[Interview] “Putin can be a Hitler of the 21st century”: Poland’s deputy defense minister shares Polish perspective on Russian invasion of Ukraine

Posted on : 2022-03-23 09:29 KST Modified on : 2022-03-23 17:04 KST
“That war makes Russia weaker. That war makes the West united, more united,” Polish Deputy Defense Minister Marcin Ociepa said. “If we stay united, Russia will never be a real competitor for us”
Marcin Ociepa, Poland’s deputy minister of national defense, speaks with the Hankyoreh from his office in Warsaw, Poland, on March 17. (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)
Marcin Ociepa, Poland’s deputy minister of national defense, speaks with the Hankyoreh from his office in Warsaw, Poland, on March 17. (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)

“Poland’s historical experience is the clashes of two empires: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union,” Poland’s deputy minister of national defense told the Hankyoreh on Thursday. “I can tell you directly that Vladimir Putin can be a Hitler of the 21st century. History is a teacher of life.”

Poland’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that began on Feb. 24 is quite different from that of other European countries or members of NATO. Bordering Ukraine and Belarus, Poland is at the frontier of NATO’s domain. Perhaps because of this, Poland was pervaded by the intense existential fear that if it failed to protect Ukraine, it may become Russia’s next target.

On Thursday, the Hankyoreh met with Marcin Ociepa, the Polish deputy minister of defense, in his office in Warsaw and gained insight into what Polish people are really thinking about as they watch the war in Ukraine. What became clear during the conversation was the Polish people’s deep-rooted distrust of Russia as a country that’s long neighbored the massive, visceral national security threat that is Russia.

Our conversation with Ociepa follows.

Hankyoreh (Hani): Did you expect Russian troops to invade Ukraine in advance? Did you detect any military moves before Putin announced the start of military operations on April 24?

Marcin Ociepa (Ociepa): Yes, we were closely following Russian military activity around Ukraine for many weeks, and even months before the invasion. First of all, we find separate exercises from spring 2021 as a much bigger Russian military activity than in the past. Because the ZAPAD exercise [large-scale military training exercises by Russia] is not something new. But the scale of this exercise last year was provoking anxiousness. And later, of course, we see that many Russian soldiers stayed in Belarus or around Ukraine. And we know that many intelligence services from other countries from NATO signalized the threats of aggression.

Hani: Some people, such as John Mearsheimer, claim that NATO’s move eastward was the cause of Russia’s military intervention. What do you think about that argument?

Ociepa: I disagree. I know Professor Mearsheimer and I appreciate his scientific job and I read his books, but I disagree. Because actually, we are not talking about Russia, we are talking about Putin. So we should think about our historical experience of dealing with dictators. We are talking about Putin, who is a dictator, and we see how long the West was trying to deal with Hitler before he invaded Poland, [or] Czechoslovakia in 1938 to save peace. And [then the] next year he invaded Poland. Because when we talk about a dictator, when we deal with a dictator, you should understand that there's nothing to satiate a dictator’s hunger.

So, my question to Professor Mearsheimer is: where is the red line? If it is not in Georgia, if not in Ukraine? So where? Why not Poland, and why not in the Baltic states? Do we accept the situation when someone uses force to change the borders?

And in many capitals, especially Berlin, Paris, and Rome, we are considered a Russophobic state. Look what they have done. Look at Russian history. Look at what Putin says, how he is trying to be a threat to his neighborhood. So, we cannot accept the situation when Russia invaded Georgia and we do nothing. 2008 Georgia, 2014 Crimea, Donbas and still nothing.

Hani: I thought that Poland was willing to provide 28 former Soviet-made MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine via a German military base. However, the United States was reluctant to do so, therefore it hasn’t happened. What was going on?

Ociepa: Well, you know, Ukraine is not a member of NATO. So, from the very beginning, we announced that there will be no NATO intervention in Ukraine. Because the intervention will mean world war. Because if we join Ukraine in this fight as NATO, that means the United States will join, and Canada, France, Germany, Poland, and other big member countries [will join as well]. But at the same time, we consider Russia as an aggressor and Ukraine as a victim. So, we try to help Ukraine to defend itself on its own. So, we try to help them first by humanitarian aid, second by providing some equipment, and this is legal.

