Ambassador Mark Brzezinski’s Interview with Washington Post

4 April 2022

David Ignatius, Washington Post: Welcome to Washington Post Live. I am David Ignatius, a columnist for the Post. My guest today will be Mark Brzezinski, the U.S. Ambassador to Poland. We’ll be talking about the war in Ukraine, next door to Poland, the mounting refugee crisis for Poland, and whether there’s a diplomatic solution to this problem. Mr. Ambassador, welcome to Washington Post Live.

Ambassador Brzezinski: Thank you, David. I very much appreciate the chance to be here.

David Ignatius, Washington Post: So let’s begin with the images that emerged over the weekend from Bucha, the town north of Kyiv, these terrible images. The mayor counts 270 bodies, the last I saw, of civilians for the most part who were murdered, essentially, some with their hands tied behind their backs. Reactions to these images have been immediate. Secretary of State Blinken said that they were a punch in the gut. The French President Macron called them unbearable. I’d be grateful for your brief personal reaction as you saw these images. What did you think?

Ambassador Brzezinski: That this is an effort to terrorize and intimidate the people of Ukraine who are standing up for their nation, for their people, to fight back against invaders, that these images may have local roots, but they have global reach. We are all bearing witness. I am now here in Warsaw speaking to you from the capital of Poland that has taken in at least, David, 2.4 million people over the last 28 days, and just to put it in perspective, David, I was ambassador in Sweden for four years, a country that rightfully makes a big deal that they took in 1 million people over 20 years. Poland over 28 days has taken in 2.4 million people, and that’s in addition to 2 million Ukrainians who had come here before Putin invaded Ukraine. And so it is an enormous influx of people. In Warsaw, it’s 300,000 people, all of whom have stories of fleeing their homes, going on the road to Medyka or Korczowa or any of the right border crossings between Poland and Ukraine, to flee across the border and somehow, some way, find a home, and that’s where to me the most interesting part of the story is, because Poland has as a national policy, the assimilating of all arriving refugees into people’s homes, that’s the unique thing that is working so far in this country. All these refugees literally have a place to go that you can call a home, and it is an example of this country, Poland, that has been victimized many times over the centuries, of former victims embracing today’s victims. It’s an amazing human interest story, and it’s working so far.

David Ignatius, Washington Post: That’s a moving description of Poland. I want to come back to Poland and the problem of refugees, but to stay for a moment with these images from Bucha and their implications, I want to ask you as a diplomat what you think the world community should do in response. Do you think based on what you’ve seen so far that this is evidence of war crimes? And if so, how should further evidence be gathered and prosecuted by the international community?

Ambassador Brzezinski: sure. Well, the Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, has been clear that he feels that war crimes have been committed, and it will be important to investigate what has happened, these atrocities that clearly have happened as we can see from the video, to see what happened and who is at fault and what we can do next in terms of international law. That in itself will be a moment of determining justice. But, for the moment, what can be done in terms of diplomacy, the starting point is that what we see in Ukraine is not just a Ukrainian problem or a Polish problem. It’s an international problem, and it’s important that the Americans and others are joining to try to solve this. One heartening thing to see in this country, this country of Poland, is the presence of 10,500 U.S. troops, all on Polish bases, all–quite frankly, I visited with the troops many, many times here–very comfortable, happy here, and also ready to fight for every square inch of NATO territory. That includes Poland. At the border in Rzeszow, which is close to the border of Poland and Ukraine, where the 82nd Airborne of the U.S. military is stationed, there is a very regular meeting of what is called the “community of interest” to make sure that those arriving are given a fulsome embrace and support regarding the condition that they find themselves and where they go next. At that community of interest table sit not only the U.S. military and the U.S. embassy but local authorities here in Poland, regional authorities–they’re called “voivodeships”–and the national Polish government, but also many European governments, the UK, Germany, Switzerland. But, also, we see the Japanese, New Zealand, countries from around the world also at the table looking to see what they can do. This past weekend, the Japanese foreign minister was here in Warsaw exploring what can be done in the form of a donors conference or some kind of global support of what this all costs. This is costing, the support of millions of refugees here in this country, billions of euros, and it is important for us to see a collective response to this and supporting the Poles in this unique humanitarian action.

David Ignatius, Washington Post: Let me ask you on the question of refugees, Mr. Ambassador, whether Poland is reaching the limit of what it can handle and whether additional assistance from the U.S. and these other countries is going to make a difference. You can only provide shelter for so many people without fundamental strains in the host country beginning to emerge. What do you think about additional numbers? You said you’re now at 2.4–Poland is now at 2.4 million. How much higher can that go?

