Russia and Belarus are right in assuming that if we fail to control the situation at our border, the far-right will triumph in both the national and European elections. This, in turn, has the potential to blow up the European Union from within - believes the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland.

A conversation with Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Radosław Sikorski.

Russia has recently announced plans to redraw its borders on the Baltic Sea. This seems to already have started on the border with Estonia, as Russian services have removed a buoy on the Narva River. How will NATO and the European Union respond to this provocation?

Radosław Sikorski: We are constantly checking the facts. We want to be sure what exactly is happening here. Riverbeds are undergoing constant changes, and as a result, navigation routes have to be adapted or the course of the border needs to be corrected accordingly. We are familiar with this problem because the Polish-German border eventually runs on the Oder River. I would not be surprised, however, if Putin provokes a small NATO country with the malicious intent to sow confusion and fear among its citizens. Let’s see about the size and scope of the actions that Russians briefly reported on the internet. In general, Russia's position in the Baltic has deteriorated since the invasion of Ukraine. Finland and Sweden have joined NATO, and military forces in the strategically located Gotland are being strengthened. Russia's announcement may be a sign of weakness and an ongoing panic.

Still, its Baltic Fleet remains intact.

- Yes, but we are capable of doing to it what Ukrainians did to the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

A few days ago, Putin traveled to Minsk to oversee the launch of joint nuclear exercises. Should Europe be concerned?

- In the past years, Russia has already modernized its nuclear-capable missiles and the warhead stockpile located in the Königsberg exclave. Nothing changes from our point of view. Russians have threatened to annihilate us with nuclear weapons back when I was negotiating with the US to set up elements of the missile defense shield in Poland. They did it so often that I had to openly appeal to Russian generals not to threaten us with nuclear weapons more than once a quarter. They stopped for a while.

Nuclear weapons are Putin’s very last resort. But let's not forget that the Russian military is simply not equipped to fight in radioactively contaminated terrain. The threat of using nuclear weapons carries with itself many such complex implications. Therefore, we should not allow Russian threats to intimidate us.

In this regard, do you think Poland should acquire its own nuclear arsenal?

- Poland has ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And it intends to stick to its provisions.

What about entering NATO's Nuclear Sharing program?

- The less said about it in public, the better.

So negotiations are underway?

- No. And besides, being part of this NATO program does not mean that one gets operational control of nuclear weapons. Only the means of delivery are shared. It's like the mailman who gets to deliver a million-dollar check. That doesn't make him a millionaire, does it?

The Polish government launched a commission tasked with investigating undue Russian influence. How is this different from the commission established under the so-called "Lex Tusk" that PiS set up shortly before the national election for the purpose of political revenge?

- The difference is fundamental. The unconstitutional commission set up by the Law and Justice party had the power to ban people from politics. In its nature, it was supposed to be a political commission with the powers of both the prosecutor's office and the court. In contrast, the commission set up by our government is merely an advisory body to the Minister of Justice. It will check past cases, follow journalistic investigations, and make recommendations to the Justice Minister on what the prosecutor's office should do. And that's it. Everything will take place behind closed doors, without cameras, and no one will be excluded from public office.

How visible is Russian influence in Poland?

- Among you is a journalist from Spain, a country where Russians have financially supported separatists. In Paris, Russian agents drew Stars of David on walls to stigmatize Jewish residents. In Germany and Britain, the Russians sent assassination squads. A Polish judge recently fled to Belarus. We believe this was a Russian operation as well.

So, you see, Russia has its operatives everywhere, including in Poland. Therefore, we should immunize our political system and public opinion against Russian manipulation. Putin has been waging a war against us since 2011, since the time of the huge protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg against his return to the Russian presidency, which he said were inspired by the West.

It is necessary to accept this challenge and confront it.

Do you think PiS was penetrated by the Russians?

- Certainly in an ideological sense. Just look at their propaganda: anti-European, targeting minorities, with a cult of the Polish version of machismo. Just look at the party's use of public media, the unity between the party and the Church. These are all characteristics of Putinism. They say they hate Putin, but their program is similar. In fact, there have been publications in the PiS-associated press that Putin has an offer for European traditionalists that is anti-Western, anti-progressive, contesting the modern world. These people were fooled by Putin because he weaponized traditionalism. In every country, at least a third of the population is susceptible to authoritarian ideas and feels nostalgic for the traditional past. The Russians have realized this and are now targeting these voters. In Poland, the recipients of these ideas are PiS and the far-right Confederation.

