Ambassador Mark Brzezinski’s Remarks at Warsaw University

“Global Leadership Lessons from the Ukraine Crisis”

Mickiewicz Aula, University of Warsaw

May 9, 2022


Rector Nowak, Chancellor Grey, Ambassador Schnepf —thank you so very much for hosting me today. I am so honored to be here, at the University of Warsaw, in Poland, now at this time. I’ve been looking forward to my visit here since I arrived in Warsaw in January to begin my mission as President Biden’s personal representative to Poland.

Before I say another word, let me say this: Thank you. Dziekuje!

Thank you, Poland for all you are doing to address this crisis in Ukraine. Thank you, Polish young people, for organizing on social media to drive to the border, to pick up a family, and to take care of them. You are our heroes!

Every year TIME Magazine announces a person of the year. This year my hope is that the person of the year is a split screen: Half is of the Ukrainian fighter and the “fighter in Chief” President Zelenski, and the other half is the Polish young person organizing on social and going to the border to help someone, but also introducing to the world a whole new national example of how to greet and take care of refugees. Thanks to all who have helped, Poland is seen as a humanitarian superpower. I am proud to be a US ambassador to a humanitarian superpower.

Thirty years ago, I was a Fulbright Scholar here at the University of Warsaw. I was writing about the struggle for constitutionalism in post-communist Poland, about the collision between law and power. I remember sitting in the little library at the Widzial Prawa Administracje. I wrote a book on the topicof the supremacy of law over power and spent time at the Trybunal Konstytutjne. I had a chance to write this book as constitutionalizing was taking root in Poland, with respect for enduring constitutional arrangement being a central test of the effective operation and growth of liberal democracy. I taught a class on American politics here. I learned just as much from the students as they did from me.

I studied Polish language primarily by making my own course: I hung a sign at the gates of the University of Warsaw, that said “I am an American and I want to learn Polish: I will speak with you for a half hour in English if you speak with me for a half hour in Polish.” I had these tear things at the bottom with my phone number. My phone did not stop ringing, and I had such a good time with these wymiany’s. I remember medical student for example, Agniezka Lis. I do not know where she went on to, but such great exchanges with her and with others as I struggled to learn this difficult language…

Now, some thirty years later, I’m back! There are four generations of leaders in this room. Some of you may just be starting your academic or professional journey and are new to this campus, as I was back in 1992.

Some of you were driving forces behind some of the pivotal moments in Polish-American relations over the past several decades.

But I’m sure we all share one thing in common. We all are trying to process and reflect on the complex situation we have in our world today. Vladimir Putin has brought conflict and upheaval back to Europe.

For two and-a-half months, he has waged an unjust war against the innocent Ukrainian people. People who just want to live their lives in peace.

There has been darkness. Anxiety. Despair. Confusion. Sadness. Anger. But through all this, we have also seen hope. We have seen resolve. And we have seen a West united like never before.

We are working together as one. Standing together with the people of Ukraine, who are bravely fighting not just for their freedom and their lives—but for the ideals that unite peace-loving people around the world—whether in Warsaw or Washington, Mariupol or Munich, Lviv or London, Odessa or Ottawa. America is doing its part. President Biden has just submitted to Congress a request of $33 billion to assist in the struggle in Ukraine.

These past few months have also shone a light on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose leadership has inspired not just his own people, but those around the world.

What makes someone a good leader? A person people want to follow and whom people want to see succeed and help succeed?

Vladmir Putin would have us believe that leadership is conveyed through fear and lies and brutality. Steel-eyed gazes; projections of authority and intimidation; and unimpeachable directives demanding blind loyalty and obedience.

Jailing, killing, or otherwise silencing the many citizens who don’t wish to follow. Rather than inspiring people to want to follow him, most of the world condemns Putin as a war criminal.

Empathy, openness, and the ability to listen to and compromise with those with different opinions is a better approach. The 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, said that figuring out how to empower the people around you to help them succeed is one of his keys to leadership.

And a study conducted by Gallup, an American analytics company, found that trust, compassion, stability, and hope are qualities that employees admire the most in their leaders.

While citizens aren’t employees of a country – indeed, the reverse is true – this is relevant because these are the traits that inspire us and bring out the best in the people around us.

These same traits are why the citizens of Ukraine have rallied behind President Zelensky; it’s why the world admires him. He has stood his ground and has exuded strength, compassion, stability, and a resolve that has reverberated around the globe.

Putin, and many international observers, may have assumed that once the invasion began, President Zelenskyy would move quickly to evacuate himself and his family to govern in exile from another country.