Ambassador Brzezinski: Sure. And to be clear, David, it’s 2.4 million within the last 28 days. If there’s an additional 2 million here, which means that 4.4 million or 10 percent of the country’s population, is a relatively recent arrival from Ukraine–so imagine that in terms of–just in terms of the numbers. In terms of capacity, it will be important to see what Putin does next. There are about a million refugees holed up in Lviv, Ukraine, who have come in from Eastern Ukraine to Lviv and who are waiting there to decide whether to go into Poland or to stay in Ukraine to go home and rebuild their homes. So, obviously, the hope is that the hostilities will stop, and they’ll be able to return. But that is an important kind of benchmark in terms of the capacity question that you ask. It is also important, that I feel most of these Ukrainian refugees will be staying in Poland practically no matter what because the language is similar. Their Slavic languages, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, are all Slavic languages, and the communication is simply more easy for these refugees than if they go to France or Spain or Italy or someplace else. You know, the food is similar. The culture is somewhat similar. The proximity is such that the Ukrainian refugees, who very much hope to return–hope–home want to stay close so they can pivot and move quickly when the time is right. So I do think the capacity question also has pertinent to it the intent of the refugees, and I think the intent of the refugees is to stay in Poland, which therefore begs the question, what is it that the world and the West can do to support the system here? Because most of the refugees intend to stay here. You know, you see the World Food Kitchen. You see the Polish Red Cross, NGOs like Polish Humanitarian Action, and other doing immense support in terms of food and medicine and finding apartments. You know, there’s no apartments available in Warsaw right now. All the apartments have been scooped up by either refugees or those hoping to support the refugees. These will affect the market here more generally as well, and so we have to take these things on. It probably is President Putin’s intent to destabilize the region, and you can destabilize a region using more than just missiles. You can destabilize it by driving waves of people. I’m sure that’s not lost on Putin and his advisors, and we need to think about how to make sure this country is stable. I’m pleased to report to you that conditions here suggest that this country has it for now, but the support, especially financial, would be useful because when financial support is provided to these NGOs and Polish Humanitarian Action and others can buy food and clothing and apartments locally, it boosts the market here locally as well. And so the financial injection is particularly important.

David Ignatius, Washington Post: So be as specific as you can, Mr. Ambassador. What does Poland need urgently right now from the donor community to maintain the stability that you describe in the face of this growing strain on its economy?

Ambassador Brzezinski: Well, I think that goes to the last part of your question, the growing strain on the economy, and I think in terms of the international humanitarian community, injections of cash into the leading NGOs is an excellent first start, because they have been generous, and they need money to support the continuity of that generosity, particularly as capacity is tested by the increase–by the continuing arrival of more refugees. I was at the border as recently as the middle of last week with the U.S. Ambassador, Cindy McCain, who is at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Office, and the recent arrivals in Medyka, in Korczowa have dropped. And there is less of a mass influx that you saw in preceding weeks in Medyka and Korczowa that you see recently, but as I said before, that could change, particularly if fear grows in Western Ukraine that drives the 1 million refugees that currently are holed up in Lviv immediately west.

David Ignatius, Washington Post: A final question before we leave the refugee topic. Are there any specific plans the U.S. has that have not yet been announced but that you’re considering and can talk about to provide additional assistance to help Poland deal with this problem?

Ambassador Brzezinski: Sure. Well, first, President–you know, the Biden administration has announced that it is open to 100,000 Ukrainians being taken in by the U.S., particularly working with Ukrainian diaspora and having families, Ukrainian-American families welcome those refugees, and it will be through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program or humanitarian parole or just through visas to get them from this part of the world to there. And I think that is a generous and important step. In addition to the $1 billion that the president announced in humanitarian assistance, there’s $300 million in additional assistance that involves things as basic as food stuffs and humanitarian material to drones and other things that are important to managing the situation on the Polish-Ukrainian border. More generally, long term, because we have to assume, David, that this crisis will be enduring perhaps into the long term, although we don’t want that to be the case, I think strategic planning requires that, and thinking about Poland’s security, making sure that everyone understands that this country will defend itself and will be defended through its alliances, through exercises, consultations, engagements between militaries will be important. We are doing that. Energy diversification to make sure that this country can rely on sources of energy other than from Russia will be critically important in terms of its security. The complete panoply of what it takes to make this sovereign country secure needs to be considered and stress-tested because it is truly NATO’s front line to this crisis to the East.

