By George Gilson

For years Poland had warned its NATO allies of Vladimir Putin’s expansionist agenda, and there has been no love lost between the countries since the days of the Warsaw pact and even much earlier.

When Warsaw was warning its NATO allies of Moscow’s expansionist agenda at the time of its invasion of Georgia in 2008, Western democracies turned a blind eye in the belief that Moscow would stop there, Polish Ambassador to Athens Artur Lompart says in an exclusive interview, asserting that most Russians support Putin’s actions.

Then came the beginning of the dismemberment of Ukraine, with the pretext of its status as a NATO candidate country, with the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas.

Lombart explains the importance of the recent visit to Warsaw of US President Joe Biden, who stressed that the mutual defence pact in Article 5 of NATO’s Charter will be immediately activated should Putin dare to attack an inch of the territory of the Alliance’s member-states.

Having lived on both sides of the Iron Curtain that Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenski says that Putin is trying to re-establish, Poland is now grappling with over two million refugees (1.7mn Ukrainian citizens) that have crossed from Ukraine to Poland since the 24 February Russian invasion.

Lompart says Warsaw expects EU funding and a support mechanism as soon as possible, and he believes Moscow’s neo-imperial expansionist strategy goes beyond Ukraine.

Asked if the geopolitical crisis can be resolved without a US-Russia political understanding and a regional modus vivendi, Lompart stresses that only the defeat or withdrawal of Russian forces can end the war.

He also dismisses comparisons between Turkey’s use in 1974 of the Turkish minority of the Republic of Cyprus as a pretext to invade and still occupy nearly 40 percent of a current EU member-state, and Putin’s claim that he wants to protect a Russian minority in Ukraine (not just a Russian-speaking population), stressing that Putin’s claims are specious.

What was the purpose and symbolism of President Biden’s visit to Poland and what messages did he and President Duda send to Russia, the EU and the international community?

The visit of US President Biden was historic. As the President said, he came to Europe with a clear message to NATO, the G7 and the EU, but also “to all countries who love freedom”. We should also notice the decisions on the US-EU cooperation on energy security and strengthening NATO’s readiness to respond to threats against the Alliance and its members, as well as President Biden’s very strong statement underscoring that the obligations that derive from Article 5 of the Treaty [“an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them”] are “sacrosanct”.

We heard about the support for Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees, as President Biden visited them in one of the reception centers set up by the Polish government. We are grateful that the efforts of Poland and its citizens to accommodate and support the victims of the war were recognised. In my opinion, President Biden’s speech in Warsaw was a very important appeal for unity of all democratic countries against autocracy and dictatorship. It was also a strong message to Russia that Ukraine is not alone in its fight and will be supported by the whole democratic world.

What issues were discussed at the expanded talks between presidents Biden and Duda and their diplomatic delegations (after one-on-one talks)? What assistance did President Duda request of the US and NATO more broadly?

We continued our discussions on the strategic cooperation on security. Bilateral talks have been taking place for many years. Both our governments confirmed our friendly ties and our political and military cooperation, including the delivery of further military supplies. We also confirmed our strong involvement in NATO and its readiness to defend all member states of the Alliance.

Do you think that Putin’s invocation of an ethnic minority to invade and occupy Ukraine is in some ways similar to Ankara’s use of the Turkish Cypriot minority in 1974, though there were no attacks against that minority [about 18 percent of the population] at the time, to invade and still occupy nearly 40 percent of the Republic of Cyprus, an EU member-state?

It is worth being rather cautious about historical parallels. Putin used the phrase ‘Russian minority in Ukraine’, but as we can see from the very beginning of the war, there is no Russian minority in Ukraine. There are Russian-speaking Ukrainians, but they oppose the Russian forces.

Hence, such references to a Russian minority in Ukraine are a myth created by Russia and Putin to show the world that military actions are need to be undertaken by Russia to secure the rights of those people. We can see that the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics were created by the Russian occupation forces in 2014, and the top leaders of those so-called republics were criminals sent and appointed by Russian forces to govern those entities.

