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'Putin Is Making A Great Mistake' Over Ukraine, Says Polish Ex-Foreign Minister

Former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski (file photo)

Former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski says Russian President Vladimir Putin is "making a great mistake," as Russia masses tens of thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine in what Kyiv and its allies fear could be preparations for a new military offensive.

"You know, the British have a saying that after eight years, every prime minister goes mad. President Putin has been in power for 22 years. And perhaps he believes in his own propaganda," Sikorski, now a member of the European Parliament, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service in an interview.

His comments come with up to 127,000 Russian troops deployed along Ukraine's borders and a sizable force in Belarus for what Moscow and Minsk say will be snap military exercises to be held in February.

Moscow denies plans to launch an attack but has pressed Washington for security guarantees, including a block on Ukraine joining the NATO alliance.

Russia's actions are galvanizing the West, not dividing it, said Sikorski, a member of the conservative European People's Party, accusing Putin of potentially grave geopolitical missteps.

"There is arming of Ukraine already, there will be more if Russia invades further. If Russia invades the eastern flank of NATO, it will not be weakened, which is what President Putin wants, but quite the opposite, it will be strengthened. And there'll be tough economic sanctions," Sikorski said.

U.S. President Joe Biden told a news conference late on January 19 that a Russian attack on Ukraine would be a "disaster for Russia," exerting a tremendous human, economic, and political toll on Moscow.

Hours after Biden spoke, Western news agencies reported the U.S. State Department had given the go-ahead to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to send U.S.-made missiles and other weapons to Ukraine. On January 17, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said that Britain was providing Ukraine with new "defensive weapons systems."

"Well, the best way to deter Russia is to demonstrate that the invasion of Ukraine will be costly, and there are absolutely no restrictions on selling weapons to Ukraine. Ukraine is a democratic member of the United Nations in good standing, has the right to defend itself, and short-term defensive anti-ship, antiaircraft, and anti-tank weapons are the best argument to persuade Mr. Putin to desist," Sikorski said, adding that Putin and his inner circle should be targeted with more sanctions.

"I personally think we should go after President Putin and his oligarchs' money -- that's the language that they would understand because they like to steal the money in Russia, but then enjoy it in France and Switzerland. And so we should be much tougher than in the past about controlling the flows of illegal money," Sikorski said.

Russia has been subject to sanctions since its 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea. Further punitive measures were added after a former Russian spy was poisoned in Britain in 2018 and following an investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election won by Donald Trump.

Ukraine's 'Weekend Warriors' Training To Resist A Possible Russian Invasion
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Russia has denied any role in the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, and denies trying to interfere in foreign elections.

Those denials from the Kremlin and others mean "nobody believes President Putin or Russian statements anymore," Sikorski said, adding that any pretext for a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine would also be met with disbelief in the West.

"And so this time, there has to be first some kind of chemical attack against Russian residents in the Donbas, then some kind of other attack in which Russian citizens would die," Sikorski said, referring to the area of eastern Ukraine, parts of which have been under the control of Moscow-backed separatists. "But the fact is that the United States is warning the world and Ukraine that something like that is coming, which means that Russia doesn't have the information-space control over the situation."

On January 14, the White House said that U.S. intelligence indicates that Russia "has prepositioned a group of operatives to conduct a false-flag operation in Ukraine. The operatives are trained in urban warfare and using explosives to conduct acts of sabotage."

Sikorski recently whipped up a storm on social media after responding with unusually undiplomatic and blunt words to comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that NATO had "become a purely geopolitical project aimed at taking over territories orphaned by the collapse of the Warsaw Treaty Organization and the Soviet Union."

"We were not orphaned by you because you were not our daddy. More of a serial rapist. Which is why you are not missed. And if you try it again, you'll get a kick in the balls," Sikorski wrote on Twitter on January 10.

In his interview with RFE/RL, Sikorski said Russia has long portrayed itself as an "eternal victim of aggression, whether by Napoleon, or Hitler, or the democratic West."

However, it is Russia that is viewed as the aggressor, especially by its neighbors, Sikorski said.

"Russia started as a small principality back in the 15th century, and has grown to be the largest state in the world, and not by defensive action, but by occupying more and more land of its neighbors," Sikorski said. "So, its neighbors see Russia as an aggressor rather than a victim."

Vazha Tavberidze is a Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellow working with RFE/RL's Georgian Service.
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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.