U.S. Ambassador to Poland Mark Brzezinski on Friday called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “thug” on a “killing spree,” who is committing “mass homicide” in Ukraine in order to further a decades-long goal of expanding Russian influence and power.
In an interview on the Yahoo News “Skullduggery” podcast, Brzezinski — an Obama appointee —offered a bleak view of potential diplomatic solutions to the crisis. Asked about the potential for a diplomatic off-ramp, he said that might only come if those close to Putin apply pressure on the Russian leader.
Brzezinski, the son of former President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brezinski and the brother of MSNBC co-host Mika Brzezinski, also discussed the mounting refugee crisis in Poland that has seen over 1.5 million Ukrainians pour into that country. What follows is an edited transcript of Brzezinski’s Zoom interview from Warsaw with “Skullduggery” co-hosts Michael Isikoff, Daniel Klaidman and Victoria Bassetti.
Isikoff: As you know, the Ukrainians and President Zelensky have been pleading for more security assistance. And one proposal that was on the table just five days ago was for the Poles to send MiG fighter jets to the Ukrainians to resist the Russian invasion. In fact, Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken said on “Face the Nation” that Poland had a green light to do this. Today, it’s Friday and it looks like that option is now completely off the table, reportedly vetoed by President Biden himself. Tell us what went wrong with the idea of getting these fighter jets to the Ukrainians.
Brzezinski: Well, Michael, military assistance is arriving from the U.S. and our allies into Poland every day. And that includes systems and weapons that we believe the Ukrainians need most to defend themselves against this Russian aggression, like anti-[tank] armor, air defense systems and the like. With regard to what we heard from the Poles, after a review by the Pentagon and by the intelligence community, and after extensive consultations with our NATO allies, we had concerns about the transfer of additional fighter aircraft to the Ukrainian Air Force. And the Pentagon assessed that adding aircraft to the Ukrainian inventory just was not likely to significantly change the effectiveness of the Ukrainian Air Force relative to Russian capacities. And the intelligence community assessed that the transfer of MiG-29s to Ukraine may be mistaken as escalatory and could result in a significant Russian reaction that could increase the prospects of a conflict with NATO. … I think that it’s important that the options that are being deployed are being assessed by our military and intelligence community as appropriate to the facts on the battlefield in Ukraine. … We want to send stuff that works and that changes the facts on the ground and not stuff that doesn’t.
Isikoff: I was just struck by a phrase you used, that the U.S. intelligence community rejected the idea of the MiG fighter jets because they wanted to only send weapons that are, quote, “appropriate to the facts on the battlefield.” Now, the Ukrainians might say to that, “We’re fighting for our life right now, and you U.S. intelligence officials in Washington are telling us what is appropriate and what is not?”
Brzezinski: Well, what we have been sending and what we see as the Ukrainians needing to defend themselves against the Russians is anti-armor and air defense weapons.
Isikoff: Are there any more options on the table?
Brzezinski: You know, this is not a one-way conversation. … It’s definitely a two-way conversation in terms of what works. You should talk with the DOD in terms of how these assessments are being made.
Isikoff: You were at the National Security Council helping to coordinate Russia policy during the Clinton administration when the U.S. was promoting NATO expansion to Eastern Europe. But, as you know, there were people warning at the time that this was going to be unsettling to the Russians and indeed it’s been a consistent theme of Vladimir Putin all along that hostile NATO forces are encroaching on his borders. Looking back on it, was it the right thing for the United States to promote NATO membership to the former Iron Curtain countries in Eastern Europe?
Brzezinski: It was absolutely the right call. I cannot imagine how uncertain and anxious the Polish people would be if Poland were not in NATO — and I would say that for all the East European states that are in NATO — because Putin is proving the thesis that these countries needed to be secure because he’s on a killing spree to the east.
You mentioned my service on the National Security Council, Michael, in the late 1990s, and also when I was there, President Putin emerged out of nowhere, [he] came in from St. Petersburg, a former KGB agent, to replace Boris Yeltsin. My fear is something of a pacification program that [Putin] might pursue in Ukraine. We’ll see what happens. But this is a guy, tragically, who we know. He’s committing the crimes that we were worried about and I think the NATO membership gives the confidence to this part of the world that it absolutely needed, and it’s ready to walk the walk.
Klaidman: But, as you know, Putin’s beef now is Ukraine and the possibility down the line of Ukraine joining NATO. I’m going to read you a couple of quotes here, one from Henry Kissinger: “The West must understand that to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. If Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other. … Instead of joining NATO, Ukraine should pursue a posture, comparable to that of Finland.” Another foreign policy mandarin was your father, who was national security adviser to Jimmy Carter. And he also, at the time, embraced the Finland model, saying Ukraine should have, “no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself.” So, was he wrong at the time? How do you reconcile those views with the position of the United States government currently?
Brzezinski: I think if one would suggest that somehow this mass homicide that is going on in Ukraine is triggered by steps to secure countries to Ukraine’s west, I just don’t validate that. What is happening here is mass homicide that is totally and completely unjustified.
Klaidman: Could it have been avoided if we had handled our policy vis-à-vis eastward expansion in NATO differently?
Brzezinski: My read of Putin, having watched his ascension from the late 1990s, is that he is a thug who has a revanchist notion of Russia’s footprint in Eurasia. And that, for him, Kyiv and Odesa were focal points of what a revived or renewed Soviet bloc would be. And I think that that is his driving motivation behind all of this.
Isikoff: So the NATO issue is essentially a smoke screen?
