Ambassador Mark Brzezinski’s Interview with Al Jazeera

14 April 2022

Steve Clemons, Al Jazeera: Okay, as the war in Ukraine turns into a long slog is the window for a diplomatic solution slowly closing? And was there ever even a window. Let’s get to the bottom line The world is coming to the conclusion that the war in Ukraine could go on for a very long time, and now the West is shifting its response from soft power to hard power. When the West launched a financial war against Russia in February, the hope was that Russian leaders and those who love them would feel the pinch and change course away from war, but it’s now obvious that Moscow has enough resources to continue the war effort, and Ukraine is bracing for some intense fighting in its eastern provinces and / or a full nationwide surge. Now the West is shifting its emphasis to supplying Ukraine with more and heavier weapons. At the same time, a Major Donor Conference was just held in Poland to provide humanitarian assistance to the millions of Ukrainians who have fled their homes since the start of the fighting. More than $10 billion was pledged. So what’s next for the Ukraine war and the Western response, especially in next door Poland? And is there any hope for a diplomatic off ramp? Today, we’re talking with Mark Brzezinski, the US Ambassador to Poland, who began his post a few months ago, just as Washington started warning that war between Russia and Ukraine was imminent. Ambassador Brzezinski, it’s such a pleasure to be with you today. Look, I just have to start and ask you: you have a perspective and a perch very near the front line of this conflict, unlike most of us. What are the big parts of this that those watching this show should be aware of right now in this very tense moment?

Ambassador Brzezinski: Steve, thank you for having me. What should one watch in this part of the world, Poland, the frontline state for NATO, with regard to this crisis in Ukraine? Three things: One, Poland has a national policy to take all the refugees coming in from Ukraine, and put them into people’s houses and apartments. Never before has a nation done that, with refugees arriving to its border, and more than two and a half a million Ukrainians have come across the Polish Ukrainian border in the last 30 days, Steve. When I was Ambassador to Sweden, the Swedes were rightfully proud about how they had successfully assimilated 1 million refugees over 20 years. Poland has received two and a half million refugees in 30 days and put them all in people’s homes and apartments. The question though, is what is the capacity maximum, as it pertains to that? How many more refugees can Poland take? Two, what happens next in terms of the security crisis? The Poles have not been directly attacked by Russia, but missiles have landed very close to Poland’s border. In fact, when President Biden was visiting Poland, two and a half weeks ago, the Russian military lobbed missiles into the Lviv, Ukraine, not that far from the Polish border. What’s next, as it pertains to Poland, security? And then last, unity, European unity, transatlantic unity, global unity as it pertains to this crisis? Most important question is, given that this is not just a Polish problem, and that it is good for others to join Poland in helping carry this burden and solve this problem: to what degree can NATO unity, EU unity, transatlantic unity, last and be generated into a unity of purpose to come up with solutions? Because it doesn’t look like Putin’s leaving Ukraine anytime soon, unfortunately.

Steve Clemons, Al Jazeera: Ambassador, recently several senior Polish government officials told me that they were planning for a future for their nation that looks something like Pakistan, seeing themselves as Pakistan to what Afghanistan was, you know, supplying an insurgency, helping to support an insurgency inside Ukraine. Now, we have to (unclear) told to me a couple of weeks ago. There was this sense that perhaps President Zelensky’s efforts would falter, and we have a different picture today. But Poland was already steeling itself for a unique role in the ongoing long terms of this conflict. And I’m interested in whether they discuss that with you and what the implications are, from a NATO perspective, if we have a NATO ally nation that is going to continue to be directly involved with funneling and funding and supporting an insurgency?