Several Russian spies and saboteurs have been arrested in recent weeks. The government warns of Russian cyber-attacks. Is Poland prepared for such threats?

- First of all, we are strengthening our eastern border. Not only against illegal migration but against a military threat. I would like to emphasize that this is not about the migration of poor people seeking a better life. What we are dealing with on the eastern border is an organized attack against the European Union. 90% of the people who try to cross the Polish-Belarusian border have Russian visas in their passports. These people were encouraged in various countries in Africa and the Middle East, were transported to Moscow, then taken to Belarus and directed to the border with the EU.

That’s how migration works. People also come to Europe directly from Africa. That doesn't make them dangerous...

- The procedure in North Africa is not organized by the state. Meanwhile, our neighbor, a member of the UN, is organizing an attack aimed at destroying the European Union through a political process. The plan is simple. Russia and Belarus are right in assuming that if we fail to control the situation at our border, the far-right will triumph in both the national and European elections. This, in turn, has the potential to blow up the European Union from within.

So you would not provide these migrants with the privileges granted to them by the Geneva Convention?

- I myself enjoyed such privileges when I was a refugee in Britain back in the 1980s. The Geneva Convention was adopted with individuals in mind, not millions of people. Numbers do matter. A billion people on the other side of the Mediterranean would rather live in Europe than in Africa. Are we in a position to take them in? No.

But human rights are at stake...

- There is no human right that allows you to live wherever you want in the world. There is no human right that allows you to cross borders illegally. If such laws existed, we would not need passports or visas. And since we still use them, borders must be maintained. Our citizens demand that the external border of the Schengen zone be under control, otherwise this border will collapse. And then there will be no more freedom of movement within the zone. We are obliged to do so when it comes to our section of the EU border.

Yet, migrants have the right to seek asylum, and their applications must be processed.

- Indeed. That's why the migration pact provides for the creation of reception centers, where asylum applications will be recognized quickly and people who have no chance of obtaining asylum or residency rights will be returned to their countries of origin. Spain has a lot of experience in this regard. It also controls who can get into its exclaves in North Africa. No convention guarantees the right to live in Ceuta or Melilla.

Donald Tusk's government voted in the EU Council against the migration pact you are referring to. Will Poland respect it?

- We disagree with some of its provisions. We are constantly checking its consequences for our country.

Keep in mind that of all the EU countries Poland has taken in the largest number of war refugees. We are looking at another massive wave of refugees if Putin succeeds in destroying the Ukrainian energy infrastructure. We need to distinguish between actual refugees, Ukrainian women and children, and people brought to our border by the Russian GRU.

Citing its sources, a few days ago, Reuters claimed that Putin is ready to negotiate a ceasefire on the current frontlines. Do you think that’s a credible announcement?

- To put it diplomatically: I have limited confidence in Vladimir Putin. If he wants to stop the fighting, let him end the war by withdrawing from Ukraine. He could do it with a single phone call. I can even imagine what he would have to say to the receiver: "General Gerasimov, starting tomorrow, please end the special military operation." The tragedy here is that Ukraine can't make him do it.

Would you send Polish troops to Ukraine?

- We should not rule out anything. Let Putin guess what we will do next.

I myself was already there, with my wife, with my son. Delivering aid. We went to Kharkiv, then to Bakhmut, to the zone where heavy fighting was going on, to Kherson, which was bombed by the Russians.

Do you think Russia is meddling in the European Parliament elections?

- Of course it is. They've been meddling in our elections since 2014. They've meddled in the U.S. elections, in the Brexit referendum. They continue to do so, and they will continue to do anything that throws us off balance, that frustrates us. They will try to provide our society with arguments that democracy doesn't work, and the Russian society that we are no better than Russia in anything. Sowing chaos, and undermining trust - this is the Russian business model.

There is a lot going on in the European Parliament itself ahead of the election. Because of statements made by Maximilian Krah, an Alternative for Germany (AfD) MEP, who glorified the Waffen SS, Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right National Unity, pushed through the exclusion of AfD from the joint Identity and Democracy faction...

- When I was an MEP myself, Mr. Krah sat not that far from me. I didn't know at the time that his assistant was a Chinese spy. And that Krah is so forgiving of SS...

Since Le Pen got rid of the German far-right, she may form a coalition with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's party.

