplomacy is to try to negotiate and try to strike the right balance, even in negotiations and talks with the most controversial, the most obscene regimes in the world, like the Ayatollah in Iran, the Communists in China, and so on and so forth. For Russia, it’s always a zero-sum game.
Now, if you ask me about Poland’s role in this particular equation, what we can contribute to the West’s understanding of today’s Russia is exactly this: our experience of living under both systems and understanding of Russia much better than probably some other countries in Europe.
When it comes to this distinction between European countries’ varying experiences with Russia as well as differences in approaches in how they seek to support Ukraine, do you have confidence that these countries can maintain their unity and overcome that fatigue, and that the people of these countries can withstand the growing costs?
We’re talking about two different political entities, NATO and the European Union, which are quite different and have always been from their inception. Now I am pretty much confident about NATO’s role and about NATO’s unity in spite of that realignment that I also mentioned at the beginning of our conversation. I do believe that the Article 5 of the Washington Treaty is sacrosanct, and I can only echo President Biden’s words, which already highlighted on several occasions, in fact, that we are ready to defend every inch of NATO territory.
And speaking of Poland’s role, I would like to point out the determination of my government to defend not only Warsaw, Kraków and Poznań, but also our allies in the Baltics, also Prague and Bucharest and Berlin and Paris. This is our common obligation, not only the formal one, but I think this is something that is very profoundly embedded also in our mentality. This is the pillar of NATO, that, for us, it’s even more important to be ready to defend other countries. And, in recent months, Poland has been transitioning from the role of net recipient of security to the role of provider. We do provide security to other countries, not physically of course, because we are not at war with Russia, and we would like to avoid such confrontation at any cost.
We are on a shopping spree right now, buying weaponry not only from American defense companies, but also from South Korea, for instance. What we are doing right now, trying to reinforce our military capabilities, does not have its roots in the fact that we did not believe that Article 5 of the Washington Treaty is reliable. We do.
But we do believe also that Poland has a specific role to play in this geopolitical equation. We are a frontline state as you rightly mentioned, on the eastern flank, but we are also a big country of 38 million inhabitants with some resources that we should use and spend wisely, in order to strengthen that not only military clout but also to offer something to other allies, not only in terms of our political and diplomatic experience in our dealings with Russia for a number of decades now after World War Two, but also physically to offer security to other countries, which have not been spending enough in recent years in the military.
As a diplomat, of course, I am not authorized to name any, but you can imagine which countries I am referring to.
But I do believe that this is a very painful lesson for all NATO members, because now we can see in plain view how reckless it has been over the last couple of years not to spend enough on the military, and that very, very naive thinking of Europe being a safe place. And we, Europe, didn’t learn the lesson after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. We didn’t learn the lesson after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and then we all woke up to a very different situation on February 24, when Russia physically and literally invaded Ukraine proper.
There is also a distinct difference between our approach to managing energy security and some other countries in Europe. We have always been prescient, if you will, in terms of our energy needs and in terms of the necessity of decoupling our energy security for imports of natural gas and also from some other commodities from that country. A few years ago, we inaugurated the first LNG terminal. Then we decided not to renew the long-term contract with Gazprom this year. And at the same time, we opened the so-called Baltic Pipe, transferring gas from Norway via Denmark to the Polish stretch of the Baltic coast.
So we are now entirely independent of imports of Russian gas. Oil is a different matter altogether, coal also. But in terms of our gas supplies, we are totally self-reliant. Now, of course, we are importing gas from other countries, but when I say it’s self-reliant, I mean that we are not reliant Mr. Putin’s whims.
In terms of geopolitics, this is another hard lesson to learn, another painful process, which we have to go through and the upcoming winter, which will be very interesting in terms of our current approach, and talking also about those cracks that which have appeared recently among NATO and EU allies. This winter will be the litmus test for all of us.
We, in all likelihood, are a little bit better prepared for the eventuality of harsh winter than Germany, France and Austria, for example. All of our storage facilities are now full, literally 100%, which does not mean we are entirely on the safe side, because much depends on the climate of temperatures. We’ll see. This will be another test of unity of cohesion of all EU countries, mostly in Europe, America has its own problems, of course, but this will be one of the reasons why we have to be very cautious about disinformation campaigns that Russia has specialized so masterfully in recent years.
They have created an atmosphere of fear and, unfortunately, we are much less resilient as Western societies than the Russians. It’s somehow in our genes. It’s somehow hilarious to hear some Western politicians being so worried about the fact that constituents will have to lower the temperature of the swimming pools by one degree Celsius in December and in January because of a gas shortage, because of the necessity to to save energy. But this is the reality we all are facing right now. So I do fear that there will be more cracks and the divides will be even deeper.
But on the other hand, we have all seen the true face of today’s Russia. And in spite of the tragic character of this wound, and in spite of all of the atrocities already committed by Russian troops in Ukraine, this is the lesson we’ve had to learn. And this is one of the positive phenomena that are occurring right now as we speak.
