This analysis is a sequel to “The West’s Conundrum: The Impact of the Ukraine War on Europe” published on this website on the speech of Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defense Radek Sikorski before the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) on the inter-European relations and the future of the European Union (EU).
Sikorski says that the biggest threat to Polish national security is not the Russian missiles deployed in Kaliningrad, but the collapse of the Eurozone. He states that he has held this view since the Greek government’s debt crisis. He calls on Germany, for its own sake and the sake of member states of the Eurozone, to help the Eurozone survive and prosper. For Sikorski, nobody else can do this but Germany. He says that he is probably the first Polish foreign minister in history to say this and that he doesn’t fear the German power but rather its inactivity, noting that “You have become Europe’s indispensable nation. You may not fail to lead: not dominate, but to lead in reform.”
Limits of the German Role
Sikorsky continued: “Today, I repeat what I said in 2011 in reference to the Ukraine war: Instead of leading from the front, Germany is being criticized again for lagging behind others.” He pointed out that on a per capita basis, Germany is providing less assistance to Ukraine than smaller countries with weaker economies. He hopes that Putin’s invasion has clarified in everyone’s head what this war is about.
Arguably, Sikorsky’s words can be considered more of a reformulation of an old notion: Germany is an economic giant and a political dwarf. Perhaps this situation is the outcome of Germany’s desire not to revive memories of the past and fear of dormant or suppressed violence in the German character. While this interpretation may seem superficial, it is prevalent in Germany and elsewhere. It can be partially seen as an implicit critique of the current Polish government’s anti-Germany stance. Arguing that Germany is an indispensable country, that its inaction harms everyone, and that it must take the lead doesn’t mean that Germany is an enemy of Poland, no matter how true the criticisms of each party against the other are. Sikorsky implicitly suggests the sluggishness of the decision-making in Germany (as he talks about Germany “lagging behind smaller countries”) and Germany’s failure to understand the Russian regime except upon Russia’s latest invasion of Ukrainian cities.
Sikorsky then criticizes those who demand Ukraine to negotiate with Russia, noting: “The simplest way to end this war is for Russia to leave Ukraine. The war will stop the moment it does so. It is the rapist who is guilty of rape, not his victim. The best way to help a rape victim is to come to the victim’s assistance, not to call on her to negotiate with the attacker.” Sikorsky points out that there are many “pocket Chamberlains willing to trade other people’s freedom for their own peace of mind.” Chamberlain intended here is the British Prime Minister who negotiated in Munich with Hitler, along with his French counterpart, Edouard Daladier, and agreed to sacrifice the territories of Czechoslovakia in exchange for peace, “trading honor for peace having in neither in the end”- as Churchill put it.
While this analogy is frequently used, it’s somewhat founded and justified this time, with a major factor, i.e. Russia’s possession of nuclear weapons and leverage that were not in Hitler’s hands. Moreover, French leaders today act as if they don’t realize the serious wound this chapter has left in the memory of Eastern Europe. In his memoirs, President Sarkozy groaned about the tendency of Polish leaders to constantly invoke this past.
Delving into History
Sikorsky continues to argue that Germany did get it wrong about Putin and Russia. According to Sikorsky, analyzing mistakes is essential. For him, what was wrong wasn’t trying to entice Russia the West’s way and urge it to strengthen its relations with the West, noting “We should always, even now, offer countries to choose a better path.” Perhaps -says Sikorski and has every right I think- the German elite drew the wrong lesson from the West’s success in the Cold War. Some German public intellectuals seem to think that Neue Ostpolitik policy –i.e. Germany’s open door policy with Russia and developing trade with it– pursued by Chancellor Willy Brandt was the key, thinking that all the peaceful initiatives (recognition of East Germany, the intra-German people-to-people exchanges and dialogue, etc.) are what ended the Soviet-era, failing to remember that the Soviet Union would not have been so amenable without 300,000 NATO troops defending Germany and without NATO’s firmness in responding to the deployment of Soviet intermediate missiles in the 1980s and Star Wars.
Sikorsky stresses that Willy Brandt and Helmut Kohl would not have succeeded without Ronald Reagan, Pope of the Catholic Church John Paul II (i.e. a polish who played a central role in mobilizing the opposition and peoples of East Europe), and Lech Walesa, former president of the Solidarity trade union who played a leading role in the fall of Communism in Poland and whose struggle played a key role in separating Western European left from the Soviet Union.
