I caught up with Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Pryzdacz at the Aspen Security Conference in mid-July.
Poland is a front line state to the crisis in Ukraine and has been directly impacted by Russia’s invasion, including hosting millions of Ukrainian refugees. Poland was also and early target of Vladimir Putin’s efforts to use gas exports as a kind of blackmail; and when Poland refused to pay for Russian gas in Rubles, Russian gas was abruptly cut off.
I kick off my conversation with the Deputy Foreign Minister with a discussion about the refugee situation in Poland. We have an extended conversation about how Poland responded to Russia’s abrupt suspension of gas exports and what lessons from that episode Poland might impart on other countries in Europe. We then have a broad conversation about how Poland’s proximity to the fighting in Ukraine is shaping its approach to that conflict.
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Transcript lightly edited for clarity
How many Ukrainian Refugees are in Poland?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:02:31] So I wanted to start by asking you about the refugee situation in Poland. in the early days of the conflict, over 3 million Ukrainians fled Ukraine into Poland. Can you describe how the Polish government responded to those refugees and what the refugee situation looks like in Poland today?
Marcin Przydacz [00:02:53] The number you mentioned is already higher. It’s more than 5 million Ukrainian citizens who have crossed the Polish border. Many of them stayed in Poland. Some of them, of course, returned to Ukraine and then came back. So, it’s really hard to say how many Ukrainian refugees are currently on the territory of Poland, but it’s for sure more than 3 million refugees. From the very beginning of this war, Poland was the first destination for them to come when they were fleeing the conflict zone and the territory of Ukraine. We decided as a government not to create any refugee camps, so all of those Ukrainian refugees were accommodated in the Polish system, mostly because of the open hearts and open houses and homes of ordinary Poles although the government was coordinating all this. We granted Ukrainian refugees access to the Polish labor market. The kids are entitled to be enrolled to the Polish schooling system. The vast majority, more than 90% of refugees are women with kids since men were not allowed to leave Ukraine due to the fact that they were sent to the frontline to fight for the sovereignty of their country. So, Ukrainians are very similar to Poles in terms of culture and language so it’s quite easy to integrate them into the Polish society. Nevertheless, there are some challenges with regard to this. Suddenly within weeks we have a couple of millions of people to be accommodated to the system. When it comes to the Polish schooling system, you know, hundreds of thousands of kids applied to join our schooling system, the same with the health care system and many others so we are trying to do our best, treating them as president of Poland, Andrzej Duda said, as guests, not refugees. We are pretty sure that quite a significant number of refugees will stay with us for a longer period. We are happy to have them.
How are Polish people reacting to the influx of Ukrainian refugees?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:52] Is that sustainable, having so many refugees in your cities over the long term? Like I have to imagine things like rental prices, housing prices have probably increased and that, you know, might upset native poles.
Marcin Przydacz [00:05:06] Well, as I told you, there are some challenges with regard to that but for now, we are trying to do our best to deal with those challenges. There are some attempts, of course, to foster divisions between Poles and Ukrainians and having in mind that there is an economic crisis ahead of us, the inflation problems. Of course, there are some historical problems in terms of our relations with Ukraine before but as for now, we are doing our best in order to make them feel safe and make them feel at home.
Why did Russia cut off gas exports to Poland?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:38] So I wanted to kick off by asking you about the refugee situation because I think it is a good demonstration of Poland being on the very front line of this crisis. I think another example of that was the decision by Russia to cut off gas exports to Poland, ostensibly because Poland refused to pay for the gas in rubles. Can you explain how Poland responded to that shut off of Russian gas?
Marcin Przydacz [00:06:05] Well, we were pretty aware of the fact that Russia one day may try to blackmail us with cutting off gas supplies, so the government decided to diversify, decided to build alternative routes, the Baltic by the connection with Norway through Denmark in order to have an alternative supply of gas. In 2006, we already decided to build the LNG terminal in order to have another option to import gas from whatever distance, mostly from the US, but also from Gulf countries. So having this experience of Russia blackmailing Ukraine and Belarus, we knew that we could be one day the next country to be blackmailed so we were somehow prepared. And then in April this year, after the invasion to Ukraine, Russia, despite the fact that the contract says that the money should be paid in euros, decided unilaterally we had to pay in rubles, which was another way of blackmailing. We refused to do that, wanted to fulfill the contract, but we thought it’s not a stable and predictable business partner and they decided to shut out. So, in terms of gas, we are quite secure. Our storages are 95% full and having alternative routes. Our own resources plus LNG terminal and this autumn we are going to open this Baltic pipe from Norway. We will try also to be a provider of energy security to other countries in the region.
