In early May, VOA Eastern Europe bureau chief Myroslava Gongadze spoke with Mark Brzezinski, the U.S. ambassador to Poland. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: So, Ambassador Brzezinski, Poland has been very active in supporting Ukraine.
VOA: As ambassador, how do you feel? Do the European Union and other European Union countries share that drive for support for Ukraine?”
Brzezinski: Poland is the frontline state for NATO now when it comes to the Ukraine crisis, so it is doing the heavy lift both in terms of security and in terms of the humanitarian effort pertaining to refugees.
What’s happened in Ukraine alarms everyone — with the genocide that is occurring there, the attacks on civilians, the mass destruction of villages, apartments, old people’s homes, hospitals — it defies any kind of human belief. And I think there is unity among all the allies in Europe about how bad this is and that something needs to be done. So, I don’t want to assess who’s taking it most seriously, because I don’t know anyone who’s not taking this seriously.
There are differences in terms of tactics, and there are differences in terms of strategies. And I am impressed that President Biden has really kept together unity and consensus in the alliance, because I think that’s what (Russian President Vladimir) Putin fears most. I think he would love to drive a cleavage between Poland and America or Poland and other parts of Europe, and he’s not going to succeed. Through his own actions, he has united the countries of Europe and the trans-Atlantic community to do something about what he has done in Ukraine.
VOA: However, Poland became now, specifically in this crisis, one of the main allies.
VOA: For the United States before that, there were a lot of questions about Polish policies internally. How does it look right now? Is supporting Ukraine uniting the two countries together?
Brzezinski: Well, there’s no question that this crisis has driven, by necessity, a level of cooperation because it is such a huge crisis. There’s no question about that. America has always had a good relationship with Poland. We have shared interests and we have differing interests. That’s like a relationship between America and any country.
But this crisis has developed a unity of purpose and a shared definition of the challenge between America and Poland and other European countries. And therefore we are working together with Poland, clearly the next-door neighbor to Ukraine, and so it is very much in the catbird seat in terms of receiving people from Ukraine and trying to support the war effort in Ukraine. So, our collaboration is intense. It is growing.
Other countries recognize that this is not just a Polish problem. It’s not just an American problem. It’s important for them to share in and join in this crisis. And that’s not just countries in Europe that recognize that, but countries around the world. When you go to Rzeszow, to the G2A Arena, to the Community of Interests meeting, you see New Zealand, you see Japan, you see Australia, countries far away at the table as well, pledging resources and committing to do something about this.
VOA: You talk a lot with the Polish leadership. Obviously, this crisis and their position with Poland made them a target of Russian forces and Russian aggression as well. We heard that from the Russian leadership as well. How do you feel about the Polish government? How do they take that — that threat?
Brzezinski: Well, I’ve heard those threats from the Russian “leaders,” and that’s why when I go on Polish television I say, [phrase in Polish] — Poland is safe and Poland is secure. And that’s not just coming from me; that’s coming from the president of the United States, who has said he will defend every square inch of NATO territory. And he said that while in Poland.
So clearly the inference is that every square inch of Polish territory will be defended. And we have 12,500 troops here to walk the talk, as they say, when it comes to that commitment. It’s an ironclad commitment. It’s based on Article 5 of the NATO treaty. And we are shoulder to shoulder with the Poles in the war effort, in supporting the Ukrainian fighters, and in trying to help the Poles when it comes to the refugees.
There’s no question that this is a defining moment for the government of Poland. And they are very much rising to that challenge. And we are proud to work with the Polish leadership on this effort regarding Ukraine. And today, as you saw as well, the third most powerful person in America visited Poland. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, who herself had gone to Ukraine, to Kyiv over the weekend. And she came here first and foremost, as she put it, to thank the people of Poland and to thank the government of Poland, for doing all they are doing for the refugees.
No country in world history has ever had a national policy to place every arriving refugee in someone’s apartment and someone’s home. Poland has set the bar high in terms of what a country should do when there’s a mass movement of people forcibly, whether by natural disaster or by warfare. We are impressed and we thank the Polish people and thank the government of Poland for what they’re doing.
VOA: At the same time, Poland is asking for more NATO troops on the ground and more military support as well. Are there any plans to develop a bigger military presence? A NATO presence?
Brzezinski: Well, you have to remember, Myroslava, that we have 12,500 troops here now, we have F-35s here now, we have Patriot systems here now. We are undergoing a major transfer of tanks to Poland, which the Poles just bought. The Abrams tanks, which is the best-in-class tank that we have for ground warfare.
There is no question that those troops and the equipment we have here are spread out all over Poland. They’re not just on one base or in one place, they’re purposefully everywhere so that we can cover this country in lockstep with the Polish military to defend this country. And that is what we will do.
VOA: Poland is very vocal on the need for more sanctions from the European Union.
VOA: They are pushing for a total ban on energy resources from Russia, as well as seizing Russian assets in Europe. What is the United States’ stance on the Polish effort?
Brzezinski: Well, you know, we have sanctioned more than 400 entities and institutions close to Vladimir Putin. It is very targeted, and it is based on study, studies, data and research regarding who and what is close to Putin and who will feel the most pain through sanctions. And that is our sanctions approach.
Sanctions take a while to have an effect, but we have a pretty big and growing sanctions list. It will continue. But I think it’s one part of a multipart effort that involves also supporting refugees, that involves supporting the Ukrainian people’s effort to resist and fight. The Russian entities under sanction will feel more of the bite of the sanctions over time because that is the way sanctions work. They take time to have an effect.