But when concerns for his safety were raised, Zelenskyy is widely reported to have responded by saying, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”

With this decision to stay, Zelenskyy faced legitimate threats to his life. “The enemy has marked me as target No. 1. My family is target No. 2,” he said to world leaders early in the war. By remaining in the capital in Kyiv, he rallied a nation with his steady hand.

He has become an international symbol of Ukrainian unity. He has also shown courage in sharing the facts as they are, not as we want them to be.

Bret Stephens, a columnist at the New York Times, wrote “Zelenskyy has made a point of telling Ukrainians the hard truth — and of telling off supposed well-wishers that their words are hollow and their support wanting. Our leaders mainly specialize in telling people what they want to hear.”

Zelenskyy, on the other hand, tells people what they need to hear, he tells it like it is. These honest messages are shared around the globe on social media.

He has redefined how nations respond to conflict. The ammunition of President Zelenskyy’s information warfare is glibly stating the hard facts.

President Zelenskyy understands what makes people anxious and uncertain; he knows how to convey that.

He addressed the Russian people in their own language. He spoke to the Congress of the United States and the American people–invoking 9/11 and Pearl Harbor so communities thousands of miles away could relate to the atrocities happening in Mariupol and Bucha.

His messages show genuine concern when discussing Ukrainians who have lost children, husbands, wives, parents, and siblings.

This has won the sympathy and support of the world.

And these messages have forced the international community to reckon with pleas Zelenskyy has shared in his videos: “Prove you are with us”.

Through meetings with individual leaders, direct appeals to the EU and UN, addresses to parliaments and the U.S. Congress, and discussions with anyone who will listen, Zelenskyy has forced the world to go further and faster than anyone could have imagined.

Due in no small part to Zelenskyy’s direct pleas, nations around the world have deployed an unprecedented package of sanctions and penalties against Russia, isolating and crippling its economy.

Switzerland has broken from its historical neutrality to support sanctions. Germany has abandoned Nord Stream 2. The EU is moving toward energy independence from Russia. Sweden and Finland are considering joining NATO. As a former US Ambassador to Sweden for four years, that Sweden is considering joining NATO is such a sea change, and so so so great.

While Putin leads through fear, it is Zelenskyy that leads through hope and understanding. People see a patriot, a fighter, a husband, and a father. In this way, he has bridged the gap between leader and citizen.

He is one of them. A Ukrainian citizen standing with his fellow Ukrainians in the fight for freedom. That his wife stands with him speaks volumes, and it was awesome to see our First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, meeting with Ukraine’s First Lady yesterday in Kyiv.

His courage to defend his country and democracy has also earned him a great honor in the United States. Last month he was named a recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award, which is presented to public servants who have made courageous decisions of conscience without regard for the personal or professional consequences.

The global leadership lessons continue with the Mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko. Another unlikely hero. A towering man at 200 cm, or 6 foot 7, he’s a former heavyweight champion and Olympic gold medalist who entered the arena of Ukrainian politics in 2014.

As a professional boxer, he went by the name Doctor Ironfist. His strength and power made him successful, but it was his mental game that made him a champion. At the highest level of the sport, if you win the mental battle, you win the match.

Mayor Klitschko will not back down. He has been seen in the trenches; he is fighting on the frontlines. He’s conducting military drills, handling hand grenades, and he’s been running through underground tunnels.

At the start of the war, he told his people in a video message “I believe in Ukraine, I believe in my country, and I believe in my people,”

And they believe in him. Mayor Klitschko has inspired his fellow Ukrainians to defend their land just like President Zelensky.

And then there’s the courage of Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova. The former finance minister is working on economic stabilization in her country. She is the advocate for her homeland in Washington, DC.

In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Ambassador Markarova said that as a diplomat she too is a soldier in the broader context; she is no different than the Ukrainian forces on the ground.

Ambassador Markarova went on to share her priorities at the Ukrainian embassy, which are three-fold: One, asking for military and defensive support.

Two, rallying for other countries to hold Russia accountable through sanctions. Her third priority is finding other ways to support her people through humanitarian assistance and energy support.

Ambassador Markarova will not give up on her quest to protect Ukraine and democracy; every passing day is a chance to stop the war.

I am also proud of how my country has stood up for Ukraine. The United States has shown exceptional leadership against Russia’s aggression. We have never been more committed and engaged with Poland, our allies and our partners. There is a political imperative in America to support Ukraine and Poland.