- We are, of course, pleased that Prime Minister Meloni has shown such expedience when it comes to supporting Ukraine. We really appreciate it.

What are the red lines for your party in the future European Parliament? What deters you from working with the far-right?

- I believe in maximizing the electoral outcome of pro-European parties. What all nationalists have in common is that they treat the Union as something foreign, as "them" and not us. They propose simple solutions to complex problems, and besides, in European politics, they want to eat a cookie and have a cookie. They demand that the Union achieve the goals they set for it, but deny it the competence to do so. In the military parlance, there is the concept of "combat recognition." If they gained power, they would see for themselves that their program does not hold water. But this lesson of theirs would be very costly for us.

What are your thoughts on a potential alliance between the European People's Party and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), a faction that includes Meloni and PiS?

- Some parties that are part of the ECR were previously in the European People's Party, and this also applies to PiS. Only that 10 years ago it was a different party altogether. Back then, PiS was not an anti-European party. The Law and Justice party's 2007 program shows that at that time they even understood that strong European institutions serve smaller countries. However, Poland’s former Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro, who plays the role of Nigel Farage (the main proponent of Brexit) in Poland, converted the conservative camp to ardent anti-Europeanism in just eight years. Today, PiS politicians say that the EU is worse than the Soviet Union. Whenever I hear such words, I respond: how many millions of people has the EU murdered so far?

So a "no" to cooperation with PiS, but a "yes" to cooperation with Meloni?

- I have already said what I could: we appreciate Italy’s solidarity towards Ukraine.

What challenges lie ahead of the next Parliament and Commission?

- First of all, policy-making. The European Parliament has real power and you have to make coalitions and build compromises to solve more issues.

We support Ursula von der Leyen as a candidate to head the European Commission, we believe she is competent and represents the European mainstream. She has kept her word on issues that are important to us.

In her successive State of the Union addresses, she spoke of the need to make the EU more geopolitically active and defense-oriented. I support this.

What about the reform of the EU treaties?

- We are not in favor of it. We believe that, among other things, EU enlargement can take place without changing the treaties.

Also without changing the way decisions are made and without removing the veto right?

- I would do away with unanimity in only one area: sanctions. A situation where one country is able to stop or slow down the imposition of sanctions is not good.

The European Union has maintained unity when it comes to supporting Ukraine and policy toward Russia. Why is it so difficult to show unity in the case of the war in Gaza?

- Let's start with the fact that the current cycle of violence was started by Hamas - there seems to be no dispute here. There is also a consensus in the European Union that a Palestinian state is needed. Poland has recognized Palestine as a state since 1988. Unfortunately, the EU's influence on the course of affairs in the Middle East is limited.

How would you comment on the decision of the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

- I find it unfortunate to issue a decision on the prime minister of a democratic country at the same time as similar decisions on terrorists [the ICC ordered the arrest of Hamas leaders]. The Court has done itself a disservice.

President Andrzej Duda does not want to agree with the new government on changing ambassadors, and announces he wants to decide who will be Poland's European commissioner. Who is in charge of Poland’s foreign policy?

- Please read Article 146. of the Polish Constitution, its provision leaves no doubt.

A decade ago in Berlin, you said that you feared German inaction more than German strength. Has that changed?

- I would say the same thing today. Germany is not very strong, it is sometimes tardy. We've seen this in the context of Ukrainiane. For example, when discussing the supply of Leopard tanks. But now German support for Ukraine is at its highest. So the Germans can change their views, become convinced. Now they have recognized that we were right to warn them against Putin and the construction of the Nord Stream pipeline.

Distance from Russia matters. From the perspective of Germany's security against Russia, Poland is like an anti-tank mine. But Russian tanks are no threat to Germany.

How so?

- Their engines fail to meet EU standards. If they cross the Polish border, they’ll be stopped by our traffic patrol.

Translated by Jakub Kibitlewski


This article was written in the framework of The Eastern Frontier Initiative (TEFI) project. TEFI is a collaboration of independent publishers from Central and Eastern Europe, to foster common thinking and cooperation on European security issues in the region. The project aims to promote knowledge sharing in the European press and contribute to a more resilient European democracy.

Members of the consortium are 444 (Hungary), Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland), SME (Slovakia), PressOne (Romania), and Bellingcat (The Netherlands).

The TEFI project is co-financed by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.