How do you explain that since July, 2021, when Vladimir Putin published an article arguing that Russians and Ukrainians are in essence the same people, effectively announcing his upcoming invasion of Ukraine, we saw a complacency of the West and NATO, which did nothing essentially during that period? Would it not have been possible to create a strategy that would have better blocked Putin from invading Ukraine?

That question is a bit complicated. Poland and other Central European countries in the Eastern Flank of NATO observed the activities of the Russian regime since 2014, when the occupation of Ukrainian Crimea and Donbas started. We first saw the change of Russian policy in 2008, when Georgia was invaded. We tried to inform other countries that we will face Russian aggression in the coming months and years. And so did the US administration.

The problem is that most of the countries of the EU did not believe the Poles and other Central Europeans and called us ‘Russophobes’. Most democratic countries thought that we can continue to have discussions with Putin and stop his policy. Unfortunately, that was a mistake and we can see it now in Ukraine, because at some point Putin decided to change his policy totally. In 2014, he decided to change the policy and opt for military actions. After 2014 NATO decided to create the new strategy towards new threats to our common security architecture.

Wasn’t Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia a strong enough signal?

As I remember most countries thought that it will just be one operation and then Putin’s hostile policy will end. Then we witnessed the invasion of Ukraine, annexation of Ukrainian Crimea, which was a violation of international law, and Russia did not stop. We had discussions concerning the NS1 and NS2 [Nord Stream Russia-Germany gas pipelines], and we told our partners in the EU that their construction is a mistake, because Nord Stream 1 was built in order to contribute to modernising the Russian army and Nord Stream 2 was designed to make Putin’s army stronger and to increase dependence of European countries on Russian energy supplies.

One of the results of this war is that it will have a devastating impact on the EU in terms of the purchase of energy and grain. Do you think the Americans are concerned about that, or might the US view it as a collateral benefit?

In my opinion, the US administration is concerned about the energy security of Europe. There was clear support for the EU by President Biden’s administration in Brussels some days ago. Together with us, the Europeans, concrete steps in our energy cooperation to ensure the security of supply and to reduce dependence on Russian fossil fuels will be taken.

Is Poland dependent as well?

Poland is not. This year we will finish our dependence on Russian fossil fuel supplies and replace them with supplies from Norway, the USA and Qatar for instance. That will completely cover the loss of fossil fuels from Russia. We have been preparing ourselves since 2015 to cut any reliance on Russian energy supplies.

Poland now is hosting an incredible 1.7mn Ukrainian refugees, but for years Warsaw refused to participate in the EU mechanism for the distribution of refugees and migrants from war-torn areas in the Middle East and other Asian and African countries. What has changed for the Polish government – the closer cultural kinship with the Ukrainians as a European Christian population that made the difference, or is it simply that Poland had no other choice?

We must describe the 2015 migration crisis in Europe. We faced at that time a wave of millions of migrants, not refugees. Generally, a refugee is a person who fled from a war to the nearest safe country, so at that time we decided to financially help the refugees in the countries where they were displaced, such as Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey. We were opposed to opening the borders of Europe to migrants, because it would encourage millions of desperate people looking for a better life to come to Europe. In our opinion that was not the solution of that crisis.

Does Poland essentially support a fortress Europe?

No. We opposed the mandatory relocation of migrants among EU countries. That was not a solution for the migration crisis. We were ready to participate in solidarity instruments based on EU member-states’ capabilities and resources.

How else could it have been done?

I will tell you about the current crisis, which is so different than that in 2014-2015. Today we observe a wave of war refugees from Ukraine – mostly women and children. The number of refugees since the beginning of the war who crossed the border from Ukraine is more than two million people, of which 1.7mn are Ukrainian citizens. The rest come from more than 100 other countries, and they lived in Ukraine and were the victims of Russian aggression.

Does Poland believe that the EU should maintain a population just from countries with Western and Christian values?

