With Paweł Soloch, about Russia’s aggressive policy, threats arising from the situation in Afghanistan, and the economic expansion of China, talks Tadeusz Wróbel.
For a few weeks now, we have been witnessing a crisis on the border between the European Union countries and Belarus. Alaksander Lukashenko gave permission to immigrants from Asia and Africa to cross this border. Is this his way of taking revenge for the sanctions? Or maybe he wanted to force Brussels to resume contacts with his regime?
Decisive actions undertaken by Polish and Lithuanian authorities, i.e. quickly sealing the border with Belarus, as well as the position taken by other EU countries, thwarted Lukashenka’s plans. If he had thought he would be able to extort something from the EU, he had been mistaken. Instead, the refugee crisis is further deepening his dependence on Russia, while the fact is that the Belarusan leader had already been isolated on the international stage after falsifying the presidential election. This raises a question whether people from Lukashenko’s regime and the Kremlin elite won’t try to take advantage of his current weakness to remove him from office. It turns out that there are two sides to this coin.
Is the permission given to immigrants to cross the EU borders, well-protected by Belarusan services, exclusively a political game?
Apart from political aspects of the refugee, or rather migrant-related crisis, there are others. The fact is that smuggling people across borders is a very lucrative business. People from Lukashenko’s circle, as well as organized crime groups in Belarus, Poland and other EU states, make a lot of money on smuggling migrants. There are signals indicating that the situation involving people who were allowed to enter the country by Belarusan authorities as tourists, to be later used in their political game, has partly got out of control. We estimate there are around 6 to 10 thousand of them in Belarus, and they have almost no chance of getting through to the West from there. We also have information that Russia has already strengthened border control with Belarus.
Do Poland’s partners notice that Russia’s policy negatively influences security in Europe as well?
Many NATO and EU members, similarly to Poland, notice Russia’s aggressive policy, manifesting itself in actions against Ukraine, increased armaments, hybrid warfare activities such as hacker attacks, meddling with elections, acts of diversion and assassinating enemies of the Kremlin abroad. On top of that, there are extensive military maneuvers. For example, the correlation between the migrant crisis and the recent Exercise Zapad, its most extensive edition since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, was clearly visible. The number of soldiers participating in the maneuvers was as important as the engagement of various structures of civilian administration. The scenarios we’ve learned about partly assumed escalation of tensions triggered by the unrest at the border, with the West as the aggressor. The intentions of Moscow are also reflected in its new security strategy. Contrary to the previous documents, the entries on cooperation with NATO and the EU have been removed, while China and India have been indicated as the main partners, with some differentiation between them. The refusal to return the wreckage of the Tu-154 also casts a shadow on the Polish-Russian relationship.
You mentioned Ukraine. Is there any chance of ending the conflict with separatists in the east of the country?
The conflict is exhausting Ukraine and blocking its potential entry to the EU, and even more so to NATO, which is very convenient to Russia.
Recently, politicians and the media are more focused on Central Asia than on Ukraine. In September, you visited Uzbekistan, which is located in that region. What is the situation there after Afghanistan was taken over by the Taliban?
Some countries, including those from Central Asia, have indicated their readiness to establish contacts with the new authorities in Kabul, but it’s too early to unequivocally determine how the situation there will evolve. They are clearly waiting to see what way the Taliban will go. Information coming in from Afghanistan about the persecution of people regarded as enemies don’t inspire with optimism. Neighboring states are afraid of economic breakdown in Afghanistan and the massive migration of people that would inevitably follow. After the fall of the government in Kabul, 35,000 citizens fled the country daily. Most of them left for Pakistan and India. The problem for the Taliban is that many of the refugees were well-educated people: engineers, IT specialists, doctors – and there aren’t many people like that in Afghanistan. If the migration from Afghanistan increases, we will feel its consequences in Europe.
What is your assessment on the almost 20 years of Western presence in this country?
Generally, what happened in Afghanistan is a failure of the West, which didn’t even manage to restore the situation from the 1970’s, when the country was relatively secular. It turned out that the western civilization model is not attractive to most Afghans. This experience should be taken into consideration when establishing any future relationship with the Islamic world.
Politics abhors a void. Who will take over in Afghanistan after the West has left?
China is already entering the stage, and there is nothing surprising about it. Central Asia, and Afghanistan as its part, has been a link between the Far East and the Middle East and Europe for thousands of years. That’s why it has always been and still remains a place where various cultural, religious, political and economic influences clash.
China is also becoming more and more active in other parts of the world, including Europe. Will Europeans be able to keep good relations with the rising superpower without conflicting with their old ally, the USA?