Sikorsky means that confrontation, whether military, political, or ideological, played a more decisive role than appeasement and cooperation and that such cooperation would not have been possible had not there been a threat to the Soviets to accept it. Sikorsky goes on to address the Germans saying, “You forgot that opening to Russia should be accompanied with firmness. You built the Siberian gas pipeline from the Soviet Union in the 1980s but at that time it was the United States that was providing the firmness. This time, it was all carrots and zero sticks.”
Sikorsky mentions that, in a lecture in Paris at the end of the first decade of the 2000s, he heard a senior European official (representing the EU) boasting about the EU’s introducing a new method of negotiation that never put up with sticks, but rather depend on offering a carrot while having other larger “carrots” in case the carrot offered in the first place prove inconclusive. What struck me at that time was the admiration of the audience for this nonsense.
Sikorsky calls into question what Germans think of the Soviet Union allowing German reunification and that Germany shall owe this to Moscow forever. He says that “Mikhail Gorbachov did not allow the unification of Germany and the withdrawal of Soviet troops out of Central Europe out of the goodness of his heart but because his totalitarian empire collapsed.”
At this point, I believe Sikorsky seems to be exaggerating. There has been consensus in Western circles that Gorbachov could have resorted to the military option, either to prevent or delay the liberation of Eastern Europe or to raise its cost. Yet he didn’t.
Sikorsky refers to the German guilt complex relating to the Second World War, saying, “you understand your fault for the Holocaust but you only dimly perceive that the majority of the killing was not done in Russia but on the territories of today’s Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine.” So, it’s strange, notes Sikorsky, that the Germans feel guilty towards the Russians while they forget about what they did to these three nations. Sikorsky addresses the Germans, saying “if you still feel the need to atone for the crimes of your grandfathers you should direct your solidarity to the biggest victims (i.e. the Ukrainians, Belarusians and Poles).
From Recent Past to Present and Future
Sikorsky reminds the Germans of their refusal to listen to Poland’s warnings delivered publicly and behind the scenes. For him, Russia’s sale of gas at a cheap price was not a commercial project; it was a purely geopolitical one and Germany had no excuse to build Nord Stream 2 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Donbass. Sikorsky says that it has been clear since the time of former Chancellor Schroeder that “the purpose of building Nord Stream was to change the route of delivery, to be able to supply you while depriving Central Europe of the transit fees, or perhaps cutting it off altogether.”
After that, Sikorsky touches on what we reviewed in the previous analysis, i.e. developments that took place in the first decade of the millennium and the growth of cooperation between Russia, Western countries, and Eastern European countries. He points out that Russia was helpful with the transit of Western equipment to and from Afghanistan and that there have been mutual European-Russian visits of mayors, local councilors, and church leaders to study decentralization and development experiences, and that NATO was planning joint exercises with Russia. However, “we [Poland] passed a super law which guaranteed the Polish armed forces 2% of a growing GDP year in, year out while Germany opted for a sharp reduction in defense and armament spending. We insisted that NATO write contingency plans for the defense of Poland and the Baltic States. We signed agreements with the United States to build a missile defense site in Poland, so as to give them a bigger stake in Poland’s security,” Sikorsky notes.
Sikorsky then talks at length about his experiences as Polish foreign minister or defense minister with German officials, journalists, and experts, their inability to understand anything related to security and defense and their refusal to recognize Russia as being a threat. Sikorsky mentions that this did not change after Russia’s forcible annexation of Crimea and its intervention in the Donbass in 2014. Therefore, they refused to consider Poland to be a “frontline state” because they didn’t consider Russia to be a threat. Sikorsky says that there wasn’t a squeak of concern either among German politicians or in the press when Russia deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad with the range to reach Berlin. That was a development worthy of attention. Back then, Pew opinion polls indicated that up to a third of Germans wanted to be in an alliance with Russia against the United States.
Sikorsky summarizes it all saying, “History proved you got it wrong and we were right. I do not expect you to apologize for 30 years of your patronizing tones. I just expect you to listen to what we say now. And what we say is that this is hopefully Russia’s last colonial war. Think of Donbas as Russia’s Ulster. Except that Donbass and Crimea voted for Ukrainian independence at the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union.”
He criticizes and refutes the Russian rhetoric on Ukraine describing it as imperial and supremacist. Sikorsky says that “a colonial war goes through predictable stages. First, denying the separateness of the colony. Then, astonishment: a gathering of peasants incapable of ruling themselves want a state! Then, anger. How dare you, we’ll teach you a lesson. Then finally, when enough people have died on both sides: all right, you’re not worth the trouble, go your own way.”
