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    Interview with President Andrzej Duda by Gazeta Polska

    “This war began with an attack from Belarus on our border,” President Andrzej Duda told Katarzyna Gójska, Tomasz Sakiewicz and Piotr Lisiewicz

    “In the international arena, it is not about patting us on the back, but about being able to fight hard for our interests even when we are ruthlessly and unjustly attacked. And perhaps especially then. Because as I often point out, there are no empty seats in this space of international relations, everything there has been occupied for years, and if you want to move or push yourself apart, you push others away and they just get frustrated, and they take every possible action, including through the media if they have one, to crush you in every possible way. We observe this on a daily basis,” Polish President Andrzej Duda tells “Gazeta Polska”.

    Mr President, it’s been a year since the war in Ukraine started. How has the world order, the architecture of the security system changed?

    What President Lech Kaczyński said in 2008, in Tbilisi, about Russian imperialism, the threat it poses to individual states, has become a reality before our eyes. A terrible reality. Already in 2014, it was difficult to delude ourselves as to the true intentions of this state. At the time, Moscow was still trying to operate under the guise of little green men or alleged separatists. Today, however, all masks have fallen. Its criminal intentions are clear. The aim is to conquer and end the independent existence of Ukraine. Europe has not seen a war of this dimension since 1939. It is a war on an enormous scale, directed at destroying a nation and its state. I think that for many people, the attack on our eastern neighbour is nevertheless a surprise. Europe lived in the false sense that such events could not happen on this prosperous, civilised continent. And that happened. Ukraine is being systematically ruined by Moscow, Ukrainian citizens are being killed, tortured, kidnapped and imprisoned. Children are being kidnapped. All this has shattered our sense of security. It has destroyed the perception of the world order as permanent and unshakable. Independence is not given once and for all, and peace and security are not eternal. They need to be constantly nurtured and strived for.

    Let us return to 24 February last year. To your visit to Kyiv hours before the aggression. When you decided to make that trip, were you, Mr President, fully aware that war could start literally at any moment?

    It is a typical human trait to believe that things will be alright after all and that the worst can be avoided. Everyone understands this. When I decided to go to Kyiv, I hoped in my heart that nothing bad would happen. But indeed the atmosphere was already very tense. When we were returning to Poland, from Lutsk to the border representatives of our services called almost non-stop. They were rushing us, saying that it was getting more and more dangerous.

    Was it clear that war could break out at any moment?

    Even before we left for Kyiv, we were certain that a Russian attack on Ukraine was just a step away.  Our services were sounding the alarm: these are hours, not days or weeks. But even so, there was no immediate sign that we would not be able to make the visit to the Ukrainian capital. The atmosphere was, indeed, extremely tense. President Zelenski, too, had openly warned of the possibility of war breaking out literally from one hour to the next, and had no doubts about its full-scale nature. 

    Did the Ukrainian authorities expect a massive attack on the capital in the first moments of the war?

    Yes. They had no doubt that the Russians would do exactly that. They expected an attack from several sides. And these were not overblown fears, because at the time no one could rule out the possibility that the Muscovites would move along the entire length of the Belarusian border. 

    If such an attack had occurred during your President’s return journey, then you could have been cut off from Poland.

    There was such a threat. That is why the situation was constantly monitored and we were prepared for many unfavourable circumstances. 

    And how do you, Mr President, in retrospect, assess the information available to the services of our state about plans to attack Ukraine? How much of what we knew turned out to be true and how much not?

    In answering this question, I have to divide it into two categories – the first is the knowledge that came to me, the second is my conviction of how it would be. I will frankly admit that, despite the intelligence information, I had hoped that the war would not be full-scale. Even a few weeks before 24 February, I expected Putin to apply some other solution. 

    Moscow, however, was not subtle.

    Yes, that’s right, they gave themselves the gift of more underhand play. I remember Volodymyr Zelensky’s words at the meeting in Vistula about how Moscow would dramatically miscalculate if it saw Ukraine as a victim who would surrender.  He announced to me straightforwardly: we will defend ourselves, it will not be like with Crimea, we have the experience of eight years of war and thousands of people with combat experience. They won’t play cat and mouse with Russia.

    Was Kyiv well informed about the war plans?

