Przemyslaw Zurawski, professor, advisor to Polish foreign minister
The peoples of our region are interested in the collapse of the Russian Empire
Ukraine and Poland marked in April an important date in their history – the 100th anniversary of the signing of an interstate agreement that paved the way for a joint struggle against Bolshevik Russia. Even though this struggle was short and ended in defeat, the agreement became an important document reflecting an understanding of Russia’s role in the modern world.
Professor Przemyslaw Zurawski vel Grajewski, a Polish political scientist and an advisor to the Polish foreign minister, spoke in an interview with Ukrinform about the importance of the document signed by Symon Petliura and Jozef Pilsudski, the parallels between the past and the present, Russia’s aggressive nature, as well as possible changes in the European political map due to current upheavals.
PETLIURA-PILSUDSKI AGREEMENT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT IN UKRAINIAN-POLISH HISTORY
Question: It has been 100 years since the signing of the agreement between Symon Petliura and Jozef Pilsudski in Warsaw. How do you see this event from today’s point of view?
Answer: Very positively. But because of the difficult situation in both countries at the time, it was already at least a year late.
At that time, there were actually two Ukrainian states: the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR) and the West Ukrainian People’s Republic (ZUNR), which had been in the federation (union) since January 22, 1919. One of them (ZUNR) was at war with Poland, and the other rightly saw Russia as the main enemy. However, there were clashes between Poland and UNR in Volyn, but both sides had neither desire nor strength for that.
On the one side, UNR, which fought for independence with “white” and “red” Russia, and on the other side, ZUNR, which fought with Poland, together separated Poles from Russians south of Prypiat. Instead, north of Prypiat, Polish troops fought against the Bolsheviks. Therefore, in 1919, the situation was the following: Ukraine, which was at war with Russia, struggled with Poland, which also fought with Russia, and they could not agree with each other. As a result of the defeat of the Ukrainian armies in 1920 (ZUNR from the Polish army in Galicia, UNR from the “white” and “red” in the Dnieper region) the only actor that continued to control a small part of the territory around Kamianets-Podilsky was UNR.
In my opinion, Symon Petliura made the most optimal decision in this situation – to form an alliance with Poland. On the night of April 21 to April 22, an agreement was signed and it resulted in a joint campaign of Polish and Ukrainian troops and the liberation of Kyiv. Unfortunately, there was no strength to do more.
The idea was to break up Russian groupings, occupy central Ukraine up to the Dnieper and, with the help of the Polish army, hold this front for as long as it would take the Ukrainians to build their own army and take over the country’s defense. The Polish army would have been moved north to Belarus. There, the Poles would have restrained the offensive operation of the Bolshevik troops of Tukhachevsky. Everybody knew about it because Poland broke secret codes and had access to Soviet military plans. However, the Poles could not hold the front along the entire line, staying in Kyiv for a month. Then there was a retreat, a victorious Warsaw battle with the Bolsheviks, but it was impossible to return to Kyiv again to restore Ukrainian statehood. In these circumstances, Poland left its ally and signed the 1921 Treaty of Riga, which divided Ukraine. At that time there was no longer any strength to fight since the war in these territories had been going on since 1914, and the Polish state was then only being formed.
Question: What impact does this event have on current Polish-Ukrainian relations?
Answer: In Polish memory, it is the most important point in relations between Poland and Ukraine. At that time, the Ukrainians were the most important ally of Rzeczpospolita. The culminating moment of the Polish-Bolshevik war, which at that time had been going on for a year, was the battle for Ukraine’s independence. The Poles and Ukrainians fought side by side for the independence of their countries. The Poles then managed to build their country. The Ukrainians, unfortunately, did not. There were good examples of the participation of Ukrainian troops in this war, such as UNR General Mark Bezruchko in the defense of the city of Zamosc or General Mykhailo Omelianovych-Pavlenko in the defense of the Dniester line.
Today, it is the cornerstone of our history that we can rely on and promote as an example of a responsible and good policy by both peoples.
RUSSIA HAS ALWAYS BEEN DESTABILIZING ITS NEIGHBORS
Question: A whole epoch has passed since then, but the enemy has remained the same. Our country is fighting it in the east, and Poland is supporting us in this fight. Are we doomed to resist the Russian aggressor for centuries?
Answer: Until Russia abandons its imperial ambitions, we will have to fight it. This applies not only to Ukraine and Poland but also to other countries bordering Russia. Russian imperialism has affected everyone – from Central Europe to the Caucasus and the Far East.
We have new graves in Ukraine every day. We have them in Georgia and we can have them in any other place where Russia can destabilize. Since its inception, Russia – from the Moscow Principality – has been exporting destabilization to its neighbors. As long as this happens, joint action will be the best option. The peoples of our region are interested in the collapse of the Russian Empire. Others may negotiate with Russia, but we have nothing to talk about. Such a discussion would only boil down to the question of whether or not we exist.
