Lech Kaczynski: How The West Got Georgia Wrong

'The Russians showed the helplessness in the West. That's terrible, because the West is much stronger than they are.'

By Andrew Nagorski | NEWSWEEK

Published Sep 27, 2008

From the magazine issue dated Oct 6, 2008


During the war between Georgia and Russia, no European leader denounced Russia as strongly as Poland's president, Lech Kaczynski. He has also been a fervent backer of U.S. plans to deploy 10 interceptor missiles on Polish territory. U.S. and Polish officials signed the agreement for the missile shield soon after Russian troops crossed into Georgian territory. While visiting the United Nations last week, he talked with Andrew Nagorski, a former NEWSWEEK senior editor and now director of public policy at the EastWest Institute. Excerpts:


NAGORSKI: What lessons did we learn from the conflict between Russia and Georgia?

KACZYNSKI: First, Russia wanted to carry out an annexation of two provinces. Second, there was an attempt to topple the government. The West was capable of one thing: not allowing this toppling of the government. Third, this has huge strategic importance for Europe. I've been pushing for years for building alternative routes for oil and natural gas on a big scale from Azerbaijan—and, maybe in the future, from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan—that would bypass Russia. The attack on Georgia has made this more difficult.

You ' re convinced the Russians wanted to depose the Georgian government?

Yes. My intervention and that of the presidents of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and some engagement of the United States, forcing the engagement of NATO and, the least willingly, the European Union caused the Russians to not go for that. They always act with different options in mind, and that was the optimal one for them. They left the territory of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to occupy part of Georgia. The Russians showed a certain helplessness on the part of the West. That's terrible because the West is much stronger than they are.

Didn ' t Georgia make a huge mistake attacking South Ossetia on Aug. 7?

This mistake was provoked. There was a test of strength, and Russia showed the face it wanted to show—an imperial face. Ukraine is now threatened. We won't see the rebirth of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. This is just the old Russia.

Your personal involvement has left the impression that you ' re the most anti-Russian leader in Europe. Fair?

I'm rational and not anti-Russian. I've been aware of these dangerous tendencies for many years, from the late Yeltsin era. We have to convince Russia that the imperial era is over.

Many Europeans say you go too far in your criticism of Russia.

I'm not going too far. This is a situation a bit like Munich. Those who were then appeasing Hitler were firmly convinced that they were right. Time showed something different. There's never an exact analogy. We aren't threatened by a Russian invasion right now.

The Polish government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk wasn ' t as enthusiastic about the U.S. missile shield as you were.

I won. [Smiles]

Was this because of conflict in Georgia?

Yes, that's it. I'm a proponent of this [missile shield] not because I believe Iran will launch a nuclear attack or that this is a tool in the struggle with Russia, but because this deepens the interest of the United States in this area. It's in the interests of my country to have the closest possible relations with the United States.

If you ' re not afraid of an attack from Iran or Russia, what is the shield defending against?

Theoretically, against world terrorism. But I know how it defends Poland: by ensuring that Americans do not become indifferent to any attempts to include Poland in Russia's sphere of influence.

In that sense, the Russians are right: the shield is aimed against them?

If you insist that my country should become part of the outer ring of the Russian empire, my fundamental duty is to prevent this. But obviously this isn't militarily aimed against Russia in any way.

Can NATO and Russia become friends?

We're not yet returning to the cold war, and it's up to Russia if we will or not. Georgia was hugely significant, and Europe didn't come to the right conclusions about what the lessons are. If NATO had offered the MAP [Membership Action Plan] to Ukraine and Georgia in Bucharest, I doubt we would have had this crisis. NATO has its serious drawbacks, but it's an exporter of stabilization.

© 2008