Why is Biden’s visit to Ukraine and Poland the most important event of the past few centuries? Will Belarus join the anti-Putin coalition? Will the U.S. save Russia and will Lukashenka wear a vyshyvanka (ed. – embroidered shirt in Ukrainian and Belarusian national costumes)? Do Belarusians have a chance at avoiding significant bloodshed? Reform.by journalist Aliaksandr Atroshchanka discussed this and much more with Polish politician Pavel Koval.
Pavel Koval is a Polish politician, historian, and publicist with a PhD in Humanities and former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland and Member of European Parliament. He currently serves as a Member of the Polish Sejm and Vice-Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Sejm.
— The most important international event of the last few days has been Biden’s visit to Kyiv and Warsaw. What do you think of his speeches?
— His speeches are a summary of a year during which an anti-Putin coalition was formed, which included the European Union, the U.S., and all the largest Western countries. Biden succeeded in mobilizing Germany and other countries. If the inclusion of the UK was natural, the inclusion of Italy, for example, in the coalition was a significant achievement. About 50 countries have joined the coalition and its position has the support of most UN member states. Moreover, Biden talks about creating a center of power in Central Europe, which would lean on Poland and Ukraine and affect Belarus, while remaining open for Moldova. In my opinion, the presence of Georgia and the Western Balkans is also hinted at in this future community. We are talking about the next stage of Europe’s reconstruction after the end of the Cold War. This requires a formal opening of doors to NATO and the European Union. If all these elements come together, it will be possible to speak of the strategic success of Biden’s policy. But we can already say that the past year of intensive political and diplomatic work has had a huge effect. I believe that in terms of content and political message, these two visits and his addresses are probably the most important events of the past few centuries.
— Yes, centuries. Because now it was not a question of opening the door to NATO for Poland or another country, but that there is already a ready political center here, to which Belarus, Moldova – I would add Georgia and Western Balkans – should be connected and to show that Europe is able to defeat Russian imperialism. I believe that after Biden’s visit we are very close to what could be called a historic turning point in defeating Russian imperialism.
— Is it possible to compare the content of Biden’s speeches with Putin’s address?
— It doesn’t matter what Putin said. You see, Biden is standing on the bank of Dnieper, Biden is in war-torn Ukraine. After that, he did not have to say anything. This is such a powerful visual and political signal that it is enough for Putin to understand that he has nothing to gain in Central Europe. In addition, Biden spoke at the foot of the Royal Palace in Warsaw, where he addressed people as if he were addressing the parliamentary assembly of the First Rzeczpospolita. He was not talking only to Poles. He addressed Poles, Ukrainians, and other peoples. This was something qualitatively new. A new concept of an address, a powerful political program, which is at the same time a call to each addressee. A call for Ukraine to win the war and stay on course towards the West. A call for Belarus to put an end to Lukashenka’s rule. I believe that it is a call for Europe as well – to stop recognizing Lukashenka in any form whatsoever. To simply understand and admit that Lukashenka is not independent and only represents Putin’s interests, not the interests of the Belarusian people, and that the Belarusian authorities in exile should be considered a political partner in Belarus. It is also a challenge for the Polish political establishment, because the main condition for participation in this new configuration is that countries should be free and democratic, have a free market, and be attuned to the West.
— I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your article on the need to include Free Belarus in the anti-Putin coalition. As soon as we saw it, we immediately translated it and put it on our website. Can you see how this idea is being implemented?
— It is not an idea. It is a process that is being realized before our eyes. Some people look at it as if it is some kind of fiction, but it is not. The center of power around Tsikhanouskaya is crystallizing. I believe that already this year we will see the transformation of the United Transitional Cabinet into a real government in exile. There is a need for a parliament in exile, and for the Kalinouski regiment fighting on the side of Ukraine to take the oath of office to Tsikhanouskaya as the representative of Belarus. You know, it would be the greatest historical injustice if Belarus ended up in Putin’s camp as a result of this war. Everything should be done so that it would be recorded in history that the real Belarus was on the side of the West and on the side of Ukraine in this war. And this is not a fantasy, but a political reality. If free elections were held in Belarus today, Lukashenka would not win them. He is taking Belarusians to war. He is trying to drag probably the most peaceful people in Europe into the war. He still hasn’t gone to war because he knows Belarusians do not want this. Belarus is completely different from Russia. In 2020-2021, Belarusians showed the Russians that they are completely different, that there is a wall between them. What is happening today is a consequence solely of Lukashenka’s policy and his fear. He fears for his life, for his family, for their money – like every person obsessed with power.
