Elzbieta Witek, the Marshal of the Sejm of the Republic of Poland, who visited Cyprus this week, said that the ongoing war in Ukraine raises a big security issue for the whole of Europe. She answered the Cyprus Mail’s questions about the West’s response to the war and how Poland coped with a migration challenge on an unprecedented scale among other things
From the start of the war, Poland played a leading role in the EU in calling for the full backing of Ukraine, in contrast to other member-states that were sitting on the fence. What do you think eventually united the member-states into a united front against Russia?
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine came as a great surprise to the vast majority of the international community because, until February 24, 2022, Putin was seen by many as a leader with whom a rational policy could be pursued and partnership interests developed. Poland and the Baltic States had warned their Western partners for many years against such thinking; unfortunately, our voice did not find understanding among diplomats. Nonetheless, a pragmatic assessment of the true face of Russia allowed us to remain vigilant to the very end and thus respond very quickly and decisively to Russia’s disruption of the existing order.
For other countries, it took a little longer as, in my opinion, there had to be a reorientation of Russia’s image in their political consciousness and hence a redefinition of the concept of foreign policy and, in many cases, economic ties. Therefore, I think that is why the initial reaction of the states was restrained. However, Russia’s violation of the international order turned out to be so severe and so dangerous that it eventually made European states realise the need to act much more forcefully than the usual diplomatic criticism, which Russia never bothered with anyway.
The war in Ukraine changed the thinking of many states, and in the end, Putin got the absolute opposite of what he expected – instead of a Europe divided over the status of Ukraine and relations with Russia, he got an utterly anti-Russian sentiment and even closer regional cooperation of states uniting under the banner of fighting his regime.
Poland continues to play a leading part in the ongoing efforts to support Ukraine militarily and economically, also offering humanitarian help, but do you think other countries are beginning to lose interest?
I am glad other states see Poland as a leader in supporting Ukraine on various levels. We are making great efforts to ensure that the topic of war and Russian aggression remains on the international agenda and that other countries maintain awareness of how fundamental this issue is from the perspective of the security of the whole of Europe.
I firmly believe that the level of commitment that the European Union and Nato have achieved in support of Ukraine is sufficiently high not only to prevent the international community from losing interest in Ukraine but also to stimulate even more dynamic cooperation with that country.
How long do you think the West will be prepared to carry on backing Ukraine’s war effort?
When discussing Ukraine, I always reiterate that the ongoing war there is not just a matter for the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people. It is a security issue for the whole of Europe. And it is not only a matter of threats of aggression on the territories of successive states but also of the migration, energy and food crises that are felt far beyond Ukraine’s borders. Therefore, one must remember, even for a moment, that Ukrainian soldiers on the frontline are not only fighting for the freedom of their country but also for the stability of the everyday life of all European societies. I believe that the West is aware of this.
I also think that it has finally redefined its perception of Russia and understood how great a threat its imperialist inclinations are. That is why I am convinced that it will maintain its support until peace is achieved.
Do you think there can be a negotiated peace or will it be necessary for the war to continue until there is a winner?
Every war must be brought to an end by process of negotiated peace so that the solutions adopted are lasting and respected. Nevertheless, in Ukraine’s case, we can only speak of negotiating peace once it has regained its territorial integrity, i.e., once the unlawfully seized areas have been returned to it. Some may refer to this moment as the ’emergence of a victor’ and others as the ‘commencement of negotiations.’
Still, regardless of this, it should be sine qua non of efforts to end the war because only in this way will it be possible to secure a lasting peace. Knowing that the war’s end is the end of Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions is essential. Otherwise, the threat to Europe’s security will still be real – if not now, then in the longer term.
The world has been split in two because of Ukraine. Do you think there will be a return to a situation similar to the Cold War era with Russia on one side and the West on the other?
This would be a dangerous situation that would be very detrimental to the international community. It is well known that only peace and cooperation guarantee the development and prosperity of societies. Any division, hostility or tension hinders progress and often leads to its destruction and backsliding. Therefore, action must be taken at all costs to avoid a return to the Cold War and the formation of hostile camps.
The diplomatic offensive many European countries, including Poland, are conducting worldwide is valuable in this context. Through our bilateral contacts, we are trying to present to our partners from distant parts the accurate picture of the war in Ukraine, to make them aware of the disastrous consequences for the whole world of an armed conflict in the heart of Europe and at the same time to combat Russian disinformation, which often takes sophisticated forms.
At the start of the war, more than 3 million Ukrainians, were reported to have fled to Poland. There are still 1.5 million refugees in your country now. How is the country coping with a humanitarian effort involving such numbers? Is there economic support from the EU and US?
With the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Poland faced a migration challenge on an unprecedented scale. It was necessary not only to ‘technically’ streamline border crossing but, first and foremost, to organise authentic material, medical and mental assistance to all victims arriving in our country. Poland had been preparing for a wave of refugees from Ukraine even before the war broke out. When the first Russian rockets hit Ukraine at 4am, the first reception points for refugees were set up in Poland at 6am and became operational at 11am. As many as 77 per cent of Poles were more or less involved in helping the refugees, and 12 per cent received them in their homes.
What is more, our central and local administrations, in cooperation with the uniformed services and parliament, made every effort to ensure that refugees could enter our territory smoothly and were supported in acclimatising to their new conditions. First of all, as a matter of urgency, we adopted a law on assistance to Ukrainian citizens in connection with the ongoing armed conflict, which was the first of its kind in Europe and comprehensively regulated their stay in our country. Thanks to the adopted legislation, every Ukrainian citizen legally residing in Poland is guaranteed access to, among other things, the labour market, the public health system, social care or education on the same terms as Polish citizens.
All these actions, combined with permanent humanitarian aid, were, from our point of view, a moral obligation towards human suffering. However, we realise that it was also a substantial organisational and financial effort. According to OECD estimates, Poland allocated EUR 8.36 billion (approximately 1.5 per cent of Poland’s GDP) to humanitarian aid for Ukrainian refugees in 2022, becoming the largest donor to Ukrainian refugees in Europe. We can also confirm that the most significant number of migrants from Ukraine of all EU countries have crossed our border – their number was over 11 million 400 thousand, of which over 1.5 million remained in our country.
However, we are pleased that the international community realises how great a logistical burden rests on our shoulders. Since Russia’s aggression against Ukraine began, work has been undertaken to use EU funds to support the refugee crisis response, including the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund. Support from the European Commission is also provided through Emergency Assistance Measures (EMAS). Moreover, Poland received financial support from the EC for establishing and maintaining the logistical hub of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM), which allowed us to transfer over 61,000 tonnes of aid to Ukraine. Similarly, Poland received EC financial support for creating and maintaining a medical evacuation ‘hub’ near the airport in Jasionka, near Rzeszów. The ‘hub’ guarantees patient evacuation.