I think that, through all doubts, all misgivings that Western societies, the Western ruling elite, might have had over the last three decades after the collapse of communism about contemporary Russia [have] already faded away and now, we absolutely don’t believe that return to normalcy, to business as usual in our political and commercial relations with Russia is possible. No, it’s not.
On the point of those vulnerabilities in Western societies and politics that you mentioned, as the ambassador to the U.S., you have, of course, followed the political situation in this country. With the midterm elections changing the political equation in Washington, are you concerned that greater Republican influence in Congress could have an impact on U.S. support for Ukraine?
I do understand the concerns of some Republican circles about how how this money devoted to Ukraine’s war effort is spent. This is absolutely understandable, that you must know how these finances all are used, especially in the longer term.
On the other hand, this is also my personal priority as Polish ambassador to the United States and also my embassy’s to hold meetings and pursue very serious conversations, especially with those lawmakers, mostly on the Republican side, who have expressed this kind of misgivings in recent months, especially at the peak of the electoral campaign. I do believe that some of those political slogans were used for political purposes. And this does not mean automatically that all those packages, which enjoyed bipartisan support until recently in Congress, will be somehow truncated. I don’t believe that.
I do believe that both Republicans and Democrats are reasonable enough to understand that Ukraine still needs our financial and military support, because they are fighting not only for their freedom, they are fighting for all of us. We can go back to the beginning of our conversation about this clash of civilizations, and that’s why when I talk about this war and this confrontation, which, fortunately, is not yet kinetic and physical between the West and Russia, I prefer to use the term “the West” or “the free world” than to use the term “Ukrainian war” or the “Ukraine war,” or “the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
This is a real and a very tangible confrontation between the free world and Russia, which will undoubtedly have long-term consequences and long-term ramifications for the global order. And, as I said, this is also my priority to keep convincing both Republicans and Democrats that this should be a long-term effort, a common effort with the free world to support Ukraine, regardless of political affiliations, regardless of economic problems America is going through right now.
It’s absolutely understandable that, for an average American constituent, gas prices are a little bit more important than what is going on in Mariupol, in Kharkiv, and so on. There are very few people both in America and in Europe that use the term “hegemon” when they talk about America’s role in the world. Well, it’s a nuclear superpower, as is China, as is Russia, but it’s somehow politically incorrect to use the term hegemony.
Considering Poland’s history, Poland’s certain infatuation with America, which has lasted for decades, actually, you do understand that we would prefer America to remain in this place, to remain the only hegemon on the world stage, which, for us, it’s not a pejorative term. And we do believe that America has been, is and will remain the most important pillar of our collective security.
We would love for Germany and France and other countries to spend more money on the military, but we do believe also that America’s role in Europe is absolutely substantial in terms of our collective security. We have always stressed, and it’s one of our priorities, to have more U.S. troops on Polish soil and also in other countries on the eastern flank. American presence in Europe will still be the most important guarantee of our security in NATO and the European Union.
And on Washington’s approach to NATO and the EU, we have also seen a concerted push from the U.S. to get these institutions to do more to address China, another major power that you have mentioned several times, and this effort appears to also elicit divisions among European nations, not least of which because of Beijing’s economic ties to the continent. How do you see China’s relationship with Poland and other European countries in this context?
Poland has always tried to strike the right balance between maintaining excellent relations with the United States and our allies and partners in both the EU and NATO, and our relationship with one of the most important and most influential countries in the world, China.
Our commercial relationship with that country is important. Chinese investment in Poland has been paltry, actually, in recent years, because China prefers to invest in countries which are not in the European Union, because of all those regulations that countries like Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Pakistan and Bangladesh lack. It’s literally easier for Chinese investors to spend their money there to build the roads and dams and seaports. I’m not saying that China has not been present in Poland altogether in terms of their economic expansion, but it has not been so robust and vigorous as in other countries.
But, of course, we try to coordinate also our actions in terms of our relationship with China with our American partners. For example, with regards to Huawei‘s investments in Poland, we are acutely aware of full dangers that investments of these kind of companies would entail, especially in the longer term. Also, we know that the approach of different EU countries is different to China. When you look at the Lithuanian example, for example, and [German] Chancellor Schultz’s visit just a few weeks ago, you can see the striking contrast between these two countries’ approach to China.
This is one of the reasons it’s so difficult to hammer out a common position of all EU member states. The EU’s common foreign policy still remains a pipe dream, in spite of the fact that some countries would prefer this common foreign policy to be more robust, also in the relationship with China.
On the other hand, it would be much more difficult, actually, to establish a common position towards China if we did have a common foreign policy, because there’s some other countries that are much stronger, both politically and economically, and would probably prefer to impose their position and their interests and their relationship with China on other countries. So, I think that this diversity, if you will, is even more healthy in terms of our long-term relationship with China.
Of course, we’ll see what consequences the ongoing war in Ukraine will have for China’s attitude to the United States and to Europe. At the beginning, I think the Chinese leadership was a bit surprised by the fact that Ukraine was not conquered in 72 hours, and now they can see that, the longer the war continues, the more detrimental the economic consequences of that war will be, also to China.
