Poland’s former president and Solidarity founder, Lech Walesa, talks to The Associated Press in Warsaw, Poland, on May 23, 2014. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP Photo)
The United States must lead the international order to help reform and reintegrate Russia into the global community, according to a former president of Poland.
If the United States fails to lead at this moment, the international order it helped to create could crumble, Lech Walesa—who played a vital role in the overthrow of communism in his country—said during a Feb. 8 talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
“Many of the civilizations of the past crumbled because, somewhere along the way, they forgot about leadership, and we’re heading in the same direction,” Mr. Walesa said, speaking through a translator.
“But fate has given America the role of leader in these changes, and the U.S. cannot retreat now.”
He said the United States must support Ukraine’s quest for democratic government but that lasting peace would only be possible when the people of Russia are engaged to reform their own government.
“Let’s finish this cycle,” Mr. Walesa said. “The world is beautiful. Russia is beautiful too, but when it is peaceful.
“Help Russia be peaceful. But not with tanks. Convince them. Let them internalize what needs to be done.”
US Must ‘Demolish’ Legacy of Communism
Mr. Walesa was the first Polish president to be elected by popular vote after he led the peaceful trade union Solidarity to end communist rule at the end of the Cold War.
Referring to the communist powers of the 20th century, he said he had sought to “demolish the old system of the world” but that communism’s “structures” persisted in Russia under leader Vladimir Putin, as well as in China and elsewhere.
“Well, we didn’t demolish it all the way, because Russia and China were left,” said Mr. Walesa, who served as president from 1990 to 1995.
“But that demolition job was in order to build something new.”
Mr. Walesa said Russian aggression over the past two decades owed in part to the fact that the Russian people had never been given the opportunity to truly reform their system of government and free themselves from tyranny.
“In theory, communism may seem better,“ he said. ”That’s why many people in the West are foolish enough to believe in communism.
“It only looks good. What people don’t know is it is not implementable. That is why I say reject it.”
He suggested that the U.S.-led effort to counter Russia’s “Soviet” aggression would fail unless it focused on peacefully helping the Russian people reform their own government and achieve a better way of life.
“If we don’t help the Soviets change their own system, they will keep treading on us,” Mr. Walesa said.
“If you don’t do this, and listen to the revolutionaries, Russia will come for you.”
The United States and its allies should act, therefore, to bring about order and a final end to communism and the political structures it created that persist in China and Russia, he said.
“We have both Russia and China within our grasp,“ Mr. Walesa said. ”We can put them in our fist.
“If the U.S. does not take advantage of this opportunity, our grandchildren will never forgive us.”
Propaganda More Important than Tanks
Despite the tough rhetoric, Mr. Walesa underscored that lasting peace with Russia would never be possible if the United States focused only on military victory.
Instead, he suggested that Ukraine’s allies and partners fight with propaganda aimed at the Russian people to let them know what was happening in Ukraine and their own country. This information is increasingly hard to obtain through state-censored media outlets in Russia.
Such tasks could be as simple as mass letter-writing campaigns, Mr. Walesa said. Members of the international community would write to the neighbors of the hundreds of thousands of Russians who have been killed or injured fighting in Ukraine, asking them what they had died for.
By focusing on telling the truth about Russian casualty figures, showing the corruption of the Putin regime, and encouraging the Russian people to rejoin the international community, lasting peace may yet be possible, he said.
Military support would still be required to ensure that Ukraine is not conquered and demilitarized, he noted, but the United States’ primary efforts should be on peacefully helping Russians to overcome and reform their own government.
“Of course, you have to continue supporting the military aid because they are shooting each other,” Mr. Walesa said.
“[But] pay more attention to strong propaganda solutions. Use peaceful ways.”
He also warned against war hawks in the United States and elsewhere who see military operations as the sole means of achieving victory. Or, much worse, they seek to exploit such conflict for their own gains.
“I worry that there’s somebody that wants to solve this problem through military ways only. They want to make money on military spending, which would weaken Russia for another 20 or 30 years, and then they would make money on rebuilding,” Mr. Walesa said.
“It doesn’t have to be that the U.S. pays with its dollars for everybody else in the world. You have to prepare solutions to topics that are important now, otherwise, we will destroy the civilization in which we now live.”
Injecting a moment of levity, he said: “If you don’t want to lead, give it to us ... and we, Poland, will lead.”
Creating a New Epoch
Mr. Walesa expressed concern that the long shadow of communism he worked so hard to free Poland from would continue to cast its darkness on the world.
With that in mind, he shared a personal anecdote about an unfulfilled ambition that he had as Poland’s first post-communist president.
Mr. Walesa revealed that during his time as president, he had planned to lead an effort for Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus to join NATO and the European Union together, solidifying their place among the democratic and rules-based order.
Then, he lost his reelection campaign. Poland did indeed go on to join NATO and the EU, but Belarus gradually allowed its government to be dominated by Moscow while Ukraine was left adrift, never achieving the full democracy and transparency enjoyed in the rest of the West.
“Poland fled to NATO and the European Union. Ukraine was left behind,” Mr. Walesa said.
“I think that, if Poland did not succeed in joining NATO and the European Union, it would be Poland today having war with Russia. ... Ukraine took our place.”
While he said he thinks the era of communism and totalitarianism is closing, the nations of the world have so far failed to provide visionary leadership for a better future, leaving the international order in a state of limbo, caught between eras and unable to move forward.
“We can have a beautiful world,” Mr. Walesa said, provided that totalitarian nations were reformed and their people allowed to reach equal levels of development with the West.
Such an era of peace, he said, could only truly begin by helping the Russian people become fully part of the international order with a free and democratic government.
Now, with much of the world turned against Putin, according to Mr. Walesa, the chance to ensure that future is at hand.
“One epoch has ended, but another one hasn’t started,” he said.
“There will never be a better chance. Don’t lose this chance.”