And I think this is fair. Because when we see the aggressor, we see that we should help the victim, especially if the victim is a part of our world; this is very important. Ukraine is not a member of the European Union and not a member of NATO. But this is the country, this is a society that is part of our free world, like Korea. Yes, like Australia and Japan, [or] Taiwan, we are talking about, you know, like-minded states, like-minded societies; this is why we think that there is a duty of the free world to help Ukraine.

When you ask about MiGs, that was a topic because Ukraine asked Europe and the free world to help them. So, we were considering this. But you know, this is very risky. Because this is an offensive weapon — something different from anti-tank weapons or anti-missile systems. We are talking about offensive [weapons]. And we, as Poland, think that we should, even if this is an offensive weapon, help Ukraine as NATO. [But] this can't be the mission of one country, of one state, because the effect or result of this help can be the reason, a pretext, for Russia to attack one of the NATO member countries. So that means that the effect would be common for the whole [of] NATO. So, the decision should be coordinated. There will be no single, unilateral action of the Polish government on this topic.

From left to right, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, and Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal take part in a joint briefing after meeting in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on March 15. (EPA/Yonhap News)
From left to right, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, and Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal take part in a joint briefing after meeting in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on March 15. (EPA/Yonhap News)
Hani: How likely is Ukraine to join NATO? What are the chances of it joining the European Union?

Ociepa: I mentioned the issue of Ukrainian membership to NATO as a very difficult one. [This is b]ecause of Russian concerns and the skepticism of a few capitals in Europe. I want to underline very clearly that for Poland, Russian concerns are not a reason to block Ukraine’s potential membership today. We think that if we believe in international law, if we believe that every nation should decide their own destiny or future, we should let Ukraine decide. We cannot accept the situation when Russia describes Ukraine as a part of its sphere of influence. Because [if we allow that,] tomorrow they will decide that Estonia is a part of the sphere of influence or you know, Japanese [or] Korean islands or South Korea. We can’t accept this. This is undermining the international world order. This is the “will of the strongest” law, not the power of international law. But if we want to enlarge NATO, we must have the decision of the two sides, not Russia, but Ukraine and NATO.

In many capitals, this perspective is just natural. But in other capitals, there is skepticism. So if you ask me about the possibility or perspective of Ukrainian membership to NATO, I see the problem not in Ukraine or in Moscow. I see the problem in other European capitals.

You, at the same time, asked about the European Union. I think that Ukraine deserves to be a member of the European Union. We should help them to achieve these goals, because membership in the EU is a very difficult issue. You have to reform your government, your law, you have to prepare a plan of reform of the state and implement it. And I think that we should prepare a clear path for Ukraine to the European Union and help them to create their own plans of reforms. And after implementation of those plans, we should set up its application.

Hani: Poland was one of NATO’s earliest member states. I am curious about NATO's long-term strategy. Should NATO expand toward the east?

Ociepa: NATO is a defense alliance. And we want to be allies of countries and be a friend of other countries who decide to build the world, the world on the basis of peace. So yes, this is our ambition: to promote our values. Like you see, we are creating the free world. We are not talking about Europe, but almost 140 states from around the world, which describe Russia as an aggressor and condemn the invasion of Ukraine [during the UN vote]. That means that our values are quite successfully spreading. And the consequence of this set of values is that some countries want to join us in NATO. And it’s natural that Georgia or Ukraine, [or the] Western Balkans should be part of NATO, if they want. Yes. Why not?

Hani: Russia bombed a military facility in western Ukraine, just 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the Polish border. Thirty-five people died. What kind of message do you think Russia sent?

Ociepa: Russia is trying to threaten us, frighten us, like they’re trying with Ukraine before the invasion. But of course, Russia will fail, because the message is clear for Russia, if they will come close to our borders, I mean NATO borders, if they will attack our cities or our territories, we will respond.

Hani: If Russia takes over Ukraine, do you think it is possible that Russia would invade Polish territory? How does the Polish government view it from a long-term perspective?