— When I talk to people about this, the most frequent counterargument I hear in response is how could this be done formally? What is an anti-Putin coalition in general and what should it look like? In general, wouldn’t it look ridiculous if the leaders of the countries gather in Ramstein and Biden says, “We’ll give 50 F-16s,” Scholz says, “We’ll give 50 Leopards,” Duda says, “200 T-72s and a demining team…”
— And Belarus presents the Kalinouski Regiment.
— But at the moment there is no mutual understanding between Tsikhanouskaya and the Kalinouski Regiment…
— This is what politics is all about: showing a possibility and then implementing it. That’s not happening today. But it could be like this in a year or six months. It depends on the political will of the decision-makers, of the West. Obviously, it will not happen today or tomorrow. But, for example, at the level of the Polish Parliament, I do everything in my work to show who the reference points are for me. For me the reference points are Tsikhanouskaya, Latushka, and the representative for defense and national security in the transitional cabinet Valery Sakhashchyk. Tsikhanouskaya must be recognized step by step, increasing her legitimacy. Other parliamentarians in different countries are doing the same thing as me. The time will come when governments will do the same. It is a process. We have to understand why we are doing this and in which direction we are moving. And to understand this, we have to ask ourselves one simple question: Does maintaining the connection to Lukashenka give anything to anyone? 1,500 people recognized as political prisoners alone are in jail, the Polish minority is completely defeated, and Lukashenka is purposefully destroying cultural and historical treasures and cemeteries. This is the behavior of a hooligan. What else does he have to do so we reach the understanding that no relations with him make any sense? Belarus should become a decision-maker through recognition, should become part of the Lublin triangle, and take part in the Intermarium and anti-Putin coalition. All this is possible, of course, if we are talking about a free Belarus, not Lukashenka.
— But so far not a single country has recognized Tsikhanouskaya as the president of Belarus. There is the Lithuanian diplomatic status…
— If we compare today’s situation with that of a year ago, it is better. Tsikhanouskaya is accepted by important and key politicians, who address her as “Madam President.” The fact that this did not happen before is the fault of Tsikhanouskaya herself, who was embarrassed by this role. But this is the reality. Her role is to represent Belarus as part of the West, because Lukashenka won’t do that. She has to delegitimize him before he openly goes to war, to leave him out of the game.
— Will Ukraine be ready for this? Zelenskiy is the only President of a neighboring country to Belarus, other than Russia, who has yet to meet with Tsikhanouskaya…
— I believe this is Zelenskiy’s mistake. Perhaps he harbors some illusion that it is possible to come to an agreement with Lukashenka. I do not agree with this, but I understand the nature of this illusion. Ukraine is fighting a war and has the right to its own politics. They may think that Lukashenka can be some kind of guarantor and will not let Russian troops through. The problem is that these illusions are no longer relevant. All of this has already happened andall of Lukashenka’s mistakes and crimes have already been committed.
— Maybe the Ukrainian leadership would prefer to negotiate with Lukashenka himself? He has real power and he has something to offer…
— Obviously this is what Lukashenka would want. The problem is that he cannot negotiate. Because, if he tries to negotiate with Ukraine or the West, Putin will remove him.
— Perhaps he will try to do so if Russia is defeated or weakened. I am sure that in such case he will put on a vyshyvanka, wave the Ukrainian flag, and explain how he secretly disrupted Russian aggression.
— There is such a risk. And it is clear that he will play the hero of the resistance. And it would be a challenge for Western diplomacy to show and explain what he was really doing. Their role is to document that it was he who threw almost all Western diplomats out of Belarus, let Russian troops into the country, allowed them to attack Ukraine, and that in terms of international law he is a participant in this war on the side of Putin.
— You wrote a lot about Wojciech Jaruzelski. Is it possible to compare Lukashenka with this politician?