Ambassador Brzezinski: Well, Steve, that’s a great question. But it’s important to remember that Poland was steeling itself for this crisis in Ukraine, because it was the US intelligence community that got it right. And got it right well before the outbreak of the conflict. Months before Putin attacked Ukraine, intelligence officials, including our Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, was coming to the Poles and saying, “these are what the defensive and offensive structures of Russian military are, and this is how Russia’s political elite intends to use them. You need to be prepared.” And so in conjunction with the Polish government, the US Embassy here, began to work very closely on the eight border crossings in between Ukraine and Poland, Medyka, Korczowa, to make sure that, first of all, we could guarantee US citizen evacuations out of Ukraine, but then second to begin to develop capacity for a mass influx of refugees. And so what is going to be happening here? Well, the Ukrainian refugees in Poland have come to Poland because they want to remain close to Ukraine. Many of them are not going on from Poland, to Germany, to France, to Spain. The languages are similar, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian languages, those are all Slavic languages. So Ukrainian language and polish languages are similar, the food is similar, and the Ukrainians want to stay close to Ukraine, in the hope and the prayer that the Russians do leave, and they can get back to Ukraine to rebuild their lives. So they are here for refuge. But the Polish role in the future, hopefully will be one of rebuilding a post Putin invasion Ukraine if the Ukrainians are able to kick the Russians out. But as it has been suggested, that may be a long term thing.

Steve Clemons, Al Jazeera: The Poles as well as the Lithuanians, Latvians, and the Estonians, were among the quickest to align with those US intelligence findings that this war was going to happen at least, but a lot of other Western allies saw America as a bit trigger happy, as a bit paranoid. And there was definite dissension within Europe about what might be coming. Now, the story may be different today. But it’s hard to miss the news. The spat right now between the President of Poland (sic, should be Prime Minister) and the President of France. One calling the other a far-right anti Semite. The other saying, “Hey, you’re negotiating with Pol Pot and Hitler and Stalin. It’s the equivalent of Macron negotiating with Vladimir Putin.” And we’ve also just seen tension, as we saw with France, being recalled from the United States, you know, being represented the United States, just last October (unclear?) I guess my question to you is, how much of this is surface noise? And what are the real character of the European relationship in a NATO relationship from your perspective?

Ambassador Brzezinski: Well, that’s an interesting question, because four months ago, when I was in Ambassador school, Steve, back in Northern Virginia, I was being told by many of my colleagues, that we’re not going to be able to work with this center-right government, that this is going to be a difficult process of developing alignments. And what I have found, actually, is that this crisis has produced alignments on security, and also on democracy and values and the economy that are important in terms of the American Polish relationship. In other words, just like dialectical behavioral theory, where several things can be true at once, we’ve been very clear with the Poles that we stand four square with you on your security. And so Steve, we have now 10,500 US troops in Poland, all on Polish bases. We have Patriot missiles, staged to protect Poland. And our President has been clear that we will protect every square inch of Polish territory as it’s a member of NATO. So we stand four square with the Poles on security, but we also need to see absolute commitment to democracy, to values. And, to their credit, the Duda government has produced some forward positive motion when it comes to renewing the licenses of Discovery TVN when it comes to vetoing what had been called Lex TVN, which was going to take away the license of one of the private TV stations here, and to vetoing the education bill, because we, among many others, were alarmed about its contents. And so those are ways that these, so to speak different areas security, democracy, values, equality, are interdependent with each other. And we’ve been able to create a strategic realignment with this PiS government that I think some didn’t expect. Europe has its own relationship with Poland as well. And I think Europe is also working to develop a renewed and improved relationship, given the crisis. But there are differing interests, as we can see between the French and the Poles as well.

Steve Clemons, Al Jazeera: That’s a hugely interesting point, Ambassador, and it’s one that Francis Fukuyama in an interview I did with him just two weeks ago raised. He said, “Look, there’s a whole generation of Americans that don’t remember the Cold War. You and I, Mark, remember the Cold War. You had a dad that was very much part of the Cold War.

Ambassador Brzezinski: True.

