Ambassador Mark Brzezinski’s Interview with Here & Now

5 April 2022

Peter O’Dowd, Here & Now: The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, addressed the UN Security Council through an interpreter today as more evidence emerges of war crimes in Ukraine. Zelensky compared the Russian military to the Islamic State and described in detail how Russian troops tortured and murdered civilians. Before we play that tape–a warning, what you’re about to hear is disturbing. 

AUDIO RECORDING REPLAY: They cut off limbs, cut their throats, slashed their throats, women were raped and killed in front of their children, their tongues were pulled out only because the oppressor did not hear what they wanted to hear from them.  

Peter O’Dowd, Here & Now: President Biden is among the world leaders calling for a war crimes investigation as is the leader of Poland. Mark Brzezinski is the U.S. Ambassador to Poland and he joins us now from Warsaw. Mr. Ambassador, welcome. 

Ambassador Mark Brzezinski: Thank you, Peter. Thank you for having me on today. 

Peter O’Dowd, Here & Now:  So the President has called Vladimir Putin a war criminal. Now how will the U.S. government hold him accountable? 

Ambassador Mark Brzezinski: The U.S. government is already putting in place the processes and people that are required to investigate war crimes. The President has borne witness to what we’ve all seen, which is horrific atrocities coming out of videos and images in Ukraine. I’m here in Warsaw, Poland, speaking to you, and I can tell you that 10% of this city’s population today is Ukrainian. And three weeks ago, it wasn’t. Because of people who fled here fearing for their lives because of exactly what is happening in Ukraine today, being perpetrated by Russian soldiers in the name of Vladimir Putin. 

Peter O’Dowd, Here & Now: Vladimir Putin wouldn’t face charges unless he’s arrested and in custody. Do you think that’s even possible?  

Ambassador Mark Brzezinski: I don’t know. I think that it’s up to the Russian people to decide to do what they will do, ultimately, with Vladimir Putin. I simply cannot believe that young people in Russia think that what he’s doing is in their best interest. Young people in Russia want to be connected to the world. They want to travel, do business, be educated, in connection with the world. All that is being blocked because of the crimes being perpetrated by Vladimir Putin. And so we will see what happens. We’re focusing on the here and now, Peter, in terms of supporting the refugees that have come here. I’m proud to be ambassador to a country that has as its national policy. I repeat Poland has as its national policy, the taking in of Ukrainian refugees into their homes and showing moral righteousness against the moral weakness of Vladimir Putin.  

Peter O’Dowd, Here & Now: Europe appears to be ready to escalate sanctions, including a potential ban on Russian coal. The Polish Prime Minister has said that Germany is a roadblock to even tougher sanctions because it needs Russian energy. Do you agree with that? Does Germany need to be more aggressive? 

Ambassador Mark Brzezinski: Poland has been stalwart in generating unity in Europe, on the toughest of sanctions and it’s something that we’ve been supporting as well. And so I think calling out those who are not participating in really isolating and alienating Russia is something that the Poles are doing. I think it’s an important part of the process to bring penalties to Russia for what Vladimir Putin is doing. And we’ll see if it works. But the the sanctions have become more and more severe over time. And you have to remember, Peter, sanctions take time to have an effect. It’s not immediate in terms of its  impact on those closest to Vladimir Putin, the big businessmen and the oligarchs, as well as Russian people who will turn against their leader as they are increasingly affected by sanctions that are put in place because of Putin’s actions.  

Peter O’Dowd, Here & Now: Right now, the sanctions were just to be limited at coal. That is not a very big bite out of the Russian economy. So do you think that Europe would find the political will, with Germany’s help, to approve a ban not just on coal, but also on Russian oil and Russian gas? 

Ambassador Mark Brzezinski: Possibly. The conversation in this country, in Poland, is how can we completely sever any energy connection with Russia. And that is a whole scale systemic change. That costs a heck of a lot of money to transform an entire energy economy. And yet it’s happening. So if it can happen here, it can happen elsewhere in Europe as well.  

Peter O’Dowd, Here & Now: In light of these alleged war crimes, are the United States and Poland still looking for a way to get Polish MIG fighter jets to Ukraine? Is there any new urgency on that front?  

Ambassador Mark Brzezinski: There’s urgency in supporting the humanitarian needs of people who have been displaced in Ukraine, including those who have arrived here in Poland, as well as those who remain in Ukraine. There’s over a million internally displaced people in L’viv alone. 

Peter O’Dowd, Here & Now: You’re saying that the jets are off the table, though, you’re focusing on the humanitarian.  

Ambassador Mark Brzezinski: Well, no, I think that we’re focusing on both lethal and non-lethal aid. But the jets, the MIGs were never seen as something that would reshape the map of the battlefield, according to assessments by the DOD. And the intelligence community assessed it to be perceived as escalatory to a degree that would not impact positively what the U.S. and Poland are doing together to help the Ukrainian people. 

Peter O’Dowd, Here & Now: Before I let you go, Ambassador, early in this war, we were closely watching the crisis on the Polish border, as you’ve mentioned. What are the conditions like with the refugees flowing over the border? Are they still coming and what are the conditions like for them? 

Ambassador Mark Brzezinski: So let me report to you, Peter, that the millions of refugees that have poured across the border have now been assimilated across the country into the various cities and towns in the interior of Poland, into people’s homes and apartments. The processing centers and the refugee centers are relatively empty in comparison to what they were like two weeks ago, but there’s also a big wave of refugees that are internally displaced in Ukraine that are holed up around L’viv waiting to decide what to do next. Coming across the border into Poland is quite possible if atrocities continue being perpetrated by the Russians in Ukraine. 

Peter O’Dowd, Here & Now: Mark Brzezinski is the U.S. Ambassador to Poland speaking with us today from Warsaw. Ambassador, thank you very much for your time. Thank you, Peter.