    It was. They had precise knowledge, from many sources. So did we, and I can say that subsequent events verified this knowledge positively. Our close cooperation with the Americans also played an important role.

    In the first hours and days of the war, the Ukrainians were very effective in destroying Russian aircraft and helicopters. With our weapons?

    I can only say that Polish weapons proved to be very effective.

    Was the German attitude at the beginning of the war a surprise? Waiting for Ukraine to collapse, not committing to helping it and even making it difficult for others to support it – many people were frankly shocked by this action.

    You clearly expected even stronger Western unity, meanwhile, the Kremlin clearly hoped for worse. It was hoping to break it up. Putin expected a lack of coherent action, a breaking out of decisions introducing sanctions, and a dragging out of aid. And he miscalculated. The free world is united despite its differences. Sure it could be more, and sure the sanctions could be more severe, but they are. The tenth package of them has just been negotiated. The societies of individual countries have played a huge role in this process. It turned out that ordinary people correctly and honestly assessed the situation and applied pressure on their governments not to get involved and to support the Ukrainians who were fighting like a tiger. In Germany, too, many decisions were the result of public pressure.

    This is the first major war that is accessible to people from all over the world online. The Ukrainians were able to reach the public with its true face, without the mediation of the media. On the other hand, Russian propaganda was not able to manipulate this message because it was so strongly dispersed that it was uncontrollable.

    From this war, anyone can have live coverage on their phone. He can follow the situation anywhere on the frontline. It must also be done justice to the Ukrainians that they perfectly organised a system of information about the actions of the invaders and dominated the Kremlin propaganda. They were incredibly resourceful, able to reach people’s hearts, to make even those who knew little about Ukraine become its supporters, its fate not indifferent to them. 

    How great is the danger today of this war spreading to other countries? Is it greater than six months ago or less?

    In my opinion, smaller, but that does not mean that Russia has ceased to be a threat.

    Why?

    Russia has suffered very heavy losses. It has fewer forces to attack another country, but it still has a large army, equipped with numerous pieces of equipment.

    And does it have the strength to organise a provocation? 

    We must be prepared for provocations and we must remain vigilant. We can indeed expect them. But it is very important in such a situation to be composed and to act thoughtfully, without hysteria. To take another example, the allies are grateful to us for our reasonableness and coolness in the face of the tragedy in Przewodowo. They were sincerely impressed by the prudence of our state. I have heard thanks for this from the leaders of many countries, most recently from President Biden. 

    In Belarus, we have repressions against Poles, including the shameful sentence for Andrzej Poczobut. How can we effectively oppose this repression?

    We are taking all possible measures: political, diplomatic and economic. We have managed to free three activists from the Union of Poles in Belarus and bring them to Poland. Andżelika Borys was also released from prison. In the case of Andrzej Poczobut, we are also doing everything possible. We are pursuing a tough policy to show: it is not worth it for you.

    Mr President, you said that you could expect all sorts of provocations. Are these provocations also directed against Poland?

    Yes, that is why we remain vigilant at our borders, where we can expect such provocations.

    Was what happened on the Polish-Belarusian border a prelude to an attack on Ukraine?

    We unequivocally believe that it was. After all, we were dealing with the involvement, practically openly, of the Belarusian services. This served to test whether we would be motivated to defend the border, and whether this defence would be effective or not.

    Let’s imagine if hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Islamic countries had entered Poland and had started harassing or terrorising the inhabitants. The reaction of Poles to the arrival of another wave of refugees from Ukraine, this time actually in need of shelter, might have been less enthusiastic. And at the same time, there was an attempt to create a political crisis and disorganise the state on many levels. This is exactly the moment when the government loses its majority. And a politician anointed by Ursula von der Leyen returns to Poland with the mission to become prime minister. And it seems that this idea was not about new elections. That is, there is the dismantling of the border and the overthrow of a government that was known to help Ukraine when war broke out. 

    In the context of a hybrid attack on our border by Belarus, I always respond to such arguments as follows: when I fought to win the presidential elections, no one promised me that it would be easy. That is why I accept reality as it is and try to do my best. I believe that this was an operation by the Lukashenko regime with the support of Russia. About this, I am convinced, and not only me, but probably all the people responsible for the security of Poland who meet in the meetings of the National Security Bureau, and we have no doubt generally in this group what the operation was, who was behind it and who controlled it.