— I tried to compare them at one time. Now such a comparison would be inappropriate. Jaruzelski acted with Poland as an independent state and did not move to liquidate that state. He wasn’t a Polish patriot who sought a free Poland, but acted intuitively so as not to increase dependence on Russia. This is the main thing that distinguishes him from Lukashenka. His entire strategy recently has consisted of increasing dependence on Russia. And if to compare Lukashenka with politicians from the martial law period in Poland, I would compare him with more pro-Russian politicians, for example Miroslaw Milewski (a Polish general who, in different periods, headed the Ministry of Interior and the political police and is connected to the abduction and murder of the priest Jerzy Popieluszko – Reform.by) or Stanislaw Kociolek (member of the Polish Communist Party connected to the shooting of striking workers in Polish shipyards in Gdansk in December of 1970, during the period of martial law in Poland and Ambassador of the Polish People’s Republic to the Soviet Union– Reform.by). I associate him more with these people.
— Last week, a document was published which envisages a plan for the takeover of Belarus by Russia by 2030. In many ways it has already been implemented. It is frightening enough. Could Ukraine’s victory change the situation to such an extent that it becomes irrelevant?
— It doesn’t really matter if this document is fake. They have a plan which they are implementing. This is why I say that any reliance on Lukashenka makes no sense. Lukashenka is not sovereign in his actions. There is no point in pretending that Lukashenka is an independent partner who can do anything, for example, in the interests of Ukraine. Lukashenka acts exclusively in the interests of Putin and he must be treated as a minister at Putin’s side and not as a president of an independent country, because he does not behave like a president of an independent country. His leadership has caused Belarus to lose its sovereignty. All that Lukashenka deserves is an ultimatum. Ukraine will win this war. The only question is whether it will win this year. If there are appropriate arms deliveries, it will win this year. If not, the war may drag on. But what will the consequences be for Russia? It will still be able to put pressure on Ukraine in the medium term, it may organize one or two more offensives, but it will weaken. In a year or two or three years, Russia will no longer be able to control Belarus, Central Asia, the Caucasus… It will face internal decentralization, which we have already seen in the Yeltsin era. Many local groups will act and some regions will demand independence. Russia will no longer be the power we are used to. This will give Belarus enormous opportunities. It will be important at this moment to conduct a transition that will meet the ambitions of Belarusian society, so that the plan of the West and democratic forces would be developed at that time, so that the authorities would be ready for it, and so that the administration would be prepared and would be able to look at it with a view to the future.
I don’t know exactly what the end of Lukashenka will look like. Perhaps he, like many dictators, will leave the country letting it be. Maybe he will be killed by his subordinates, or maybe by the Russians or their supporters in Lukashenka’s power. It all depends on how the course of the war unfolds.
— Either way, Ukraine’s victory would greatly strengthen the region militarily and economically. You said that the U.S. also sees Eastern Europe as a new center of power. Are Germany and France ready for this?
— A great opening of the European Union to the East is being prepared. This will mean that it will include a large Ukraine, also, hopefully, Georgia and Moldova, and – after a change – Belarus. Ukraine will change the balance of power in the European Union. It will also mean the change of rules of procedure of European institutions – the European Parliament, the European Commission. It is inevitable in such a considerable enlargement. This process is already under way.
— How does the Giedroyc doctrine fit into the new reality?
— What is happening now is the Giedroyc doctrine in action. It lies in the fact that the independence of Poland is connected with the independence of its eastern neighbors and, above all, with the elimination of Russian imperialism. And this is happening before our eyes. Some regions will secede, major regions will seek greater autonomy, Yakutia and Buryatia will focus on Japan and China, not on Moscow, and integrate into their economic system. This awaits Russia, and we need to prepare for the fact that Russia will be a much smaller country than it is now. In order to understand what the outcome of this war will be, one must exercise one’s imagination and realize that the order of things that may seem natural or ordinary to us today has not always been that way. For example, Belarus was not always Moscow’s satellite. Far from always. On the contrary, for the greater part of its history, it has been the center of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a large state that had a major impact on politics in Central Europe. Georgia and Armenia, too, were not always satellites of Russia, but for a much longer period of their history were under the influence of Byzantium, that is, the heir to ancient Greece. It was from there that many traditions and the culture of winemaking came, as well as traditions of political culture. The forerunner of Ukraine was Ruthenia. Ruthenia appeared much earlier than the creation of the Duchy of Moscow. We all need to change our perspective on the map as well. Because we look at the map and see a huge red spot. The West sees one big Russia. But not everywhere on this territory do Russians live. Buryats, Evenks, Yakuts, Germans, Poles, Jews, Belarusians and many more peoples live there. Russia proper is the territory of the principality of Moscow. This should be put in your head. Then it would be easier to conduct policy and make proper decisions.