Ociepa: Actually, I answered it before because it's not about Ukraine, right? It's not about Poland. It's about international law. If we will accept, after so many wars, world wars, after so many victims, tragedies, that war is still a tool of states to pursue political goals, it will mean that we do not learn the lessons from the past. And it's not about Ukraine. It's about our acceptance of the usage of force to change the borders. So yes, of course, if we will accept that Russia can invade Ukraine to change the borders, to annex them, we should expect that others will follow it — [that] Russia will attack Japan or Russia will attack Estonia or Poland. So, it’s about the world order.

Hani: What does this Russian invasion of Ukraine mean to Poland? Do you feel threatened? If Russia takes over Ukraine, do you think Poland will become NATO's outpost?

Ociepa: I want to say this is not something new for us, [it was not] a surprise for us. Because for many years, we considered Russia as a threat to global peace. So, you know, when you talk with our allies, our friends in Western Europe, Brussels or other capitals, we still describe Russia as a threat, as [an] authoritarian state ready to attack neighbors. So, when Russia attacked Georgia in 2008, our president organized the visit of leaders of central Eastern Europe to Tbilisi [the capital of Georgia] during the war, to say that on the main square of Tbilisi that we are here because “today it is Georgia [that Russia attacks], tomorrow [it] will be Ukraine, after tomorrow [it] will be Baltic states, and after [that,] probably Poland.”

It is a big surprise, just a catastrophe of German Eastern policy. This is a big surprise for Paris, this is a big surprise for Rome. I understand this as a big disappointment. But for us, there’s nothing new.

Hani: What do you think is the possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons?

Ociepa: Well, I don't believe in that scenario. Because we know after the Second World War, we lived for many decades in the shadow of nuclear threats. And [neither the] Soviet Union n[or the] United States wanted to use them because everyone knows that everyone will lose. This is a weapon which made war without a victor. So, I believe that Russia will not use [nuclear weapons]. Because if they will, that means that NATO will use our own nuclear weapons.

Hani: Do the Polish defense authorities plan to deploy additional US missile defense systems in Poland?

Ociepa: This is a question for Washington. We as a government, we as a region and the states of the eastern flank of NATO, we are convinced that the United States should be more present on our territory. So yes.

Hani: The Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to be intensifying the arms race between the West and Russia. Wouldn't it lead to increasing military tension in Europe?

Ociepa: No, I don't think so. I think that the Ukrainians’ heroic fight shows the limitation of Russian forces. Second, we see that Russia [is losing] a lot of soldiers and a lot of equipment — tanks, jets, helicopters. That war makes Russia weaker. That war makes the West united, more united. And this is a very important message. If we stay united, Russia will never be a real competitor for us.

Hani: Russia is proposing a plan to “neutralize” Ukraine like Sweden and Austria. What do you think of this proposal?

Ociepa: I don't understand why Russia wants to decide Ukraine’s destiny or its future. You know, this should be a decision of Ukrainians.

I think what you see in Finland, or you mentioned Sweden [or] Austria, they have their own experience of dealing with Russia, and they try to reconsider their membership in NATO, because they see that being a neutral state does not prevent Russia from cyberattacks, for example, or sabotage or other things. So, you know, neutrality is very attractive rhetoric. But practically, Russia does not accept neutrality, because they’re looking for your weaknesses so much. But, once again, this should just be the decision of Ukrainians.

Hani: Ukraine is calling for a “no-fly zone.” What is the Polish defense authorities’ position on this?

It is a very difficult issue. Because actually “no-fly zone” means that someone should shoot down Russian jets or rockets. That means our involvement in Ukraine, in the Russia-Ukraine war. Of course, it's a difficult decision. And we talk about this issue with our allies. So, for sure, decisions should be coming from NATO as a whole.

Hani: As a Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission member, Poland is well aware of the Korean Peninsula issue. What do you think North Korea is feeling and thinking while it watches the situation in Ukraine?

Very good question. I can repeat, if we agree once that some states, bigger states, can change borders by using force, we have to face other wars, maybe on Korean Peninsula, maybe in or around Japan, around Korea, maybe we have to face tensions in the region — this will be an invitation for other dictators to be more aggressive. This is why we should as a world, as a free world, show our unity and determination to curtail such kinds of activity.

By Noh Ji-won, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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