    Are our allies aware of this? How do they assess it?

    I think they assess it similarly, although some do not want to admit it out loud.

    Let us recall that this affair stirred up huge emotions, including in the Chamber of the European Parliament.

    For those in power in the European Union, it was a harsh signal to their societies. In particular for the liberal left, which occupies most of the seats in the authorities of the largest EU countries. People in these countries could see that it is possible to defend a country’s borders so that they are not crossed illegally and so that order can be maintained in a country. And it is possible to conduct a sensible policy that takes into account the interests of the people. It is so!

    Imagine the government being overthrown. There would not have been the team which, in tandem with you, travelled around Europe and mobilised international opinion in favour of aid for Ukraine. How would the war have turned out?

    I don’t know what would have happened. But this team was. There was a team that walked to election victory talking about responsibility for the Polish state, about building a strong state, about putting the Polish national interest first. That it is not about patting us on the back internationally, but about being able to fight hard for our interests even when we are being ruthlessly and unfairly attacked. And perhaps especially then. Because, as I often point out, there are no empty seats on the international stage, in this space of international relations, everything there has been occupied for years, and if you want to move or push yourself apart, you push others away. And they just get annoyed. And they take every possible action, including through the media if they have one, to crush you in every possible way. And we observe this on a daily basis. 

    Mr President, we talked about how the image of Ukrainians and the image of Russians has changed in the world. But the image of Poland has also changed dramatically. The media used to portray us as the worst country in the EU, and now we have turned out to be the admired one, probably the best. We have seen how the media acting in Russia’s favour have vilified Poland, using – for example on the border with Belarus – terms of political correctness. This has now become apparent. 

    It is extremely positive that today Poles are looked upon with great kindness all over the world. This is what the Polish community everywhere tells me: people come to us and thank us. They greet us because we are from Poland, we are Poles. Poland is trendy today. This is the result of the efficiency of the Polish state and the solidarity shown by Polish society. The Poles understood the situation perfectly well, and there was no need to explain anything to anyone, to call anyone to account.

    The Poles were excellent at distinguishing between the alleged refugees from Putin and Lukashenko and the real refugees from Ukraine. 

    They did this despite the fact that relations between Poles and Ukrainians have not always been fraternal, to put it mildly. They were difficult and there are many tragic backstories and wounds. And yet people have been able to distinguish between past wounds and what is today and what will be in the future. And this is our duty, also as a Christian nation, towards our brothers and sisters who have been attacked by the now eternal enemy, whom we have known for centuries in this part of Europe as the aggressor. We know the history of the partitions and how, after the Second World War, we were pushed into the Soviet sphere of influence and were in the fetters of Russian power.

    After the National Security Council meeting, you spoke about the possibility of the government and the opposition speaking with one voice on Ukraine and our security. But you only have to listen to a five-hour conference on the subject, held under the patronage of former presidents Komorowski and Kwasniewski, to see that defence experts question Poland’s arms purchases. Janusz Zemke of the Left says the purchase of 500 Himars is a disaster. Retired General Miroslaw Różanski, Poland 2050’s foremost expert, says the opposition will have to tear up arms purchase contracts concluded by PiS, in which he is echoed by PO’s Tomasz Siemoniak. Then there is Marek Biernacki from the PSL, who threatens that Poland will go bankrupt because of these purchases.

    Please remember one thing: fortunately, the choice is made by the Poles. I, like every citizen, will cast my vote in this election. I will say one thing: I hope that Poles will simply vote wisely. I think that Poles know what security, a sovereign, independent Poland means. Especially the older ones remember how we lived when Poland was not sovereign. Apparently, some of today’s critics enjoyed life then. At the expense of the rest of society. Fortunately, the times when people who abolished military units or considered their presence on the east bank of the Vistula to be nonsense sat in the highest offices are now in the past.

    Mr President, then let us answer substantively why we need these 500 Himars, Abrams and K2 tanks, F35 aircraft.

    There is a magic word we use in NATO. It is the word deterrence. These purchases are made so that we avoid fighting. This is the paradox. You spend billions on armaments so that you don’t have to fight.