No. Europe is a unique place where so many religious, cultural, ethnic and national minorities live together. In peace and common tolerance. I see a lot of trolls that spread such comments and information intentionally to create divisions in our societies. I read comments on racism in Poland to discover they are fictitious, invented by Kremlin propaganda. In Poland, we have quite a homogeneous society that is more than 90 percent Polish, but we have almost 2mn Ukrainians, and some thousands of people from Belarus, India, Pakistan, African countries for instance living in our country without any tensions.

Are there concerns among the Polish people that their country cannot shoulder this huge burden for long, or that a large segment of Ukrainian refugees may have to stay permanently and take jobs away from Poles?

No. There are some discussions as in every democratic country but the people are not afraid of that situation. We had two million Ukrainians living and working in Poland. Many refugees joined their families in Poland and many others were accepted by Polish families, municipalities, religious institutions or NGOs. Many people share stories of Ukrainian refugees on social media. Ukrainians coming to Poland ask “When can my child go to a Polish school and how can I work as soon as possible?” We try to integrate them to allow them to live in dignity and independently as soon as possible. Most refugees do not want to go further West because they want to be close to the Ukrainian borders. They want to go back to their homes as soon as possible when the war ends.

One imagines that Poland cannot handle this huge refugee crisis alone, so what does Warsaw expect from the EU, NATO, and the US to help weather this storm?

At the EU level, we need our common funds to accommodate such a big group of people. The government decided that financial support will come from the national budget. That however will not be possible for a long period. The government has earmarked funds for one year.

Isn’t it a bit unfair for the government to shoulder this burden for one year without EU and US funding?

It’s unfair for the European Union not to give us and other countries hosting refugees the funds. There is now a discussion and I hope it will conclude as soon as possible to establish a special refugee support fund.

What is the reaction of Germany and France to this request?

I think that on the EU level the response is very positive, but we need action. We can discuss, but the discussion should not last long. This was discussed at the conference in Versailles and we had a statement by European Commission President Madam Ursula von der Leyen that millions of euro will be sent to countries accepting Ukrainian refugees to accommodate them, so we have a promise.

Doesn’t that seem like a very small amount?

Probably yes if you weigh the needs and costs, but this was the first response after some days of aggression, so we’ll see. Now we are at the stage of discussions. What can we expect from other countries? Many Ukrainians have families or relatives in other countries so they are moving there – to France, to Spain, to Greece. We have a positive response from other countries regarding medical support. We have a limited capacity to accommodate all persons with medical needs in hospitals, so we have a positive response from German hospitals and Greece as well. From NATO, we expect to ensure a security architecture for all Eastern Flank NATO countries.

What does Poland believe NATO’s next steps and strategy should be in order to effectively contain Russia’s neo-imperialist expansionism and what will Poland’s role be?

The main issue for us is to secure our country, our nation, and all our neighbours of the Eastern Flank, because Putin and his accomplices said very clearly that, “We will not stop with Ukraine.” We are well aware of the hostile Russian comments about Moldova, the Baltic States, and Poland. We saw a poll published also on Twitter accounts some days ago. When Russian respondents were asked if Russia should attack an EU country after Ukraine, the positive response was 86.6 percent. That is quite disturbing.

Some Western analysts like Professor Jeffrey Sachs argue that G.W. Bush’s granting Ukraine NATO candidate status constitutes a military encirclement of Russia by a hegemonic US, and that Moscow could not possibly tolerate that. Is there some truth to the idea that Russia has legitimate security concerns vis a vis the US and NATO?