— You speak about the decentralization of Russia, but we have seen the previous chapter. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the West saved it. Now we hear many voices saying that if Russia collapses, there will be 50 Kadyrovs with nuclear weapons in its place…
— Fear of Russia’s collapse is an integral part of Western policy. The West is afraid of a nuclear war and the collapse of Russia. The fear is partly understandable, but much of it is far-fetched. Nuclear weapons are very tightly controlled and they will remain so. They remained under control when the Soviet Union collapsed. Moreover, it collapsed and in its place there were many states that possessed nuclear weapons – Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus. This situation was resolved fairly quickly. But you know, we are discussing this now as if we or anyone else could decide whether Russia should collapse or not. Nobody can influence this. The collapse of Russia is going to happen anyway. This is the process that Putin started. It wasn’t Biden who started this process. It wasn’t Biden who attacked Ukraine. It was Putin’s insane decision to attack Ukraine that significantly accelerated the collapse of the Russian Empire. It is as true that empires fall apart as it is that people grow old and die. All empires fall apart. And nothing will change if someone in France says, “Oh, I wish it hadn’t collapsed.” It will fall apart one way or another – regardless of what the French, Germans, Americans or anyone else wants. The British didn’t want the British Empire to crumble either. What difference did it make?
— But attitudes can affect behavior. One can watch an empire collapse, one can watch it collapse with joy, one can overthrow it with “Bush’s hands,” humanitarian aid, and cheap loans…
— I think that in this case the influence of external factors will be much less than internal. There will be a very powerful internal dynamic that can already be seen. If Navalny writes that he recognizes Crimea as part of Ukraine, this is already a change. This means that he foresees some kind of change. Or maybe someone told him to write it. Putin’s advisors and closest associates understand just as well as you or I do what dangerous road he has taken Russia down. Biden also said that the war is not against Russia, but against Putin. And they can stop the war by removing Putin. If this does not happen, then the war will continue and further accelerate the process of Russia’s collapse. This process will not go away in any case.
— So you don’t believe that there will be a “Chicken Kyiv 2”?
— Tactically, many things could happen. Tragedies could occur in Belarus, Moldova’s problems could escalate, and in the event of political change in Georgia, that country could come under renewed attack. On this scale, there could be some initiative from the West along the lines of “Save Russia!” Strategically, this would not change anything. Here, you say, “Chicken Kyiv…” This speech was made by George Bush Sr. in Kyiv on August 1, 1991… (23 days later Ukraine declared independence and in December of the same year the Soviet Union ceased to exist – Reform.by).
Russia’s attacks on new states may take place, but they will no longer strengthen Russia. Could Russia use nuclear weapons? Probably, it can. But will it make it stronger? Rather, it would weaken it. Putin has already made a fatal mistake.
— How do you see our region in 20 years?
— Our region will be a very important partner of the West in all respects: in terms of the political system, independent courts, and democracy. There will be serious progress in all of these areas. It will be a strategic partner. Our region will be one of the most heavily armed. As a result of this war, the Ukrainian army will be very well trained and it will have a lot of military equipment and ammunition . The same can be said about Poland. Our region will be one of the most powerful centers of NATO and the West in general. By that time the challenge will be China, not Russia.
Belarus will be a part of the West, along with Poland and Ukraine. After the 2020-2021 protests this became obvious. Yes, Belarusians did not cross the line and did not break through the power line of the revolution. And this is also one of the reasons why the Ukrainian leadership is cautious about Tsikhanouskaya. I think the peculiarities of the political culture of different countries need to be considered. Maybe Belarus can achieve change without bloodshed. But maybe there is something like a curse of revolutions. We know about the French Revolution, the revolutions and uprisings in Poland, the Ukrainian Revolution… In many cases, revolutionaries are forced to cross the hurdle of life to achieve freedom and independence. We do not know how it will be in the case of Belarus. But in any case, we can say that a lot has changed in Belarus over the past few years. Belarusians have realized that they are a separate people. This is a very unique situation. Over these years, Belarus has essentially lost its statehood, but Belarusians have gained a very clear full-fledged national identity. Moreover, the more national consciousness of Belarusians has grown as the Belarusian state as we know it after 1991 melted away.
The article can be read in Russian on Reform.by