Radek Sikorski is tired of saying I told you so. The former Polish foreign minister warned of the dangers of Russian revisionism under Vladimir Putin, along with others in eastern Europe, long before the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine in February 2022. “We were dismissed as Russophobic warmongers,” he recalled, half chuckling at the irony, “when we warned that this would happen.”
His own assessment, he explained to me when we spoke by video call, was borne of an understanding of history and geography. “Realism about Russia grows in proportion to the shrinking physical distance [between your countries],” Sikorski said. “If you are Portuguese, or Spanish, or Italian, then you have never had Russian soldiers in your country against your will, and you never will. Whereas we have had them looting and raping and imposing an alien political system on us, repeatedly, over 500 years.”
But there is little satisfaction in being able to say that he was right when he still sees his fellow European Union politicians failing to grasp the seriousness of the threat to the bloc’s security. “With defence it’s very easy: follow the money,” he said. “Our seven-year defence budget is just over €7bn, so it’s €1bn for the whole continent per annum. You cannot get much of a defence for that.” Though many countries have announced they will increase their own individual defence spending as well, Sikorski is sceptical of the impact such pledges will have. “I will be convinced when I see the money.”
The European parliament has also committed to set up a rapid-reaction force of up to 5,000 troops by 2025, which is a start, he said, but nowhere near enough. “We need a Schengen zone for tanks,” Sikorski explained. “Until recently, you needed several agreements by successive governments to get a tank to the front line. That’s absurd. And we need to create more joint units. You can’t deter Putin with 5,000 troops.” The situation appears particularly urgent from Poland, where the biggest war in Europe since the Second World War is taking place just across the country’s eastern border. “You know, first it’s Ukraine, then it’s Poland,” he said. “We are western Europe’s minefield.”
Sikorski, who turned 60 earlier this year, grew up in the small city of Bydgoszcz in northern Poland, when the country was under communist rule. He led a student strike committee in 1981 before fleeing to the UK later that year, where he was granted political asylum, after the Polish government declared martial law. He studied politics, philosophy and economics at Pembroke College, Oxford, where he was a member of the Bullingdon Club alongside Boris Johnson and David Cameron. He later worked as a war correspondent in Afghanistan and Angola before returning to Poland as the communist regime collapsed in 1989 and entering politics. He served as Poland’s defence minister, foreign minister and speaker of parliament, before the right-wing populist Law and Justice party (PiS) came to power in 2015. Sikorski is now an MEP with the centre-right European People’s Party grouping and a fierce critic of the current Polish government.
We had both just returned from Ukraine when we spoke – I was in Warsaw and Sikorski was in a book-lined study “in the depths of the Polish countryside” after taking part in a volunteer convoy to deliver pick-up trucks to front-line soldiers near Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine. He had also watched Ukraine’s 26th Artillery Brigade operating Polish howitzers, “with which they were very pleased”. I had visited the same area, I told him, but stayed further back from the front line because I was 20 weeks’ pregnant. “When my wife [the American author Anne Applebaum] was pregnant, she was in Kolyma and Vorkuta,” he interjected, “writing her [Pulitzer Prize-winning] book on the Gulag.”
One of the main concerns I had heard from soldiers and civilians in eastern Ukraine, I told him, was what would happen if support in Europe and the wider West began to wane. Were they right to be worried? “Well, in Poland, there is bipartisan consensus to stay the course,” he said. “And in the European parliament, support is also solid.” The EU has already authorised more than €12bn to fund military aid to Ukraine and will likely agree an additional €20bn over the next four years, but he acknowledged more needed to be done to ensure the continuing supply of badly needed ammunition to the country.
“I’m angry at the politicians who didn’t have the foresight to realise a year ago that this was going to take some years, and therefore we need to quickly write the contracts for the defence companies and pay them to maintain production lines,” Sikorski said. “We’ve lost many, many months over useless dithering.”
While the EU has demonstrated remarkable resolve in its response to the war so far, Sikorski lamented in an essay for Foreign Affairs this summer that the bloc was still hamstrung by its inability to agree a common approach to security. As long as that remained the case, he wrote, the EU would remain a “toothless superpower – which is to say, not a superpower at all”.
“We have been very lucky in this emergency,” he told me: “a) that Ukraine fought [back], b) that Joe Biden was in the White House, and c) that the United States was not otherwise engaged. If any of these conditions did not apply, we would be in real trouble.” With Donald Trump, the overwhelming Republican front-runner to contest the White House in 2024, tied with Biden in a New York Times/Siena College poll in July, a second Biden term is far from assured. Europe would struggle to make up the shortfall if the US cut back its support.
“I’m a former defence minister, I know how long it takes to create a military unit or to procure new equipment,” Sikorski said. “There are decade-long challenges, and we are behind the curve.”
Poland has its own pressing issues to confront, however, as the country heads towards a general election on 15 October, which could determine not only the future of its democracy, but its place within Europe. The ruling PiS party is attempting to secure an unprecedented third term in power. The result is expected to be close, with PiS and its allies holding a slim but diminishing lead over the opposition centre-right grouping, with whom Sikorski is aligned, in recent polls.
“I don’t think Polish democracy can survive a third term of PiS,” he told me, bluntly. “They have already subjugated and politicised the security services, the prosecution service, state television, even the army and the state forestry commission. The courts are the last barricade, and if they get a third term, they’ll break them.” He is not alone in this view. The PiS government has been rebuked and fined by the European Court of Justice for its efforts to undermine the independence of the country’s judiciary with controversial reforms introduced in 2019.
He sees parallels with the growing dysfunction of American domestic politics too. Whereas Margaret Thatcher used to say, “‘First you win the argument and then you win the election,’ I don’t think it works like that anymore,” he said. The core PiS supporters were increasingly “like the Trumpian sect”, Sikorski explained. “They can do whatever, they can steal whatever, they can break the constitution and their electorate doesn’t seem to mind – it’s a mix of desperate traditionalists and cynical opportunists.”
The outcome of the election will also have serious implications for Poland’s ability to shape discussions on the future of European security. “Poland’s place in Europe should be the strongest ever right now, because we are an indispensable logistics hub and we have been vindicated [over the threat from Russia],” he said. “But unfortunately, we have a provincial nationalist government, under sanctions from Brussels, so Poland is punching way below its weight.”
I had one more question for him, which I had purposefully saved for last in case it prompted him to abruptly end the call. After a series of explosions destroyed the Nord Stream gas pipelines beneath the Baltic Sea in September 2022, Sikorski, who had long been critical of the project to connect Germany and Russia, posted a cryptic message on Twitter with a photo of the aftermath and the words: “Thank you, USA.” It had prompted feverish speculation about whether he had some insight as to who was responsible, and led a Russian foreign ministry spokesperson to ask whether it amounted to an official statement before he finally deleted the tweet. What exactly had he meant by it?
“Well, that was meant as a joke and not everybody got it,” Radek Sikorski said with a wry grin, clearly amused by his understatement. Still, he pointed out the reports that had since become public based on a US intelligence leak earlier this year, which alleged that Washington had been warned about a plot to blow up the Nord Stream pipelines three months before the incident took place. “So perhaps there was something we should be grateful to the United States for after all,” he said, mischievously. “Because the destruction of Nord Stream, as far as I’m concerned, was a very good thing.”
[See also: Naomi Klein’s mirror world]
This article appears in the 13 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Revenge of the Trussites