Firstly, all countries have a right to decide about their future and their own alliances. Ukraine, as before that Central European countries, has the same right. Russia always says that they have a real political influence and they call the former USSR as a sole Russian sphere of influence. Now some of Russian ambassadors say that the sphere of influence should include also countries of the former Warsaw Pact, and that NATO should withdraw its forces and an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against terminate its political partnership with the countries of Central Europe. That has been Russia’s narrative for many, many years. In my opinion, Russia is not in danger from the NATO and other countries, because no country wants to destroy Russia, as the official narrative of Putin’s regime presents the situation.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken proposed that Poland give the Ukrainians war planes and the US would back up Poland’s Air Force with planes, and President Biden quickly rejected that. Insofar as Poland was not averse to the idea, weren’t you afraid this would bring Warsaw into a direct military confrontation with Russia, and drag all of NATO into war with Russia using Poland as a tool?

The response to the proposals should come from the NATO as our common security organisation. We as Poland not decide separately about it. It must be the decision of the NATO as an Alliance, because as you mentioned all those steps are connected with each other. If tNATO will decide about transferring some Soviet equipment, that means the Alliance must secure its member-states’ territories in the event of any hostile Russian operations.

Do you think a NATO military confrontation with Russia can be avoided, and if not, shouldn’t NATO choose when and how it should happen instead of Russia choosing?

I think that we should support Ukraine as we are doing now, by sending equipment and some supplies as well as humanitarian aid. We are supporting Ukraine politically. And we should strengthen the sanctions against Russia to stop its war capabilities.

So you think that the most prudent and viable solution right now is essentially a proxy war?

Something like that, because we don’t know how the situation will change in the coming weeks and months. We are observing right now the situation in Moldova, where there are Russian troops in Transnistria region, and in Belarus, where there are thousands of Russian troops supporting its ally, Mr. Lukashenko.

Don’t we already have essentially a Russian occupation og Ukraine with 30,000 troops?

Yes, we can describe the situation in this manner.

Doesn’t the overall situation suggest that a NATO war with Russia is hard to avoid?

I don’t think a confrontation with Russia cannot be avoided. Observing what is going on in Ukraine, we can see how weak the Russian army is. We hope that sanctions will work, but we should have harsher sanctions against Russia, such as stopping any financial connections with all Russian banks or cutting fossil fuels import, because buying them from Russia finances the war against Ukraine..

The sanctions are essentially strangling the Russian economy with a devastating effect on the country’s people. In a multi-polar world, what does Poland believe Russia’s geostrategic role can and should be?

We shouldn’t distinguish Putin from the Russian nation, because a huge majority of Russians supports this war. Of course, we have protests and at least 1,000 protesters were detained, but the majority of the Russian society still accepts the war as a mean of conduct.

President Biden and NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, however, have constantly called this Putin’s war, presumable because they don’t want to ostracise the Russian people in the medium-to-long-term. Do you not see that?

I believe that Russia has a role to play in the international community, as a democratic country that will obey international law and respect the decisions of its neighbours. It could be a valuable part of the international community, but we cannot see that yet.

Can we have peace and stability in Europe without Russia being an integral part of a broader European security architecture, beyond NATO?

That is a question for politicians, not diplomats, who implement the decisions of politicians.

Have there been polls that indicate the sentiments of the Polish people toward the Russian people?

We Polish people are very close to our Eastern neighbours, including Russians. We like ordinary Russians. Russian diplomats always ask me at receptions, “Why don’t you like Russians?” I tell them that we like Russians, but we don’t understand and don’t accept what the Russian top leadership is doing. People to people relations are very close and we are not hostile toward Russians. We don’t accept hostile policies. We don’t accept war as a solution of issues in the international community. We don’t accept war crimes and we don’t accept genocide.

Do you support the creation of a European army?

A real discussion of a European army and the European security architecture has begun, so let’s wait for results. We are open for any discussion as we were before.

Do you think the current global geopolitical crisis can be resolved without presidents Biden and Putin negotiating either directly or indirectly to reach a modus vivendi, as they are the two rivals engaged in a proxy war in Ukraine?

The current situation can be solved only if Ukraine will be part of the talks. I think the war can be ended by the defeat or withdraw of Russian forces. There is no other solution and I think any discussion on freezing the war, like in 2014, will open the gate for other hostile actions in the future.