Steve Clemons, Al Jazeera: … and you remember what living on a knife edge is. You remember about the importance of nuclear diplomacy, and, you know, nuclear strategy at that time between the great powers. But he said there’s a whole generation that doesn’t remember that time, and maybe by seeing President Zelensky and these valiant Ukrainians defending and fighting for their sovereignty, their human rights, their democracy, that this is something that will make it more palpable. And what you’re saying to me is, maybe that’s having an effect inside Poland as well. Is that what I’m hearing?

Ambassador Brzezinski: Well it’s an incredible point that you’re making Steve, because in many ways, for young Poles, this is 1939. This is, again, a foreign invader coming into Central Europe, and doing cruel things. Poland is a land that has been victimized over history and over the centuries, and the world’s greatest crimes have been committed on its land – like the Holocaust. And so you see especially young people organizing through their iPhones, through social media. They are the ones who are getting into their cars, Steve, and driving to the border and meeting said Ukrainian family at 11:54 pm on the Medyka border crossing, about a quarter mile into Polish territory to take them to an AirBNB apartment that’s been rented for them in Bydgoszcz, or in Poznan, or in Gdansk or in Szczecin. So there is a young person’s phenomenon here, that is very important in terms of the national identity. They want to be able to say that they did something, and that they were catalytic during an invasion. It is an absolutely fascinating sense of historical direction that one gets here when one sees what is happening. I will also say this, that people are anxious and uncertain here. But they would be infinitely Steve, more anxious and more uncertain if Poland was not a member of NATO. So you invoked my late father, and I just came out of a meeting here at the US embassy with President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who was one of Poland’s post-communist presidents. My late father and Aleksander Kwasniewski worked assiduously to bring Poland into NATO. I very much believe that the sense of certainty and security that NATO membership gives Poles allows them to do things that they otherwise might not do, if they weren’t members of NATO. I think that that’s an important point to make when it comes to NATO membership. And we see now other countries seeking NATO membership, the Finns and possibly even Sweden. Who would have thunk it? but that’s very much in the air.

Steve Clemons, Al Jazeera: Well, this raises the interesting question of Ukrainian membership in NATO. And, of course, you know, NATO basically welcomed its application in 2008. There is a memo out there that was done by an ambassador to Moscow, US Ambassador to Moscow, Bill Burns, now director of the CIA, who said that the Russians would be neuralgic about this issue. And that seems to come to pass. But it raises the interesting question of Ukraine’s future and now a presumption that a lot of folks have and we’ve even heard it from President Zelensky, that Ukraine’s future must be one of neutrality. Do you support that? Do you think that’s smart given what you just shared about Poland’s security, about how Polish people feel about their security.

Ambassador Brzezinski: Well, you know, Steve Polish membership in NATO, first and foremost was a decision by the Polish people. They wanted to be locked into what we, Steve, know as the overlay that defines Europe, the overlay of NATO and the EU. And so the Poles voted to join those organizations. And thankfully, the other countries that are members of those organizations, voted them in too, and the result is a country on the border of the Ukraine crisis that has not become destabilized by the arrival of almost 3 million refugees in 30 days. And quite frankly, Steve, it wouldn’t have been impossible for the Poles, who have built a successful positive growth economy – except for one year, COVID year – over the last 30 years. It wouldn’t have been impossible for the country to say to arriving Ukrainian refugees: “We feel your pain; we see what you’re going through; and we can’t have you here, because we’ve just rebuilt our country and we need to protect it. They did exactly the opposite. I’m here in Warsaw, Poland, where there are 400,000 Ukrainian refugees, some staying at the stadium, across the river here (sic; services are provided at the stadium, but there aren’t actually refugees staying at the stadium), others in people’s homes. 10% of the population of Warsaw is now Ukrainian refugees; 10% of Poland’s population is recent arrivals from Ukraine; it’s an amazing story. And again, the country is under no threat of becoming destabilized. And when you consider the economic motor train for Central Europe, that Poland is, if this country did become destabilized, it would collaterally affect about 14 countries in the region immediately. And thankfully, due to NATO membership and EU membership, there’s a Super Regional web that gives the country certainty that it wouldn’t have if it wasn’t part of those organizations.