Why is Poland exporting energy to neighboring countries?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:34] I read that you’re going to seek to export Polish energy to other countries in the region and historically, Poland has not been a huge net exporter of energy.
Marcin Przydacz [00:07:44] Yes, that’s right but in 2015, President Duda decided to launch a new initiative called Three Seas Initiative in order to create more possibilities of interconnectivity between the Central European countries. So, we’ve decided to build more interconnectors with Lithuania, with the Czech Republic, with Slovakia, and also hopefully one day with Ukraine. So having those opportunities to get gas from other sources, we can also sell it to our partners. But it’s not only Poland, it’s also Lithuania. It’s worth mentioning Lithuania has its own LNG terminal, and having this interconnector with Poland, we can help each other. Now it’s rather Lithuania which will be providing gas to the Polish market, but one day can go the other way. So, it’s all about interconnectivity and the more opportunities and we were seeking to be independent of Russian gas quite successfully right now. Hopefully other big European partners will follow that path because it seems that it was a good decision, good choice to do.
How could the rationing of gas in Europe help Putin’s invasion of Ukraine?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:45] Well, that that’s my next question. We’re having this conversation because it is widely expected, or at least there is profound concern that Russia might cut off gas supplies to much of Europe in the months ahead and even in the depths of winter when gas needs are highest because most of northern Europe heats their homes that way. And this would be a transparent attempt to perhaps inject some disunity in what has so far been a unified European response to the Ukraine crisis. What can Poland do to prevent that outcome, to prevent disunity that would stem from perhaps political unrest or political problems caused by rationing of gas?
Marcin Przydacz [00:09:31] Well, we don’t have to wait until winter. Russia has already cut off gas supplies to several Western European countries, for example, Denmark or the Netherlands, Poland, as well as other countries in this region. Of course, there is a huge risk that we’re going to have a problem with this during the wintertime. I must say that there was a time to be prepared for such a scenario, and we were aware of this risk, that’s why we diversified. Not every European state decided to do that. Some of them were deepening the dependency on the Russian gas. Now, of course, we are talking about our German neighbors that are in a much more difficult situation now. It’s a good decision that Chancellor Schulz decided to build LNG terminal now to diversify. It’s a good decision they stopped using the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Now, as the European Union, we need to keep the unity. We are ready as Poland to provide energy security based on our capacity if that was the only option, to sell gas to the European markets. Of course, we’re going to do it but let me remind you that there are also other opportunities. Russia was not the only supplier of gas to Europe. There are Southern partners which were supplied by North African partners. There are other LNG terminals in Western Europe so the more gas we have on the European markets, the better for all of us. But it’s not only gas, which is a source of energy. We may think about nuclear power plants. So, for us in Poland, it’s not easy to understand why our German neighbors are shutting down their nuclear power plants in the middle of the crisis. We do really encourage them not to do that and to come back to the stability based on the nuclear power plants. And it seems, unfortunately, that some of our partners will need to come back also for this interim period until they will be ready to sustain without Russian gas. I know we know that is not perfect for climate, but in a time of crisis, it seems that there will be no other choice.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:36] Well, how concerned are you that high gas prices, a very cold winter, might fray the political unity that we’ve seen in Europe thus far?
Marcin Przydacz [00:11:48] Of course, there is that, but we need to answer the question whether we are going to stick to our principles and our values and the international law and our interests of security. Or there will be a kind of attempt to come back to the policy of business as usual with Russia. Hopefully the European Commission will play a bit more active role with regards to that in order to keep the unity with regard to policy towards Russia. But of course, I share your point. The risk is huge. We need to sit together in a club of 27 member states and actively work in order to be more independent on Russia energy and energy resources, because this is the moment Mr. Putin is waiting for, for winter and to foster divisions between us. We cannot allow him to do that because today is Ukraine, but tomorrow we can be any other states of the European Union.
How could Russia’s war on Ukraine end?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:44] On the conflict in Ukraine, you, and I here in Aspen have listened to, sat through a number of very senior intelligence officials articulating their belief that this will be a long and drawn-out conflict and that more or less it is likely that Russia will maintain control over parts of the Donbass and fighting will grind on. What would be an acceptable outcome to this conflict from a Polish perspective? Could you accept an outcome in which, in return for an end to fighting, Russia maintains control over parts of the Donbass that it currently occupies.