David Ignatius, Washington Post: Stress testing, I think we can safely say is underway. So, Mr. Ambassador, let me ask you for your thoughts about how this war might end. There are peace negotiations that have been underway. It’s hard for those of us outside the process to know how serious they are. I’d be very interested in your judgment, first, about whether the Russian announcement that they’re pulling troops back from Kyiv and other areas in the north is credible, as it’s been reported. And, second, what do you think about the idea that President Zelensky has proposed, according to news reports, of Ukraine becoming a neutral country on the model perhaps of Austria as a way of answering Russia’s security concerns? Do you think–do you see at the elements of a deal that might actually work?

Ambassador Brzezinski: You know, David, a negotiated settlement is ultimately up to the Ukrainian leadership and the Ukrainian people, but I can tell you from the region, there is both hope and, of course, continued anxiety and uncertainty, first, hope that the cruelty and the hostilities and the killing will end–and these pacification programs it looks like that are being undertaken will end because it has clear immediate victims. And, on the other hand, the worry for the region is let’s not do something that is only a–that is only a shell game that President Putin is playing and not an actual stop of the attack and the atrocities. In other words, allowing him to reorganize and to better position himself is not a good next step or settlement of the exact conflict, but pushing back Putin, containing his attack, getting him back into Russia from Ukraine is very much the desire and the prayer of the people in this part of the world because they are reliving history, David, here. This Russian invasion of Ukraine is the worst possible specter in the mind of someone from the Baltic states or Poland or Slovakia, and it is happening real time, and it gets to the heart and the crux of their anxieties and uncertainties. And so, given that those fears now have been met, a very clear settlement in which the Russians and Putin are locked into an approach and plan that pushes them back is what will be needed to make people truly feel secure, and that’s incumbent on the civilized community to get Putin to conclude that that calculus makes sense to him and then to lock him into it. And I think that our diplomacy and our negotiators will be tested, because I hope that Putin doesn’t have resolve that what he’s doing makes sense, but he may.

David Ignatius, Washington Post: So, as you know well as a diplomat, the wars often end not with a peace treaty but with a ceasefire–

Ambassador Brzezinski: Yeah.

David Ignatius, Washington Post: –and what’s often described as a “line of control” between the two sides. Today Korea is still partitioned, North and South. There is no formal peace treaty that ever ended the Korean War, as long ago as that was. Could you speak for a moment about the danger of that kind of resolution? So the Russian forces seem to be gathering in the southeast of the country to consolidate their hold there. Do you see that as a significant danger that we could be left with a ceasefire with those Russian troops still in place and, in effect, a partitioned Ukraine?

Ambassador Brzezinski: Well, and I also wonder whether that would be an actual ceasefire, David, because if the Ukrainians are known for anything, they are known for fighting from the hills against foreign invaders and from the countryside, and they will do that to get their land back. They have a history of doing that, and their resolve is strong. And so I don’t know whether that would result actually in a cessation of hostilities or actually is that something that could metastasize into quickly open conflict again, and so I think that–you know, we have to be careful about any kind of pledge or promise that we hear from the Russians because we heard–we need to remember what we heard from them in the lead-up to this attack that were all kinds of promises and representations that nothing was underway, nothing was being planned, no attack was going to occur, and that was an abject and disgraceful lie. And so that has to be taken on board, especially if a ceasefire results in the Russians staying in Ukraine because there, no question, will be Ukrainians who want to boot them from the country and will be willing to do what it takes to do that.

David Ignatius, Washington Post: Let’s talk about Ukraine’s neighbors in that context of what may be, as you say, a continuing partisan fight. You only have to look at a map to see that Poland would be a crucial point of transit for supplies of every sort but, most importantly, in the scenario you’re describing, military supplies that would allow the Ukrainians to fight on. We’ve seen the Russians get awfully close to the Polish border in terms of their reprisal attacks in Western Ukraine. Just state clearly, so our viewers understand, what NATO’s response would be if Russia tried to attack Poland or Romania or another country that it saw as a safe haven for supporting the Ukrainian resistance.