Steve Clemons, Al Jazeera: I want to tell our audience that Mark Brzezinski was not only an ambassador to Sweden; he directed Arctic Affairs at one point. You were you were director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Security Council. You’ve been watching Vladimir Putin and those around him for a very long time. You have insights that most of us don’t. I have this foreboding sense of what may yet come. You know, we’ve just seen the appointment of Russian General Alexander Dvornikov, the so-called Butcher of Syria, Butcher of Aleppo, who is going to be now responsible for this war in Ukraine. President Zelensky has been saying the worst may be yet to come; he needs more. I guess my question is: when America watches this nightmare, which is already bad enough, further unfold, what is going on? Both what can we do more? And then secondly, what’s going around in Putin land? I mean, what are some of the people around him saying and doing? I mean, that’s something that none of us have as much purview into as you might.

Ambassador Brzezinski: Sure. Well, I was working, Steve, on the National Security Council, when the question emerged early one morning, who was Vladimir Putin? Because he had arrived in Moscow from St. Petersburg, plucked by then President Boris Yeltsin, to be his Prime Minister. He literally came out of nowhere, came out of the KGB. And there was very little known about this man, who was then immediately identified as the successor for Boris Yeltsin, being groomed by Boris Yeltsin in order to cover for Boris Yeltsin and his family and the criminal allegations that were being made against members of Boris Yeltsin’s family, not just in Russia, but in Western Europe and so forth. And to provide the Yeltsin family that kind of cover. And one of the first things Vladimir Putin was assigned by President Yeltsin was the pacification program the Russians undertook in the North Caucasus in Chechnya, which was cruel and brutal. So what am I worried about? I’m worried about a repeat of that pacification program in Ukraine. What is it that we can do, Steve? We can supply, and we can sanction, and we can support. We can supply the Ukrainian fighters – and what fighters they are showing the world they are. These people who are literally coming out of their day jobs, many of whom haven’t been in the military for a while, are protecting their homeland with guts. And with support from the West. It is important that we continue to do that. Second, sanction. Sanctions take a while, Steve, to have an effect. But I’m proud I work for a government that has sanctioned almost 400 entities and individuals, all close into Putin, to levy the pressure on those who benefit from Putin’s regime, and who in turn, we hope will pressure Putin to stop what he’s doing, because it is ruining their lives and that of their families. And then lastly, developing a global support system to either take in Ukrainian refugees who are leaving or to support the humanitarian crisis. I’m so pleased that today here in Warsaw, David Malpass, the President of the World Bank is here to talk very practically and tangibly about what the Bank and the global community can do for this part of the world and the people who have experienced upheaval here.

Steve Clemons, Al Jazeera: That’s such important news about the World Bank. I didn’t know that and I appreciate you sharing it. We also are interested in justice and what comes, if there is an after, what that after looks like. And it occurs to me the United States is not a member of the International Criminal Court. How do we participate legitimately, actively in the assignment of accountability in a phase in the future? Because the President and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have said that Russians have committed war crimes. So what is our role in that process, given our lack of standing in the ICC.

Ambassador Brzezinski: Well, they have said that, and I think the first thing is to develop a support system and an infrastructure to support the investigation of what has happened. And I agree with my president, and my secretary of state that it looks very much like war crimes have been done. And evidence needs to be gathered to prosecute those war crimes. We saw that successfully done out of the Balkans wars in the late 1990s. And I am certain we’re going to see that done as this conflict moves forward, and hopefully one day concludes. We live at a time when it’s more easy than ever before, to forensicly bear witness and forensicly collect evidence on what has happened. And first and foremost, you can see that from all the video footage that is coming out of Bucha and other cities that have been victimized. And Secretary Blinken has stood up a section in the State Department to provide materiel and leadership as it pertains to supporting the investigation of war crimes. And I think that that’s an important first step.