Some of the attendees objected to this “optimistic” prediction, and questioned the prospects for nuclear escalation.
For Sikorsky, there is a need to inflict a major defeat on Russia as history proves that it will not implement domestic reforms and will not be satisfied with its lands unless the regime loses all legitimacy following a military defeat from a weaker adversary (Sikorsky is pointing to Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905, which gave rise to massive protests that forced the Cesarean regime to introduce limited reforms that never came into effect).
Proposals for Germany
Sikorsky advises the Germans to disregard the EU reform project by amending the voting system so that countries waive their veto right and each country receives a percentage of votes proportional to their demographic weight. Sikorsky says that he personally agrees with the idea governing the proposed amendment, but he acknowledges that most countries reject it because this project will mean that Germany and France, in case of voting together and if they manage to get the backing of one or two small countries, will impose their opinion and policies on the rest of the members of the EU.
Another strong additional reason for rejection of the reform project is the extremely bad performance of the two countries (i.e. Germany and France) which combined misjudgment, misfortune, and non-respect of European treaties, particularly the Treaty of Lisbon. Germany and France have failed on several occasions, including in the Crimea and Donbas crisis in 2014, where they negotiated with Russia and Ukraine, acting as EU representatives while they did not obtain any mandate and did not even request such a mandate. They acted unilaterally, even though the EU treaties provided for a collective foreign, security and defense policy. Worse, says Sikorsky, they reached an unacceptable formula that was rejected by the two parties, i.e. the Minsk formula, ignoring the views of the only country which, unlike them, is a neighbor of both Russia and Ukraine, namely Poland, as well as the views of those who were even more alarmed by Putin’s trajectory than Poland, the Baltic states. Germany and France’s policy failed miserably, with none of the announced goals being achieved. The only outcome was that Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko became a star of the European diplomatic scene for a while.
Back then, Sikorsky claims, the problem wasn’t personal, it was structural. France and Germany, for the first time in their history, were surrounded exclusively by friends and allies. “Your joint policy towards Ukraine and Russia proved that you did not accommodate our concerns in your calculations. And since your joint policy failed we have no reason to trust your judgment in the future. On the contrary, trust needs to be rebuilt.” Sikorsky said addressing the DGAP.
Sikorsky calls on Germany to rebuild trust and allow EU institutions to carry out the agreed foreign policy and discuss voting reform and not to re-arm on a purely national basis. Sikorsky says that he monitors the great concern of Germany’s allies about a powerful German army, quoting the leader of the ruling party in Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczyński, who said that he doesn’t know whether Germany will re-arm against Russia or Poland. Sikorsky says, “while this may seem to you like an unreasonable hyperbole, I suggest taking it as a warning”, noting that, in Europe, there are many opportunistic politicians who will adopt a similar rhetoric. “Don’t underestimate the fear you will generate when you address the problem in your typically systematic way.” Sikorsky said.
One of the German diplomats commented on Sikorsky’s remarks saying that he noticed, in Paris and the French Senate, there French officials about the likelihood of the emergence of a powerful German military. Sikorsky cited Henry Kissinger who once said of Germany ‘too big for Europe, too small for the world” and the father of Poland’s independence Jozef Piłsudski who said “Russia is a bigger geostrategic problem for Poland than Germany because when Germany becomes too assertive we immediately have allies.”
Sikorsky called on the Germans to fight for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council (as Germany was seeking a permanent seat on the Security Council, along with or in lieu of France). Sikorsky says that changing the goal now will be indicative of Germany’s intentions, saying, “you previously thought that it should be the European Union, which should one day acquire the permanent seat. This is a question about teleology. What is your ultimate objective: a European superpower, or Germany as a superpower? It can’t be both.”
After that, Sikorsky touches on the future role of Poland, hoping that the Europeans will appreciate the gigantic effort that Poland has made in confronting the Russian aggression, with hundreds of thousands of Polish families welcoming over a million Ukrainian refugees into their homes and the Polish government providing public financial assistance and, above all, with arms deliveries. Sikorsky states that Poland has also announced plans to raise its defense budget to 3% of GDP, with planned purchases of tanks, planes, and anti-aircraft batteries. However, Sikorsky did not declare what is known about Poland being on its way to become one of the most powerful NATO armies and its military industry becoming a significant player.