Marcin Przydacz [00:13:28] I’m not in a position to decide about the territory and the territorial integrity of the sovereign country of Ukraine. It is only the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian nation to decide about this so I would rather avoid that kind of discussion. What can we offer Mr. Putin to stop this war? What we need to do is to continue our policy sanctioning Russia and exerting pressure on Moscow and supporting Ukraine and if there will be a desire or readiness of the Ukrainian government to start diplomatic talks with Russia about this situation, it should be their decision because it’s their territory, not ours. We were asked to offer our assistance and that’s what we are doing. But any acceptance of the occupation of the territory of Ukraine, repeating the same scenario we’ve just seen in 2015 and the Minsk agreements, was supposed to preserve peace in this part of the world, for some concessions: the concessions where the following that Russia was maintaining their control over part of Donbas. But as we all know, after a couple of years later, they came back, and they moved forwards. So, we have been trying to keep the stability and peace in this part of the world for concessions, but it seems that with Russia you cannot deal that way. This time I hope there will be no mistake because once we allow them to rule any part of Ukrainian territory for a kind of temporary peace, they will treat it just as a post in order to probably reshape their army, reshuffle and prepare for the next phase of the operation. Mr. Putin said, referring also to the Peter the Great, that he he’s recreating the empire of Moscow, like Tsarist Russia or Soviet Russia, and it seems that for him, Ukraine can be only the beginning of this journey. So, we cannot allow him to do it. So, any concessions will not bring positive scenarios, will not bring peaceful solution. Russia must withdraw their troops from the occupied territories.
Could Russia attempt to seize territory in Poland?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:40] So clearly, as you just articulated, Poland is more directly threatened by Putin’s messianic vision than, say, countries in Western Europe. So, when you’re having conversations with your counterparts in Western Europe, how do you articulate your own view that, you know, this might be like an existential threat for Poland, whereas it might not be for the Netherlands or for France. What are those conversations like?
Marcin Przydacz [00:16:13] It’s not only existential threats to Poland, Mr. Putin is trying to destroy the entire global security architecture to change the rules by violating international law, international regulation, he’s trying to recreate the global security architecture. So, it’s not only about Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, it’s about the world we are living in. He wants this world to be destroyed and somehow to come back to the situation where Russia is ruling part of the world by their sphere of influence. And let me remind you, once Mr. Putin referred to the history of the great tsar of Russia, that’s during the Alexander the first, the czar of Russia, Russian troops were in Paris. Thus, from this period, the words ‘bistro’ comes.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:05] I did not know that.
Marcin Przydacz [00:17:06] The meaning of this word in Russian is do something quickly, right? So, the Russian soldiers were asking French waiters to provide them, you know, with coffee or I don’t know, or a nice Bordeaux wine in a quick manner. So, it seems that Mr. Putin is quite ambitious. So, at one point the Russian troops were in Paris and were in Berlin, let me just remind you, the wall of Berlin. I wouldn’t say that its only about Eastern Europe. It’s about sphere of influence in the entire Europe. We are all somehow in danger. And when the Russian leader was once asked, where are the borders of Russia, the answer was, wherever we want, the borders of Russia are. So, it is a revisionist country which is trying to create a new world order, basically not based on the international regulations. So, we are protecting the world we are living in. All of us, both of our countries, us, Poland, and many other European countries, we need to keep it as it is.
How can the Western pro-Ukraine alliance support Poland?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:04] Is there anything from Poland’s perspective that the Western alliance, the pro-Ukrainian alliance, could be doing but is not doing and should do quickly?
Marcin Przydacz [00:18:15] Well, we’ve managed to do quite a lot already as the Euro-Atlantic community imposing seven packages of sanctions, providing Ukraine with quite sophisticated equipment technologically advanced, which really is changing the position of Ukraine vis a vis the Russian army and we have also managed to strengthen the NATO posture in the center of Europe and in the eastern flank. What we need to do is to continue that and to do it more bistro, quicker, and in more efficient ways. So, more equipment to Ukraine, more NATO troops on the eastern flank and looking into the policy of sanctions whenever the Russian side is trying to circumvent those sanctions, to tighten the sanctions, to find new ways how to exert pressure on Russia. That’s the way we should follow within the next couple of months. And hopefully that will give a lesson to Russia, but also to other superpowers based on authoritarian regime to stop their revisionist policy and come back to the dialog and peaceful relations globally.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:22] Well, Mr. Deputy Foreign Minister, thank you so much for your time.
Marcin Przydacz [00:19:24] Thank you very much.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:28] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you again to the deputy foreign minister of Poland for spending some time with me during a busy conference. And again, a big thank you to the good folks at the Aspen Security Forum for including me and including the podcast and I will have another live recorded episode with another diplomat for you in the near future. So, stay tuned. All right. We’ll see you next time. Thanks, bye!