Steve Clemons, Al Jazeera: Yeah, we have a situation, Mark, where there are some states in Europe that are aligned with us, but nonetheless, remain highly dependent on Russian coal, on Russia gas. Poland is one of these; it’s an importer. Just very quickly, how do we manage our equities with a nation at war? How do we not become the funders of Russia’s ongoing war efforts?

Ambassador Brzezinski: Sure. Energy is one of those industries that is being completely disrupted by the crisis in Ukraine. It’s just a fact that Poland had to wean itself away from Russian energy sources. And Poland had to wean itself away from coal. And the Ukraine crisis is just giving greater intensity to that progress that Poland is making on that. And today alone, I was meeting with executives from GE, and other companies that are helping through their technology, Poland participate in changing its energy sources, but clearly the crisis mandates more quick progress as it pertains to that, but part of that is a Polish decision. There’s just a tremendous amount of spending, Steve, going on in Poland right now, to support the refugees, to buy American military equipment, like the Abrams tanks, (…) the F 35. You know, and other systems, HIMARS, to the tune of billions of dollars. There is a weapons purchase list, like I have never seen in my professional life coming out of Poland to purchase American military equipment in order to mesh Poland more closely with the Americans. And it’s the same thing on the energy side. Energy is an industry but it’s also part and parcel of a country’s security and American technology, nuclear technology, renewable technology is going to be part and parcel of the of the answer, as the country weans itself away from coal and from any Russian sources of energy.

Steve Clemons, Al Jazeera: Let me just ask you finally, Ambassador, I really appreciate your time. I recently met with the Polish Ambassador to the United States who made the point that there was not a single refugee camp for Ukrainian refugees in Poland, that as you said, they’ve been brought into homes into apartments. We’re talking millions of people absorbed into the private life there. President Biden has talked about potentially opening up the United States to refugees from Ukraine, up to 100,000 or so which means your embassy, your consular function will likely become the frontline of that effort. How open is America going to be? Are we going to be able to be part of that cushion and support for Ukrainian refugees here in the United States? And is your team going to process them?

Ambassador Brzezinski: It’s a great question because consular services and processing has moved from Ukraine, from US Embassy Kyiv, which continues to operate but out of Poland. And one hasn’t seen lines in front of the US Embassy, Warsaw, waiting for visas for a while, and now you see them again. I think the most important point, Steve, though, is that as the Poles take in millions of refugees into their homes, that the Poles here clearly … basically two lines that I always say to the Poles when I’m on Polish Television, and that is “Polska jest bezpieczna” – Poland is safe. And “Polska jest bezpieczona” -Poland is secure. And Poland is safe and secure, because America stands with it. And America will fight for every square inch of Polish soil because it is a member of NATO. I am grateful to President Biden, to Vice President Harris, to Secretary Blinken, Secretary Austin and the top US officials who have been here in Poland in the last five weeks. That is a lot of VVIPs coming through and saying the same message. And every time they said it, it wasn’t less important. The Poles need to get that kind of reassurance as they do that heavy lift. And it was important when President Biden was here. He quoted the famous Polish General Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Polish general who came to America during the Revolutionary War 200 plus years ago, and fought for American freedom, and was famous for saying the “Za Wasza Wolnosc i Nasza” – for your freedom and ours. More than ever, as the Poles do this lift and spend their own money to carry this burden, they need to hear that from the United States of America.

Steve Clemons, Al Jazeera: Wow, powerful. We could have this conversation for hours. But I know we don’t have that time. But I just want to thank my good friend, US Ambassador to Poland. Mark Brzezinski. Thank you so much for your candor, and for you being with us today.

Ambassador Brzezinski: Thank you, Steve. Thank you for having me.