What China prefers and what China counts on is economic stability, especially along the Belt and Road. This is something that they have always been adamant about, that no matter what their view is of Taiwan’s independence, regardless of long-term interests in China’s relationship with Europe and the United States, economic stability is of critical importance to them.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has somehow dented the economic stability of the whole world. And this is happening just a few months after we have started breathing a little bit more deeply after the pandemic. This is not a good message to China. So, it will be very interesting to see how China’s attitudes to Russia will change or will not change in the months to come.
And speaking of the how the war in Ukraine has had an impact beyond its border, I would like to look back a couple of weeks ago on how Poland’s position as a frontline state became very clear to the international community when a deadly missile strike hit Polish soil. It’s since been determined that this was likely a Ukrainian defense system responding to a Russian attack, but were you concerned in those initial moments of potential new phase of this conflict and would such a Russian strike have warranted the triggering of Article 5, which, as you said is sacrosanct?
Well, it was a very stressful moment for all of us. in touch with other states and with the Pentagon here, with the National Security Council, coordinating our response to that very particular and unconventional event, because it was, I think, the first time ever that such an event occurred on the soil of one of NATO’s members.
Of course, a direct attack on Polish soil, or Romania or Slovakia, for that matter, should automatically trigger at least the consultations among NATO member states as enshrined in Article 4 of the Washington Treaty. We are concerned and we do rule out this eventuality of Russia attacking one of the NATO member states, but I do believe, and this is my personal view, that this is still very distant, because, as I said, Putin is sufficiently smart to understand that an such attack would bring absolutely catastrophic consequences for himself and for the Russian Federation, also because we have seen pretty clearly how miserably the Russian army has performed so far in Ukraine.
So, a potential conventional confrontation between Russia and NATO, which I believe will never materialize and I hope it will never materialize, will be absolutely disastrous for Russia, and not for NATO, not for the West. But, of course, we have to be prepared for any eventuality, for any scenario. And that’s why we are in NATO.
Even before the invasion, we followed some discussions, also in America, about events that occurred more than 20 years ago, when Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined NATO in 1999. And there were still some people who think that it was the wrong decision to make to admit those countries into NATO, because this somehow jangled Russia’s nerves and it created a political mood in Russia that was detrimental in the longer term to the West’s interests because it somehow triggered some undemocratic and some very negative trends in Russia itself.
But you can now imagine, if we had not joined NATO, we would have been probably in a very similar situation as Ukraine is now.
You’ve characterized this current situation as one of a confrontation between the West, or the free world, and Russia, where some officials have also increasingly begun to speak of this a conflict in which Russia was not just facing Ukraine, but its collective partners to include NATO. As this trend continues, and if there the physical conflict does not emerge between Russia and the West, then how do you see this war ultimately coming to an end? Is diplomacy still possible?
That’s the million-dollar question.
To your first point about the status of the war. Putin himself is trying to change the status of the war only for domestic purposes. This is the message that and his closest circle of aides and acolytes are trying to send to the Russian audience. Because losing to Ukraine would be so humiliating and so embarrassing for the Russian army and for the Russian ruling elite right now that they would prefer to frame this conflict as a confrontation between Russia and the West.
And, of course, it’s easy for them to explain this and to prove that this is not only a war against Ukraine, because we do deliver weaponry to Ukraine, we do support Ukraine both militarily and financially. For them, it’s easy to depict this conflict as a clash between Russia and the West and the American imperialists, if you will.
And this is also something that the Polish government has expressed on numerous occasions. We do believe that Ukrainians have to decide for themselves how this war ends, whether this war ends on Russian terms, and we have always been very adamant and very concrete in terms of our view of, for example, what territory Ukraine should recover, the territory they have lost since 2014 and then after the invasion this February.
Russia has violated the U.N. Charter. Russia has violated international law in many respects, and Ukraine should recover full territory lost after 2013, and now it’s up to the Ukrainian leadership, to President Zelensky himself, how to achieve that goal. The Polish government’s position is pretty clear.
On that point, do you feel that it’s possible, in your view and your understanding of Russia, for Russia to accept that?
I don’t really know. It is very difficult to imagine such a situation and circumstances in which Russia would cave to this litany of requirements. Because also, in the context of the of the Russian domestic audience, Putin just can’t afford to lose this war.
I also remember President Zelensky’s remarks a few weeks ago, saying that they are ready to negotiate with Russia, but without Putin. So, it’s very difficult to imagine Putin’s Russia to initiate serious negotiations with Ukraine.
But it will be a protracted war, so we’re not talking about February or May next year, this war will probably last much longer. It’s very difficult to predict to what extent economic sanctions and all those punitive measures that have been adopted by the West in recent months will eventually affect the Russia economy. I do believe we have yet to see those sanctions kick in, and the Russian society to feel the pinch of economic hardships.