    But all the time there is a message that an army in peacetime should be compact. There is no point in maintaining a bigger army. This is said by people who have meant a lot in the Polish army, like General Mieczysław Gocuł. He said a fortnight ago that a 300,000-strong army in peacetime is madness.

    If you live in a building with a notorious thief and burglar living in it at the same time, you have two choices. Either have nothing and live in constant misery or fit strong locks, buy a shotgun and sleep soundly. We buy strong locks and a shotgun, hoping that it will not be worthwhile for anyone to attack us. 

    But it’s not just us. We also got along with a couple of neighbours, also from a little further down the block. We have eternal enemies, but also friends.

    And we have a policeman in the block who has a really big rifle, a thick shotgun and a knack for shooting thieves.

    You are talking about the United States, but even with the current ruling team in the US, we have come a certain way. It was different at the beginning, but then it became clear to the US administration that we were doomed. There is nothing to mull over, you can see that they are not looking for additional solutions, even though the opposition considered the 30-second meetings with the American president a success. But the Americans clearly see that the current solution is the best one.

    My answer to that is this. Maybe it will be a very brutal answer, but it is a politician’s answer. An honest one. Anyone who is entrusted with a responsible function – President Joe Biden has such a function in the United States and I have such a function in Poland – knows full well that they are supposed to pursue the interests of their country and society. Then there is a big pause, silence, a long, long nothing, and only then are there other issues. Other nations, international communities, etc. I had a very simple conviction from the very beginning: transatlantic ties and close relations with the United States are in the interest of the Republic of Poland. It does not matter to me from the point of view of the place where I am, which my compatriots have entrusted to me, I am thinking of the Presidential Palace, the desk of the President of the Republic, at which the President, whoever he may be, has to make decisions. It does not matter to me whether I agree or disagree ideologically with the American President, whether I like him or not. It doesn’t matter and it doesn’t matter to my compatriots. I am supposed to do the job that has been entrusted to me, and that is to pursue Poland’s interests. And today it is in its interest that we have the best possible relations with the United States. Ideological sympathies and antipathies do not matter to them either, and in any case, the strategic interests of the United States are much more important to them. That is why, for the second time in a year, the President of the United States is standing in the heart of Warsaw and saying: here is a free country, here is NATO, here is alliance strength, here is Article 5, in which we guarantee the security of every inch of NATO land, including the one on which I am standing. And that’s it.

    But recently an employee of the United Arab Emirates Foreign Ministry, formerly the head of the Polish diplomacy, showed that he sees these relations quite differently; in fact, he had already expressed himself quite vulgarly about them. To what extent do the Americans realise that there is a German-Russian lobby in part of the opposition, and one that has a decisive influence on its decisions?

    I will just remind you gently because I know who you are talking about, that my President, our President Lech Kaczyński, protested strongly against the appointment of this gentleman to the office of Minister of Foreign Affairs when PO won the elections in 2007. Unfortunately, the opposite happened, but time has shown who was right. Once again: it is the Poles who decide whether to give power to such a person, and Poles are a wise nation, they gain experience, they observe the world around them, and even if they are not very interested in politics at the moment because they have their own affairs, their own lives and their own concerns, family, home, work, ambitions, when it comes down to it, they make a calculus, even if it only happens on the steps of a polling station. I believe they will make a wise decision. 

    Mr President, how has the attitude of the current US administration changed towards Poland, towards its importance – perhaps after the outbreak of war, or perhaps already during the struggle for the cohesion of the Polish eastern border?

    It has changed because I am convinced that the US administration – probably in part – also did not always appreciate the seriousness of the situation in relation to Russia. It did not know that what we were saying was simply the truth. What we said about the expanding Russian hegemony, is what President Lech Kaczyński said in Tbilisi in 2008. This is what we said all the time when Nordstream 1 was being built, and then when Nordstream 2 was being built. That this is the road to Russian domination, that Gazprom is not a normal company, one that the West knows. That it was simply the armed economic arm of the Russian government, carrying out its orders, not pursuing any economic interest. We were not listened to at the time. I had such conversations with the presidents of several countries, including those with whom I have cordial ties. And they asked me: why do you think so? Look, here Gazprom is sponsoring a European yacht, and here is the Champions League. I replied: this is a game. It’s a sleeper game, to build an image, to create propaganda, and the other door is used to smash unity, to build dominance. And at some point, they will turn off the tap and it will turn out that we only have supplies from one source. This cannot be allowed! We were not listened to at the time.