Question: Today, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Russia is making every effort for the EU to weaken or lift sanctions against Moscow. How realistic is this?
Answer: It is difficult to predict something because sentiment changes a lot. It is clear that Russia is taking advantage of a change in sentiment in Italy, effectively resorting to a demonstrative military operation. Russian troops are in the territory of a NATO member. The Italians did not agree to the Russian military patrolling the cities together with the Italians and imposing fines on the people, but this showed the scale of Russia’s ambitions. This situation can be threatening, especially in light of the fact that the EU has not demonstrated its effectiveness in the sanitary and epidemiological sphere. The United States is now also at the epicenter of the epidemic and has its own problems, so it is not necessary to hope for their prompt and important help to Europe. Of course, Russia will use this, emphasizing that the ally has left Europe. And these arguments will seem convincing to someone in the EU. This is the case with countries located far from Russia, which do not have relevant experience with Russia.
I am a little more optimistic about Spain, which remembers Moscow’s interference in the Civil War (1936-1939) and now has the problem of Catalan separatism. It is soberer in looking at this situation than Italy. But we do know how Russia is trying to serve everyone in Europe: for conservatives, Putin is a defender of Christianity who fights against “Gayropa,” for communists, he is the heir to the fatherland of the world proletariat. Naive people can perceive these narratives, which are selected according to the audience. Russia will tell everyone what they want to hear.
But we Poles, Ukrainians, Balts, Romanians are well aware of what was said when, in March 2014, the Russian parliament granted Putin the right to enter troops into Ukraine. If we confirm this diagnosis and make it clear to Russia that aggression and occupation of one of its neighbors cause only a temporary cooling of relations with Europe, then, of course, it will encourage Moscow to continue such a policy towards its neighbors.
Therefore, aggression must cost much to Russia so that suffers heavy losses until such action is stopped.
UKRAINE HAS THE STRONGEST ARMY IN ITS HISTORY
Question: Russia is currently suffering from a sharp fall in oil prices. Could the Kremlin, while trying to divert attention from the economic crisis inside the country, attempt to unleash a swift war?
Answer: Unfortunately, anything is possible. And it will threaten us all. Putin does not have the resources to deal with the crisis in global oil markets caused by the loss in negotiations with OPEC and the CO VID-19 epidemic. In this situation, the Russians incur great losses, and Putin will have to come up with some kind of “firework” which, in the face of falling living standards, will give Russians a sense of satisfaction with “the collection of Russian lands.” This is a very likely scenario.
Question: In what direction can this “firework” be directed?
Answer: Belarus is under the greatest threat. Ukraine has the strongest army in its history. This army is hardened in years of fighting. Therefore, a “firework” called “a small victorious war in Ukraine” would cost too much to Russia. Thus, trying to play such a “performance” in Belarus, at least in the imagination of individuals in the Kremlin, could be more attractive and cheaper, since Belarus is weaker than Ukraine, has less potential and less developed national consciousness.
On the other hand, we know that the situation in Ukraine is not the best either. If the country’s regionalization intensifies and parts of it move away from the center, Russia will play a role here. The threat has not passed, and Ukrainians must remember that they are bordering on a bloodthirsty empire and cannot afford the mistakes that cost independence.
EUROPE NOT THREATENED BY DISINTEGRATION
Question: What do you think will be the situation in the EU after COVID-19? Does Europe face disintegration?
Answer: I think it does not. Elections have already taken place in most countries, except for France, where they are scheduled for next year. The European Parliament was formed last year as well. Therefore, I think, there will be no change in either the European Parliament or the European Commission, that is, the European mainstream will remain the same. There will probably be a big controversy over the European budget caused by the consequences of COVID-19.
This epidemic has become the third consecutive crisis in the EU’s southern flank. First, we had the eurozone financial crisis that stretched from Greece to Portugal. Later, we had the immigration crisis that hit Greece, Italy, and Italy, and Spain became the center of the pandemic. An important branch of the economy of the countries of southern Europe is tourism, which is now frozen.
Therefore, an attempt will be made to redistribute the flow of funds from Eastern Europe to these countries.
But I do not think that by 2024 when the next elections to the European Parliament take place there will be significant changes in quality. The EU will most likely try to preserve the existing balance of power.
Undoubtedly, the political picture in southern Europe can change. But this will not have much impact on Brussels policy.
Question: Can any southern EU member state have the desire to follow the UK’s example?
Answer: I don’t think so. Italy may face the dilemma of staying in or out of the euro area. But leaving the EU will not be on the agenda. This country will not financially sustain this situation.
Yuriy Banakhevych, Warsaw
Photo credit: Ukrinform and Defence24