West must rearm in the face of Russian threat, urges Poland’s foreign minister | Ukraine

Poland’s new foreign minister has called on European countries to boost long-term plans for military production after returning from his first foreign visit, to neighbouring Ukraine.

“Wars are not decided by tactical engagements but by industrial capacities, and we are behind the curve,” said Radosław Sikorsk, in an interview in Warsaw, a few hours after returning from Kyiv onSaturday.

“As the west, we are 20 times richer than Russia, but if Russia puts its economy on a wartime footing and we continue on a peacetime basis, they can outproduce us,” he added. He said governments should offer long-term contracts to arms companies, or fund manufacturing themselves.

Sikorski, who took over as foreign minister this month, met the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in Kyiv on Friday. He also met prime minister Denys Shmyhal and the country’s foreign and defence ministers. His trip came at a time when the mood in Ukraine has been darkening amid battlefield fatigue, the onset of another winter, and the fear of waning support from western capitals, with major funding packages from both the EU and US blocked in the weeks before Christmas.

“It was easy to be enthusiastic for Ukraine when they were taking back territory: the real test of our strategic patience and determination is now, when there is a stalemate,” said Sikorski.

Poland has been one of Ukraine’s biggest backers since Russia’s full-scale invasion last February, motivated by its own troubled history with Russia and longstanding Polish concerns about Russian expansionism. However, in the run-up to a viciously fought parliamentary election in October, relations became strained as the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party sought to capitalise on anti-Ukrainian sentiment in some parts of Polish society. An argument over grain exports turned into a major diplomatic incident, and Polish truckers also began an ongoing blockade of the Polish-Ukrainian border.

Sikorski meeting Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Friday. Photograph: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Reuters

In the end, the election was won by an opposition coalition led by former prime minister Donald Tusk, but his government could only take over on 13 December, after stalling tactics by Poland’s PiS-affiliated president, Andrzej Duda. Sikorski, who was foreign minister from 2007 until 2014 in the previous Tusk government, was reappointed to the role, and travelled to Ukraine for his first foreign visit.

He said advocating for Ukraine would be one of his main priorities as foreign minister. “If Putin conquers Ukraine, all our other issues will become microscopic by comparison,” he said.

Sikorski said he had taken some positive messages from briefings he received in Kyiv on the battlefield situation, including Ukraine’s remarkable success in forcing the Russian navy out of the Black Sea, as well as Russia’s limited ability to make any gains of its own on the battlefield.

“There is suddenly gloom and doom in the west, but since the battle of Bakhmut the Russians have not captured anything except one large village,” he said.

He conceded that there was fatigue in Ukrainian society, but said this should push the west to be more supportive, rather than less. “The Ukrainians are tired, but they are the only people who are entitled to be tired by this war. We in this west are either inconvenienced or bored, but we don’t have the right to be tired, because we are not making any sacrifices,” he said.

The past weeks have been littered with bad news for Ukraine, with the US senate failing to approve a new package of aid before the end of the year. A €50bn package of EU support has also been stalled after Hungary blocked it. Sikorski said he believed both funding packages would eventually be passed, but that the longer-term challenge was to ramp up military production, which was currently proceeding at “glacial” pace, he said. “It’s easier to make a billion-euro transfer than to manufacture a howitzer barrel,” he added.

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Donald Tusk standing with squared shoulders on a red carpet with an EU-themed backdrop behind himPoland’s new prime minister, Donald Tusk, reappointed Sikorski to the role of foreign minister this month; Sikorski had previously held the post under Tusk between 2007 and 2014. Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

Ukrainian officials told Sikorski they were hoping for a quick resolution to the blockade. Polish truckers say the concessions for Ukrainian companies introduced at the start of the war have undercut their earnings. With Ukraine’s airspace closed due to the war, and Black Sea ports also mostly shut, the country’s land borders are crucial to Ukraine’s economy, and the blockade has caused chaos.

On Friday, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, described the situation at the border as “shameful and harmful”. Sikorski said: “It’s more complicated than it seems, but I think we found at least a move in the right direction”, adding that there were “rights and wrongs on both sides” in the dispute. He also told Ukrainian colleagues that the turbulence caused by the Polish election should be over.

Tusk’s government has used its first days in office to signal plans for radical reform. Most dramatic was the firing of top management at the public broadcasting company, which had become a bastion of pro-PiS propaganda. The new culture minister used a legal loophole to replace the bosses of public television and radio, leading to a furious response from PiS politicians and Duda.

PiS filled numerous ostensibly neutral institutions with political appointees, and Sikorski said the foreign ministry had also been stuffed with employees who did not speak foreign languages and were not suited to the work. He said he was planning to “restore meritocracy” in the coming months, potentially involving big personnel changes.

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