    Where did this naivety come from? Because if someone wasn’t bribed, it means they were incredibly naive.

    They had no experience of Russia at all and such a thing was beyond their comprehension. Instead, they were prepared to do business with Russia. Russian disinformation, propaganda and, as many point out, agents of influence also played a huge role.

    Did they believe that Russia was no longer the Soviet Union, that it was already a different state?

    They wanted to believe that Russia would no longer be an aggressive empire.

    We understand that someone involved in national politics, somewhere in France, Spain, or Germany, may have no idea what Russia is, and may not know its history. But all these countries have services and analysts. Either they didn’t have that knowledge or they completely disregarded it.

    They had the analyses, but they disregarded them. There, something like that still lingers, with many politicians behind the scenes admitting that they have this romantic image of Russia. They see a lady in a fur coat and a gentleman in a sable collar riding in a sleigh, covered in bear fur, with champagne in hand and a tin of caviar, and Tchaikovsky playing music for them. And this is Russia. And I tell them: for us, Russia is the same winter with minus 40 degrees, only barefoot, in shackles, in Siberia. That’s what they associate it with in Poland. This is the difference in the perception of Russia between you and us. 

    Mr President, you talked about the new thinking of the US, the security architecture, where Poland is in the middle. But when you look at European perceptions, you can come to the conclusion that they are not so radically different. What is happening with funds for Poland, the twisting of the KPO, and the attempt to destabilise our justice system? It all looks like they are trying to bring back a team here that is more subservient to Berlin.

    I would like to clearly emphasise that Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is doing his utmost to obtain KPO funds for Poland. I am also determined that this money should come to us, and this is confirmed by the various initiatives I have taken, including this compromise reached last year. It was a difficult time for Europe and I believed that the law proposed by the President of Poland would make it possible to end the dispute with the European Commission. It was a good compromise, in line with the Polish constitution and accepted by the European Commission. Unfortunately. We all know what happened to that proposal. It is not worth returning to it. I understand the determination of government representatives to try to work out a new compromise under completely different conditions. It was very difficult because it turned out that Russia was not in a position to conquer Ukraine, as the Ukrainians were bravely defending themselves. It turned out that the Kremlin is not as strong as everyone thought. Seeing this, the sentiment was revived in the European Commission and officials returned to the political fray. It seems that last February when the compromise I proposed was on the table, this willingness to fight politically on the part of the EC was at a much lower level. On the other hand, when it comes to the law worked out by the government in agreement with the European institutions, I, as the president, have the duty to uphold the Polish constitution, and in relation to this document I had serious doubts as to whether it complies with our fundamental law. These are things fundamental to the system of our state, so I decided to exercise my right and referred the law to the Constitutional Tribunal. It is the CT that is the only institution in Poland that can assess whether something is constitutional or not. I did not veto this law because I want the KPO funds to come to us as soon as possible, but I also want to make sure that the new legislation does not violate our constitution.

    We remain on the subject of Poland’s relations with the European Union. What, in your opinion, is the reason for Brussels’ policy towards our country? We are a strategic country when it comes to maintaining security in Europe, and we are also the one that is helping the defending Ukraine the most in the EU. What, then, are the actions of EU officials dictated by?

    Politics.

    The effect of which is to…?

    …keep the liberal-left circles that now have a majority in the European Parliament and other EU institutions in power. In 2015, a conservative-minded camp took power in Poland, which cares about tradition, listens to the public, pursues an effective policy of defending national interests and keeps its election promises. Thanks to the decisions of this camp, it was possible to defend Poland’s eastern border and, at the same time, the EU border against a hybrid attack inspired by Moscow and Minsk. This camp has also introduced social programmes, is modernising the army, developing the economy and much more. All this is impressive in Europe…

    So are we becoming competitors on the European stage, or are we getting in the way of EU federalisation?