In official EU and NATO documents, China is considered a challenge. At the same time, particular Western states differ in their assessment of the danger arising from the growing power of this state in various areas. Unrest is most noticeable in the USA and the countries bordering on the Pacific Ocean, such as Australia and Japan. It would be good if the Western strategy and the modus operandi towards China were worked out jointly and in cooperation.
Why does the West consider Russia a threat and China just a challenge?
Russia is building its position and political influence potential using mainly forcible methods, such as military aggression or the threat of it, as well as the earlier mentioned hybrid activities – attempts to influence election results in other states, cyber attacks, assassinations, such as the one on Sergei Skripal, or diversion acts, like blowing up ammo depots in the Czech Republic. China, on the other hand, is without doubt a global power now, and it has a much wider arsenal of means that can be applied to obtain its goals. Beijing is effectively using economic dependencies, for instance. In other words: what Russians must obtain by force, the Chinese can buy.
The threat from Russia makes the role of the USA in ensuring security in Europe, including Poland, ever so important. What have been the relations between Poland and the USA after Joe Biden took the office?
The strategic dimension of American-Polish relations has remained unchanged since 1989, and it was additionally strengthened after our accession to NATO. Currently, the American administration is finishing filling key positions, particularly those important to us – connected with the security policy and foreign affairs. Undoubtedly, the relation between President Andrzej Duda and Donald Trump was exceptional, which translated into very specific decisions increasing the security of Poland and the whole region. However, the essence of these relations as far as security matters are concerned has not changed after Joe Biden’s administration took over.
Are you concerned by the fact that when ending the operation in Afghanistan, Americans took a lot of decisions without consulting with NATO Allies?
I will answer this question delicately. The role of the Alliance in this phase of the operation should be reconsidered. In the crisis situation, that is after Kabul was taken over by the Taliban and the necessity arose to secure evacuation by air, NATO Response Force units, for instance, were not sent to the site. The decisions to engage in the operation were taken by particular members of the Alliance alone.
This wasn’t the first situation when the formally existing rapid response force remained inactive.
And we need do draw conclusions from that. Americans have been redirecting most of their military potential to the Indo-Pacific region. During the presidency of Barack Obama, there were already signals from Washington that Europeans must take more responsibility for their own security. Therefore, in the time remaining to the NATO summit next year, Europe and the USA must jointly work out a new strategic concept and mechanisms that will provide actual capability to react in crisis situations. There is a need, for example, to reach a certain level of automaticity in decision-making as regards using the response force. I will emphasize this again: we have to do it together with the USA.
The most recent example of the USA turning their attention to the Indo-Pacific region is tightening military cooperation with Great Britain and Australia. What are the Polish relations with key states of the region? Apart from Australia, we can name South Korea, India and Japan.
There is nothing new or strange in the USA’s increasing interest in that region. Successive administrations: Obama’s, Trump’s, and now Biden’s, have been putting more and more focus on the rivalry with China. The important thing is that it doesn’t happen at the cost of the USA’s strong presence in Europe. For Poland, East Asia and the Indo-Pacific region are also very significant, which might for instance be confirmed by the fact that in 2018 Andrzej Duda, as the first Polish president, paid a visit to Australia. He also engages in a regular dialog with partners from Japan and South Korea. These states are important investors in Poland, and the whole region is crucial as regards the security of global trade. We need to accept that the EU and NATO will have to pay attention to the political and security situation in that region.
Returning to Europe, is the EU Common Security and Defense Policy one of the victims of the worsening situation in Europe?
This area of politics, although certainly necessary and ever developing, has always been sort of a myth. In the past, European countries were unable to execute any military or police operation on their own, be it in former Yugoslavia or in Libya.
Was it the weakness exposed then that induced the EU to engage in operations of smaller scale and intensity, mainly in Africa?
This is the direction opted for by member states, mainly from Southern Europe, which have colonial past and current economic interests on this continent. Poland shouldn’t underestimate Africa’s problems either, as we also feel their consequences, only indirectly.
What is your outlook on the possibilities of tightening Poland’s political and military cooperation with other Central European states?
Positive. Our cooperation with Central European states is constantly developing. I would like to particularly emphasize two initiatives, de facto started and handled by Andrzej Duda, i.e. the Bucharest Nine and the Three Seas Initiative. Equally important to us is cooperation within the Visegrád Group. A good example of that is the decision taken this year, on the first in the history of V4 joint procurement of training ammunition. We hope that other projects will follow.
Paweł Soloch Since 2015, Secretary of State in the President's Office and Head of the National Security Bureau. Earlier, he held the posts of Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs and Administration, Chief of the National Civil Defense and President of the Analytical Center at the Sobieski Institute.
autor zdjęć: KPRP, st. szer. Wojciech Król / CO MON