Brzezinski: I think, to the contrary, NATO membership is a very clear thing in Putin’s mind that he does not want to tangle with. Because as Secretary Austin made clear, NATO has 1.9 million soldiers in uniform, under arms, versus the Russian military, which is less than 200,000. Do the math. I think [NATO] is an incredibly important stabilizing point in the transatlantic community and Eurasia.
Isikoff: If Putin is in fact a thug who’s determined to expand Russian power and influence, is there any diplomatic off-ramp at this point. And if so, what is it?
Brzezinski: It’s a great question. I think that Secretary of State Blinken and national security adviser [Jake] Sullivan have continuously offered the folks around Putin off-ramps, and quite appropriately, because we want the bloodshed to end.
Isikoff: But what is that off-ramp? Is it accepting Russian control of eastern Ukraine and accepting the annexation of Crimea in exchange for a Russian withdrawal from the rest of the country? Is that the diplomatic solution here?
Brzezinski: I think what may result in the use of that off-ramp is the pressure put on Putin by those close to him from devastating sanctions, from diplomatic isolation and other measures that are painful to those who can get to him and say, “Would you stop this? This is insanity.” And so I’m glad that those diplomatic off-ramps are being offered, despite the fact that we’re having to prepare for every contingency.
Isikoff: So, just to be clear, could the U.S. accept Russian control of eastern Ukraine and Crimea in exchange for a withdrawal of Russian military forces?
Brzezinski: I’m not in a position in which I can say that. I’m here to put eyes on the synchronicity between the Polish military, the NATO frontier and the American military here, and then to develop contingencies regarding this humanitarian mass that is crossing over our border.
Isikoff: The mayor of Warsaw said today, “We are dealing with the greatest migration crisis in the history of Europe since World War II. The situation is getting more and more difficult every day.” Two-and-a-half-million Ukrainian refugees overall in just the last few weeks, one-and-a-half-million of them in Poland — what’s it like for the Poles right now?
Brzezinski: And this is the story that I want to convey. It’s a story about young people in Poland organizing, primarily on social media, and saying let’s go to the border. Let’s go to the border and help people who we do not know. Let’s bring them into our apartments. Let’s get them food. Let’s get their kids into schools. That is happening thousands upon thousands of times. And it is an amazing story of people who often are the children of victims themselves because Poland over history has been a victimized country, an occupied country. These folks are running towards the fire, not away from the fire, to help those fleeing the fire. And they all want to go back, the Ukrainians who have come here. They hope that Putin loses. They hope that their country wins against this attack. And that Ukraine is one day again free and that they can get back home quickly and rebuild their lives.
Klaidman: As a practical matter, how are they being cared for right now? How can the Poles absorb such an enormous number [of refugees]?
Brzezinski: Well, let’s start from where they’re coming from. They’re coming from Western Ukraine to eight border crossings along the eastern border of Poland. And they range from two-lane roads to [a] much bigger highway type. So there are many logistics trucking centers there that have been converted to makeshift refugee centers that allow people arriving to get a little bit of rest. But then, once they can, [they] move to the train stations, to the bus stations, to get bused into interior Poland, either Krakow or to Warsaw or to other cities around here where they are received. But beyond that the question is, can they be placed in apartments? Can they be placed in houses? There are actually very few apartments to rent here in Warsaw because the apartments have been scooped up by people renting them for Ukrainian refugees here. And so it’s a little bit of a capacity issue… And then the [next] step is can they find work here? Can they get medical services here? And can they get their kids into schools? There’s 400,000 plus Ukrainian children that have arrived here in the last 10 days that have a right to go to school and there is a [effort] now being done by the Ministry of Education to bring them all in for the spring semester.
Klaidman: How can the United States help? What are we specifically going to do to try to ease the burden on Poland?
Brzezinski: Vice President Kamala Harris was in Poland to reassure and to bear witness, to hear stories from Ukrainian refugees, to consult with the Polish government on what it is that we can do together on the humanitarian piece. And during her visit [she] deployed $53 million in humanitarian assistance through USAID… At the same time, it’s early days in this crisis. We do not know how many [more] people will be here. And part of that is determined by what happens in Ukraine.
Klaidman: Does that mean it’s too early to make firm decisions about whether the United States will admit or how many refugees the United States should admit from Ukraine?
Brzezinski: I don’t think it’s too early to make those decisions. And I think that is what Vice President Harris promised to bring home to Washington when she gets home today from her visit to Eastern Europe.
Isikoff: What are you urging on that score? How many refugees should the U.S. take in?
Brzezinski: I can tell you from the ground here, in consulting with just, you know, [the] media, I’ve been down to the border three times in the last week. And so I’ve spent a good amount of time anecdotally engaging with people. And most of the Ukrainian refugees I have met with want to stay close to the border because they believe they can still go home. There’s a hope that that this will somehow turn in Ukraine’s favor and they will be able to get home within a couple months or within this year.
Kladiman: I wonder if you might just tell us a little bit about some of the conversations you have been able to have with some of these refugees fleeing war in Ukraine.
Brzezinski: Sure. I think that’s a great question, Daniel, because in the end, it’s the people that count. And so I’m a dad, and when I’ve talked primarily to women in the lines who have children with them, I’ve been amazed by how calm their children are after waiting for three days and the fact that they can still smile is to me amazing, because it is fricking cold over here, and to stand for three days in the cold, to me I think is a form of torture. And so I can report to you, I’ve seen human beings doing extraordinary feats physically to get across the border.