He says that Poland will be truly secure only when Ukraine is whole, free, and European (i.e. an EU member) and that the best thing that Poland could do for Ukraine would be to solve its own issues with the European Union, to return convincingly into compliance with the rule of law, to abide by the judgements of the European Court of Justice and thereby mend its relations with European institutions. This is certainly a criticism of the current Polish rule.
Additionally, Silorsky sees that “Ukraine needs Poland, as an icon of a successful transformation, an example to follow on the road to Brussels and an influential member of all the EU councils.” At another point, he says that the current leadership of Poland must realize that it cannot fight on two fronts, i.e. with Russia and Germany.
He questions the prospects for cooperation between Germany and Poland, despite the anti-German sentiment in the Polish media. He says that the two countries need a joint defense in case Russia deploys a nuclear-capable Iskander missile in the Kaliningrad exclave, which would pose an equal threat to Warsaw and Berlin. What is needed, according to Sikorski, is a system that would combine early warning and tracking radars with anti-missiles placed both near the launch site and around our population centers could be much more effective than a system developed by each country individually.
Sikorsky says that in light of the Russian danger, Poland and Germany should become leaders of the EU’s Defence Union because no one can be sure that next time Russia attacks a neighbor the United States will rally round as decisively as this time or not, adding that the United States might have a different president or it might be otherwise engaged in Asia.
Sikorsky addresses the Germans, saying “the defense of Europe’s eastern flank is a burden that should not be borne only by countries poorer than you. Decades of free-riding on US protection should not be followed by free-riding on Central Europe. If Putin and his methods are a threat to all of Europe then all of Europe should bear the cost of countering him, fairly, in proportion to GDP. We [Poland and European countries] need units drawn not from member states but composed of volunteers from member states, paid for from the EU budget and under the authority of the Foreign Affairs Council.” This, according to Sikorsky, would help deter Putin and avoid the possibility of European militaries scaring one another.”
Clearly, the proposed solution is absolutely unrealistic and was contested by some of the attendees. National European military institutions are firmly committed to national adaptations. Additionally, this proposal overlooks several problems, e.g. Will France’s nuclear deterrent guarantee the safety and security of other countries? Will there be consensus among the European Council members on the decision of war? Why is such a decision in the hands of the Council and not the Parliament? How could European countries agree on the type of armament, i.e. French, German, or American? Who decides the organizational form of these units and their combat doctrine?
Sikorsky suggests that “Poland and Germany work together to help Ukraine transform itself from a beleaguered candidate for EU membership to a desirable member state. Poland, as per Sikorski, can share with Ukraine its experience of being a candidate country, of transforming its laws and institutions in the EU’s image while Germany can help to overcome the reluctance of some net contributor countries to Ukraine’s accession. He says that the high cost of Ukraine’s accession to the EU will be compensated by the advantages Ukraine has, including fertile lands, strong army, and clean generators. Sikorsky states that Poland welcomes Ukraine’s accession to the UN although it will cause the EU average GDP per capita to statistically fall and some of Poland’s regions to cease to qualify for cohesion funds. For Sikorsky, Germany and Poland have a joint interest in our money being spent purposefully and honestly.
He then touches on the energy file and ironically thanks Putin who removed most of the Nord Stream-related issues in the German-Polish relations. He says that the Germans are finally figuring out that the goal of the project was political. Sikorsky suggested several mechanisms to strengthen cooperation in the energy field and called for revisiting attitudes to nuclear power.
An Italian diplomat who attended the lecture said that history shows that there are severe crises that have weakened European unity and others that have strengthened ties and unity and that it is too early to determine the wind direction right now. She added that there are strong indications of closer ties and others that are equally indicative of fragmentation, disintegration, and revival of populist currents that reject unity. With regard to defense policies, we notice the same contradictory trends (especially as regards Germany and France).
Sikorsky concludes his speech stressing the similarities between Germany and Poland, “we are actually more similar than many people think. It’s not just that Poland is catching up in its development and most of our citizens are now middle class. We still believe in making things. There’s no technological barrier between our young people. Our statehoods in their current form, though for very different reasons, are quite young. You were the aggressor, we were the victim, you capitulated, and we were technically on the winning side, but we both lost the Second World War. We both had limited sovereignty after it and both recovered it fully only with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.”
He warns against speeches reviving the grievances, prejudices, and the enmity between peoples of Germany and Poland noting, “we have seen this movie before and we know how it ends. We need a happy end. But for a happy end to happen, a common Europe is the key.”