On the 19th of October, the Polish Speaker of the Parliament of Poland and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Radek Sikorski was quoted by an American journalist Ben Judah in Politico.com as saying: “Putin wants Poland to commit troops to Ukraine. These were the signals they sent us. (…) This was one of the first things that Putin said to my prime minister, Donald Tusk, when he visited Moscow. He went on to say Ukraine is an artificial country and that Lwow is a Polish city and why don’t we just sort it out together. Luckily Tusk didn’t answer. He knew he was being recorded.” These words were soon to be considered scandalous by the Polish government for a number of reasons. Firstly, the visit in Moscow Sikorski referred to took place in 2008, when no one in Europe knew that Putin was planning to seriously invade Ukraine. Secondly, the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk (currently President of the European Council) did not inform the Polish president nor NATO about Putin’s “offer”, and maybe if he had, the course of events after 2008 would have been different. Thirdly, the timing and context of such a confession on Sikorski’s part seems very odd – 6 years after the event happened and a month after having finished his tenure as the foreign minister Sikorski suddenly decided to almost casually slip this information into an article written, moreover, by an American journalist. Why now? Why like this? And, most importantly, is this story from 2008 even true?
Poland’s initial reaction to Sikorski’s unexpected confession was understandable. The government seemed as surprised as everyone else, and immediately made him explain himself at a press conference, which then led to another press conference on the same day. Tusk, who by the way belongs to the same political party as Sikorski, did not confirm nor deny that Putin offered him a joint Polish-Russian partition of Ukraine. “Tusk had no good way of getting out of this situation. If Sikorski had told the truth, then… better not to talk about it. If he had not, then… Like in the old joke: look who I have to work with”, a journalist Wiesław Władyka comments in a Polish weekly magazine “Polityka”. Needless to say, Russia denies that Putin’s offer took place at all: the Russian president’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov labelled Judah’s article as “utter nonsense”. “First of all we barely know the works of this outlet [Politico magazine]. In general this information looks like total tripe,” he told the Russian Gazeta.ru.
In the meantime in Poland the topic was on everyone’s lips and in every newspaper in the country. People of all political affiliations united for once in expecting a clarification of what Sikorski heard in 2008. Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of one of the right-wing parties of the opposition, criticised Sikorski by saying that if he indeed had heard such a conversation between Tusk and Putin, he should have immediately informed international authorities instead of silencing about it and leading “a politics of denial and warming up the relations with Russia”. What Sikorski said next did not, however, clarify his intentions, but obscured them even more. At the first press conference, held two days after Judah’s article was published, he said very little and practically dismissed all the queries; he admitted that the issue is complicated, that he already explained everything in an interview for Wyborcza.pl which would come out an hour later, and, when hard- pressed by the irritated journalists, he added that actually did not hear the conversation between Putin and Tusk personally, and it all might have simply not been a real offer but a “dark joke” or a “historial allusion”. In the interview for Wyborcza.pl, that indeed came out soon after, Sikorski clarified that the Putin-Tusk conversation had not been recorded, and when asked why he or Tusk had not made Putin’s offer public in 2008, he replied that “Putin’s allusions had turned out to be significant only later, after the NATO summit, the war in Georgia, and the annexation of Crimea”.
One of Sikorski’s explanation posted on his Twitter account – “The talk with Politico was not authorised and some of my words have been over-interpreted. Like I said, Poland is not participating in the annexation [of Ukraine]”.
The new Polish PM Ewa Kopacz, also belonging the same party as Sikorski, publically criticised his behaviour at the press conference. The opposition’s reaction was more radical – they postulated his being dismissed from the function of the Speaker of the Parliament. As a result a second press conference was held and Sikorski, when pressured by the government who checked that there was no bilateral meeting of Putin and Tusk in Moscow in 2008 and therefore the two had no chance to speak privately, once more “changed his opinion”, admitting that actually this conversation did not take place at all, and his memories were distorted. He added that the bilateral meeting between Tusk and Putin took place not in Moscow, as he said earlier, but at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008. However, Sikorski may have to change his version of the story once again, as “according to the official NATO schedule of Putin’s meetings from the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, the Russian leader and his Polish counterpart didn’t hold any bilateral meetings in Romania either”, as we can read on Russia Today’s website.
In the interview for Wyborcza.pl Sikorski added that the whole issue should be considered seriously by Europe and acted upon, instead of its being used in the current rivalry between the Polish political parties. Yes, no one denies that the issue is important. The problem is that Sikorski, by changing his mind about what actually happened or did not happen in 2008 in Moscow, is the very person who draws attention away from the issue itself and towards a cheap, political sensation, making us wonder whether his statement in Politico.com was not just a political move in order to keep himself “in the game”, now that with a change of the PM from Tusk to Kopacz he was degraded from the Minister of Foreign Affairs to the Speaker of the Parliament. Moreover, rumour has it that Sikorski had hopes to be appointed as the President of the European Council, and instead the position was filled in by Tusk. This makes us wonder whether Sikorski’s goal when he talked to Judah was only to besmirch Tusk in the international media and to draw attention to himself as the one who reveals the dark secrets of the Polish government in order to save Ukraine.
Polish journalists are certain that Sikorski committed a dramatic political suicide. Some are more tolerant than others. “Having been receded into the background, he would still like to lead Poland’s political scene”, comments in a right-wing magazine “Nasz Dziennik” Mieczysław Ryba. Adam Szostkiewicz writes in a more liberal “Polityka”: “It is understandable that the issue is important for Sikorski, but he is not the foreign minister anymore and perhaps he should weigh his words more carefully instead of appearing as someone who wants to settle a score in a personal political game, to rain on his successor’s parade, and to interrupt those who currently oversee Poland’s foreign policy.”
In all the chaos created by both Sikorski himself and the media, which is very typical for the Polish political scene, people seem to forget the most important question: Is the story from 2008 even true? Did Putin offer Tusk a joint partition of Ukraine, be it in Moscow or somewhere else a few months earlier or a few months later? It is difficult to understand whether Sikorski was telling the truth in Politico but then was pressured to change his version of the story, or whether he was just playing a game when talking to Ben Judah, which then was quickly disguised by the Polish government as a lie.
Probably the majority of us, myself included, would be able to forgive Sikorski his hasty and percitipate words that were printed in Politico (“In the conversation with Judah I wanted to send a clear signal how hugely mistaken Putin’s political strategy is, and how dangerous it may be for the international community and for Poland”, Sikorski honestly admitted at the second press conference), had it not been for the aftermath of these words, namely the incoherent explanations that came afterwards. What should he have done? Certainly a clear and consistent version of events from 2008 would have helped. Furthermore, he should have told the truth in the first place, and stuck to it later. But that would have been too easy –we’re talking serious politics, after all.
University of Oxford