Ambassador Brzezinski: Sure. Well, I think that, you know, you alluded to this in that question about how close the Russians and their attacks have gotten to the Polish border. I was floored that when President Biden was visiting Poland, including close to the Polish-Ukrainian border, the Russians lobbed several missiles into Lviv, Ukraine, which is also close to the Polish-Ukrainian border. I was floored that the Russians would do that with the American president in Rzeszow. In the preceding week, we had a bipartisan and congressional delegation here led by Senator Portman with Senator Klobuchar and Senator Blumenthal and Senator Wicker here, who were also at the border when the missile came into the training facility and killed 35 people, and they weren’t 15, 20 miles from that missile attack that also wounded 150 people. So, yes, there is a reckless and horrific nature to the Russian attacks, no matter who is close to the Polish-Ukrainian border, and I think that the President Biden has been very clear that NATO and the United States will defend every square inch of NATO territory, which includes Poland. And that’s been so important because, David, when I’ve gone on Polish television, I’ve made clear–and I’ve said in Polish, “Polska jest bezpieczna, Polska jest zabezpieczona.” “Poland is safe, and Poland is secure.” And the great thing about President Biden’s visit to the eastern border of Poland with Ukraine is much more powerfully and much more resolutely, he said the exact same thing, that they will defend every–that we will defend every square inch of Polish territory. That was tremendously reassuring to the Poles. And you have to remember that the subject we first talked about, David, the humanitarian response by the Poles, to me, very clearly is linked to the topic we’re talking about now, the security piece. What I mean is that Poland is a member of NATO, and it feels less anxious and less uncertain, despite the fact that it is on the border of this crisis than if it weren’t a member of NATO. And because it is less anxious and because it is more certain, its people are more open and willing to rush to the border and open their homes and their hearts to the Ukrainian people as opposed to if they were hunkered down. So there is an interdependence to the security and humanitarian responses, I really want to emphasize. And then, lastly, to be most directly responsive but without getting into specifics, you know, it is just a fact as to why we have 10,500 U.S. soldiers here, our best weaponry, our best logistical equipment, our best defensive tools of war, and that is to immediately and with a degree of absoluteness defend this country. And the Poles are in lock step with that. There are defense coalitions with other countries, including the Brits and the Croats and the Czechs and the Slovaks, and there is a kind of meshing together of the militaries here that is powerful, and I think an attack on this country would be met forcefully and decisively. And I think Putin knows that.

David Ignatius, Washington Post: So, Mr. Ambassador, I want to ask you in the brief or remaining time we have to talk a little bit about Poland, not in terms of its response to the Ukraine War, which as you say has been extraordinary and as one appraised from around the world, but in terms of some of the issues that we in America, our diplomats, State Department, was focused on before the war, specifically issues involving the rule of law, involving freedom of the media, human rights issues in Poland, where do those stand? Have you seen from President Duda and others in Poland, significant changes in those areas that were causing concern before so that you’re less troubled?

Ambassador Brzezinski: So that’s a great question, David, and so where does democracy and the economy and values rank when we have the security crisis? And, you know, it’s a little bit like dialectical behavioral theory. Several things can be true at the same time, and those things are the United States stands four-square with Poland on its security, and the United States stands four-square with Poland on democracy and values. And we’ve been clear with the Poles that as we bring in soldiers and armaments, we are not minimizing our focus on democracy and values, and we are–I am pleased to report that in the 10 weeks that I’ve been here as ambassador, we have gotten the television licenses for Discovery TVN that we were seeking, that we have gotten the president to veto a law that would have taken such licenses and affected the freedom of the press, a veto of the education bill, and other steps that we would consider to be, you know, stopping the democratic backsliding that we were worried about. And we have been very clear that there is an interdependence between security and democracy and values and the economy. And, as the Poles have done that, I have done all I can, David, to bring in business to the country. I was pleased to host the CEO of Google last week here at the embassy, Sundar Pichai, who announced $38 million here and a number of other initiatives by Google to address this crisis as it pertains to the business dimension and misinformation and disinformation and the like, and other companies are doing important work as well, State Street and other leading–Microsoft, leading American companies that we are working closely with to mesh in to the response. But nothing is being minimized as we maximized the security. To the contrary, I think I can report to you, David, a strategic realignment with the Poles in the sense that out of this crisis, we are producing results, leveraging the work together we’re doing with the Polish government on the crisis, and that’s benefitting everyone. And I thought it was beautiful and correct when President Biden was here in Poland last week when he talked about democracy. He said that everyone needs to work on it. He talked about the work that the Poles need to do, and he talked about January 6th, the work that the Americans need to do. I thought that was an honest and fair way of engaging and consulting with the Poles on these important issues.

And, you know–

David Ignatius, Washington Post: Mr. Ambassador, we’ll probably–we’ve come to the end of our 30 minutes. We probably need to wrap it up now. I was so touched when I heard you speaking about the dialectical nature of this situation, remembering your wonderful father and thinking how proud he would be that his son is Ambassador to Poland. So, with that thought and our thanks to you, let’s end our program and look forward to having you back again as a guest on Washington Post Live.

Ambassador Brzezinski: Thank you, David. Za wasza wolność i naszą. For your freedom and ours.

David Ignatius, Washington Post: Thank you.