President Joe Biden sounded the alarm and started uniting Allies long before a single tank crossed the border, sharing intelligence to convince others of the impending danger. That we were able to share U.S. intelligence thanks to President Biden’s OK, allowed everyone here, Poland, the Baltic states, and others, to get prepared. And the intelligence, which correctly and in a detailed fashion understood the defensive and offensive structures of the Russian military and what the political leaders of Russia intended to do with it, got it exactly right. We were ready.

President Biden and his administration have responded from day one of the war to help bind together the nations of the free world in supplying Ukraine with weapons, ammunition, armor, and intelligence.

President Biden has been steadfast saying that “We will never fail in our determination to defend freedom and oppose tyranny.”

President Biden is a firm believer in face-to-face diplomacy. That’s why he traveled to Poland in March, first to Rzeszow to look East, and then to Warsaw to meet with President Andrzej Duda, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, the Polish people, and refugees from Ukraine.

We have continued to host countless high-level visitors in the past few months; from Vice President Kamala Harris to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and so many others.

They all came here to send a message of unity, to thank Poland for its efforts in supporting refugees from Ukraine. These visits are far from just symbolic; they have the power to change the course of history. They bear witness.

And just last week, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi became the highest-ranking elected official to visit Kyiv, following the visit of Secretaries Austin and Blinken the week prior.

Secretary Blinken said it was important for them to be there to have conversations in-person. To tell President Zelenskyy face-to-face that the United States intended to resume diplomatic operations in Ukraine and that new military aid was on the way.

At every step, the United States has given our Ukrainian partners what they’ve needed to defend their country, and we’ve coordinated and facilitated similar support from dozens of other countries.

President Biden has helped Allied governments feel empowered to act by repeatedly assuring their people that NATO’s Article 5 is alive and well: “We will defend every inch of NATO territory.”

He has worked with Congress to secure $13.6 billion in military aid, humanitarian assistance, and support for NATO since the war began. And there may be more on the way.

Just last week President Biden asked Congress for another $33 billion aid package, underlining our continued commitment to the Ukrainian people.

President Biden also announced the “Uniting for Ukraine” program to enable Ukrainians seeking refuge to come directly from Europe to the United States.

While some may choose to journey onward to the United States, many of these refugees have already found a home in Poland. Which brings me to final leader that I must highlight today: the people of this great country, Poland.

Over 3 million refugees from Ukraine, mainly women and children, have crossed the Polish border. It’s Polish families who have opened their hearts and their homes to complete strangers.

The Polish government estimates that approximately 600,000 Ukrainian refugees are being hosted by Polish families. Refugees are also eligible for PESEL numbers, which entitle them to work, free health care, schooling, and bonuses for families with children.

Civil society has also stepped up to help. I personally visited the transition center at the Wschodnia Train Station run by the Polskie Centrum Pomocy Międzynarodowej and saw the network of organizations and people in action.

PCPM normally focuses its refugee assistance overseas in places like Lebanon and Ethiopia. Never did they expect to use their expertise to build a refugee assistance center in the middle of Warsaw.

On my visit, I witnessed firsthand the generosity and compassion of the Polish people. Private businesses offering SIM cards, housing, toys, even pet supplies.

At the transition center, refugees can get a hot meal. A place to rest. Medical assistance if they need it. Directions to get to their onward destination.

Many of the staff were volunteers. Volunteering to help keep the center clean by picking up trash and replenishing supplies. Volunteering to play with kids while parents get a much-needed break.

While many countries have opened their borders to Ukrainians, Poland has led the way in its forward-leaning, unabashed commitment to create a warm welcome for anyone fleeing Ukraine.

They opened their hearts and homes in a way that only a neighbor—especially one who can not only sympathize, but empathize, with what the Ukrainians are going through.

From right here in Warsaw to the cities, towns, and villages in each of Poland’s 17 provinces, it’s the government. The companies. The NGOs. The people. Unified in an all hands-on deck approach to help their Ukrainian brothers and sisters.

What Poland is doing. What President Biden and the United States is doing. What President Zelenskyy, Mayor Klychko, and Ambassador Markarova are doing will be written about in the history books. Their actions will inspire people for generations to come.

What you are collectively doing, what we are collectively doing, gives meaning to the words, “Slava Ukraini!”

Let me close by invoking something my late father always advised young people who came to him for advice. He said, “Embrace every opportunity to do something bigger than just for yourself.” Poland is leading by example in doing for the Ukraine, something much bigger than for itself.

We’re so proud to call you our special friends and allies.

Thank you. I look forward to your questions.