VOA: This week, the European Union is discussing increasing sanctions, specifically for banning coal for import. Poland is pushing for that as well.
VOA: Do you think that that will happen? And what is your prediction on this on this week’s session?
Brzezinski: Well, I don’t really have a prediction on that. That is something that the European countries have to decide on. But I will say that we have been working assiduously with the Poles on energy security, and we’ve been doing this for years before this crisis began, because we knew for a while now that energy is weaponized by the Russians. We see that for the last 20 years in terms of what they have done to their customers.
And by the way, who does that to their customers? I’ve run a business. You can send your customers running the other direction and taking their business elsewhere, and that’s exactly what the Russians have produced. Everyone is taking their business elsewhere because the Russians have weaponized their energy transactions.
Poland, on the other hand, has had over the years two addictions that they themselves know that they need to get away from: coal and energy from Russia. And I’m proud to say that the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. energy companies have been working very carefully with the Poles to share our technology, to talk about what’s universal and transferable about that technology to Polish conditions in order to help the Poles diversify their energy production base. And we’re well underway with that effort.
VOA: Is Poland secure right now? Because Russia is threatening to cut supplies right now. How do you feel? What is the situation?
Brzezinski: I think that’s a great question. Is Poland secure, and is the world secure with what Putin is doing? The answer is, it isn’t. Because we have someone who is a bit of an unpredictable madman doing horrific things that are the kinds of things that you would see at the most brutal phases of one of the world wars that this earth has experienced, to being inflicted on the people of Ukraine.
The more we learn, the more footage we see, the more narratives we hear from women and children in Ukraine — who are these men in the Russian military that do these things? Those aren’t fighters. Those are people who want to inflict terror. That’s not a man of bravery and of the military in any kind of professional sense. And so if their leader is Vladimir Putin, I don’t think really anyone is safe.
Hence, American-Polish relations have really never been as strong as they are right now because we are dealing with an extremely serious and unpredictable crisis immediately to the east. And as a result, Poland is safe, Poland is secure, because we know that we will defend Poland. But it is worrisome in terms of what Putin will do next.
VOA: It’s a good segue to the question of regional security, and specifically Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, because we see that Russia is trying to put some tension in the Transnistria area and maybe get involved in Moldova as well. What kind of threats do you see in that region?
Brzezinski: Well, the entire region is under threat from Russia, and we are working hard with this region to make sure that it is both secure and feels secure. Because no one wants this region to become destabilized, and I don’t think that it will. And I think that’s important because this region is now a border region to this crisis. But I am certain that we are conveying the confidence in terms of the security and confidence in terms of the partnership that we are also with these countries in terms of their economies.
We have tremendous commercial undertakings in this part of the world. The U.S. embassy here in Warsaw recently held a massive conference in which we aligned major American and Polish businesses with Polish NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) doing much of the relief work for the refugees. And it was an exercise in advancing synchronicity.
And I think that is important because we want the economies, the nonprofit sectors in this part of the world, to feel that we have their back. And that’s the kind of thing that we have been doing in Poland. And I think that it’s having the desired effect of instilling confidence, of advancing alignments, and helping the people from Ukraine who are coming here.
VOA: How do you see that? What is the key to Ukraine winning this war? What is the key to security in this region?
Brzezinski: First of all, Myroslava, we know that the Ukrainians will win this war. We know that they have a fight in them. We are all impressed with the messaging of the president of Ukraine, (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy, who has been able to share this story of what is happening in Ukraine, and its very local roots, and its global reach.
All of us feel the fear of that mom and that daughter that are in a village that might be overtaken by the Russian military, and we are doing what we can to support the Ukrainian resistance. And you know what? It’s working.
The Russians are stopped in their tracks. And the Russian military is actually one of the world’s bigger militaries, and it’s absolutely stopped dead in its tracks. And the word “dead” means something, because there is a lot of dead Russians being shipped back to Russia. How tragic is that?
Young Russians also deserve good lives in the end. Who is this leader sending them into this slaughter? It’s a tragedy, but that is what Putin is doing. And the Ukrainians are winning in this effort, and we will continue to support them. The world’s opinion is galvanizing around the people and the leadership of Ukraine, and that will only continue to get stronger. And I think that that is a key piece of this, that this is an effort at collective response to this tragedy and that no one is alone. The Ukrainians are not alone. The Poles are not alone as well.
VOA: How do you see the end to this war?
Brzezinski: I see the Ukrainians winning. I see the Ukrainian people doing what they do really well, and that is fighting from the hills. The Ukrainians have a history of resistance, and the Russian military is going to tragically feel that and they’re going to see it. And I think that’s unfortunate, actually, because we could have avoided so much bloodshed and destruction.
I know the people of Poland absolutely have the back of their Ukrainian brothers, that this is in many ways 1939 again for the people of this part of the world. And that in itself is a galvanizing context. And we will continue to support the fighters. We will continue to support the refugees. Every day we are more organized. Every day we are more resourced.
You have to remember, we’re still some 40 days into this war. That is an early, early stage in terms of the response. And I can report to you as chief of mission for the U.S. here in Poland, the requests to help are massive and growing. So, we’re just beginning, and it will not stop.
VOA: This war would end in the Kremlin? Or this war would end in clearing Ukrainian territories?
Brzezinski: I see the Ukrainians throwing the Russians out of Ukraine. Thank you.