    We are undoubtedly becoming a political competitor. The liberal-left circles see that it is possible to have effective, responsible policies that respond to the needs of society. Consequently, they are beginning to fear that if the societies in their countries see this, they will lose power. Suddenly, it may well be that people will stop opting for ideological pipe dreams and bet on those who will provide them with a strong, secure, honest state that will look after their interests. All this is compounded by the second element mentioned in the question. There are those in the EU who want to order Europe according to their concept, that is, de facto to subjugate it to themselves. There are those who want to build a model of a federal Europe in which they will decide what happens to this federation.

    This seems to involve a radical curtailment not only of independence but also of democracy.

    The facts are that there is an obvious political clash going on at the moment. It is a clash with an ideological profile, but there are also great interests behind it. It is naïve to think that the European Union is a community where there is no competition and no disputes. That is not how it is. 

    For years, that is how the Poles have been presented with this structure.

    The European Union is a collection of states in which each has its own interests and tries to pursue them as far as possible. The timing of Britain’s exit from the EU was already a clear signal that things were going wrong in European structures. The British people have made it clear that they will not accept solutions worked out somewhere else being imposed on them.

    Let us turn to the situation in our country. One of the most important values in Poland, enshrined in the constitution, is freedom of speech. Do you not think that this is currently under threat if there is an attempt to ban criticism of other media outlets for a year by way of court security? We are referring here to the lawsuits that our titles and journalists have received from one of the large stations operating in the Polish market.

    I see such a threat. More than thirty years have passed since the fall of communism, but there are still pathologies in Poland that I call post-communist. This is the price of the bloodless revolution that took place in 1989. I am also aware of the subsequent history, and this is due, among other things, to my conversations with the eminent analyst of those times, President Lech Kaczyński. Professor Lech Kaczyński said that the elections of 1989 were a very good way for Poland to regain true independence and sovereignty and to introduce a truly democratic system in our country. However, it was a mistake not to discount the spectacular success of a free Poland in those elections. The public spoke out very unequivocally against the government of the day. It was necessary to take advantage of this and tell the communists that there would be no agreements because society had clearly and explicitly communicated that it did not want such agreements. That is first. Secondly, we had the overthrow of Jan Olszewski’s government, which was in fact a betrayal of Polish interests. Jan Olszewski’s government wanted to unequivocally sever the state from its communist legacy. Unfortunately, this was prevented and the effects are still being felt today.

    On the wave of indignation following the overthrow of Jan Olszewski’s government, ‘Gazeta Polska’ was founded, which is now turning 30. Would you like to address a few words to our readers?

    I warmly greet the readers of “Gazeta Polska” and the “Gazeta Polska” Clubs. I will always be grateful to you for your support and faith in me, as this was very noticeable in the subsequent election campaigns. Without a doubt, your work and votes contributed to my winning the elections. I believe that despite the various situations that have occurred during my presidency so far, you will ultimately judge that this is how this presidency should have been. One thing must be admitted for sure: a lot of good has been done in Poland. We did it together. I can also assure you that when I took decisions that were controversial for you, I always had some of my own reasons, often ones that I could not say. You can agree with “Gazeta Polska”, you can disagree with it, but you have to admit that over the last thirty years, there have been many situations where “Gazeta Polska” was right, and in most cases, these were very important issues for Poland. For this “Gazeta Polska” deserves respect. This is also why your newspaper has survived for thirty years, while during this time many great titles have had to close down. I wish you continued success.

    Finally, we would like to ask you about President Joe Biden’s visit to Poland. Can you tell us what advice the US leader shared with you in the backstage talks?

    Forgive me, but President Biden deliberately left certain issues for the face-to-face meeting. In general, I can say that President Biden indicated in his conversation with me that we are in a very difficult place because of the proximity of dangerous events. He stressed that the role of presidents at this time is to keep a cool head. He also quoted several situations from his life, and I remind him that he is an extremely experienced politician.

    After your discussions both face-to-face and in the wider community, are you convinced that the alliance commitments between Poland and the United States are as enduring as they are described by representatives of the US administration?

    Yes, I have this conviction. This was confirmed in his speech at the Royal Castle by President Joe Biden when he spoke of the sacred commitment to defend every inch of the land of the NATO countries.

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