Last night I had the pleasure of attending a Polish City Club event in honour of professor Zbigniew Pelczynski, hosted by a number of prominent Poles from the London diaspora.
Also attending was Poland’s new ambassador to the UK, Piotr Wilczek, Greg Hands, the UK minister of state for business, energy and clean growth and Irina Tymczyszyn, President of the Ukrainian-British City Club. I believe journalist and commentator Edward Lucas was in the crowd somewhere too.
The mood was uniquely energised with concern over recent events in Ukraine. Albeit somewhat sanguine too. A consensus also seemed to be emerging that whatever the domestic political differences in Poland are (the country is similarly polarised as the US and the UK), they could and would stand united against the common external threat of Russia.
Speculation was rife that perhaps the Cold War had never really ended, that even if the old kleptocratic order which had dominated the last days of the Soviet Union had abandoned Marxist ideology that they had not really given up on the greater objective of dominating Europe, or even the West.
Many were evaluating the likelihood of a Valkyrie moment for Putin, but also — in retrospect — whether there had been more to the Smolensk air disaster, which killed the entire elite body of the Polish government in April 2010, including the then president Lech Kaczynski, than simple pilot error as has always been claimed.
All three honorary guests gave impassioned speeches, with Tymczyszyn noting: “This is evil, there is no explanation, there is no excuse about NATO borders and anyone who tries to justify this is actually the same criminal as Putin is.”
“As a lawyer I cannot imagine how I would accept business from a client who finances the killing of my parents. Remember if he is not opposed on a united front he will continue and get stronger.”
The war-time rhetoric continued, with Tymczyszyn calling for a new perspective on information sharing during this period (my emphasis):
“Today, Ukrainians, my countrymen are fighting for all of you. And please support Ukraine, by donation, by spreading the word, by spreading the right information, by isolating Russian businesses and the Russian economy from the civilised world. For now, while this is happening, perhaps if Putin is no more and there is a democratically elected president, this will return. But at this moment in time any [inaudible] with Russia unfortunately comes out as a gunfight. And it’s happening now.”
A standing ovation followed.
Greg Hands noted that while he had believed all the British intelligence reports that an actual invasion was likely to happen, but that “still, there’s something in you that feels ‘they couldn’t possibly?'” That he had wondered “is this actually going to happen in the year 2022, that a country is going to invade another country? Part of me was thinking this can’t possibly happen.”
He went on to say that his daughter, who went to a pro Ukrainian demonstration the other day had said to him, “But papa there have been a few other wars, like Iraq?” To which he said, but this one is a bit different. This is one country invading another in a way that has not been seen…. that all the other instances were not quite the same as an outright invasion of one sovereign country to another in a brutal and barbaric way that “he thinks” has profoundly shocked people.
Hands added that on Saturday he had been talking to the Ukrainian energy minister about the long term objective of getting Ukraine out of the Russian energy orbit into being able to have much more diverse sources of energy:
“I know that’s not the immediate problem but long term making Ukraine have other options available is going to be really important for its strength.”
“Let us make sure of this that we cannot afford, nobody in the world can afford for Vladimir Putin to win this conflict. Let’s be absolutely frank. This is as big as anything in the 20th century in that sense, in terms of sending a message to somebody that aggression will not pay.”
The fighting talk continued:
“This is as big as anything in the 20th century in that sense, in terms of sending a message to somebody that aggression will not pay. This is flagrant aggression of one large country to a smaller country next door. That is something which I thought we had left behind us in 1945, but has come back, which means that we have to fight those battles that our grandparents fought three/four generations ago and win them all over again.
The simple message is aggression will not pay, people like Vladimir Putin… We must ensure that he fails for the whole world, and particularly for the people of Ukraine.”
Ambassador Wilczek looked to the impact of sanctions and mutual solidarity (my emphasis).
“We have an even more powerful weapon, our unity and our solidarity forged into economic sanctions and military assistance.
“The effects of the sanctions can already be seen with the value of the ruble plummeting to a record low level and the stock market being frozen. Although these decisions will have serious consequences, also for the economies of Western countries, the EU countries, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, acting jointly decided to exclude Russian banks from the SWIFT system. This will harm their ability to operate globally.
“Apart from the direct impact of the sanctions, we should also note the deterioration of the climate and the willingness of Western and particularly British companies to cooperate with Russia, such as BP selling its shares in Rosneft. Finances is where we can hurt Russia the most.
“I strongly believe that the sanctions will continue to Putin a visible strain on the Russian economy, which in time was forced put into reconsider the real cause of this aggression.”
And finally he concluded:
“Let me reiterate what the Polish governments and presidents have been saying over the past few days and weeks and months. We strongly urge the EU to grant Ukraine attendance status given giving clear hope, in the giving key of hope for EU accession. We’d also like to see one day Ukraine as a NATO member. Let that symbolic incorporation of Ukraine into the West, by Vladimir Putin’s true legacy, not one he would have hoped for. But one he is surely working for. Today. Here we all stand united with Ukraine, let us continue to do so. Slava Ukraina.”
Talk later turned to which financial and fintech businesses may or may not have problems with sanctions. Revolut, the Russian-connected fintech challenger, it was noted had visibly pinned a pro-Ukrainian graphic onto its Twitter handle.
Polish media, I was told, had been reporting that Putin was now holed up in a bunker guarding against a Valkyrie moment. Some others mentioned reports on the Polish media side that Putin had for weeks been requiring anyone visiting him to undergo significant decontamination measures, perhaps fearful of chemical or biological contaminants.
The first casualty of war is truth
Most Poles were fairly pragmatic about how propaganda was being deployed and used right now. They cited the Snake Island affair, which had originally been reported as a slaughtering of Ukrainians, but later transpired to be a capture, as an example of the scale of the Ukrainian disinformation at work. But the mood in general sided with the idea that at times of war, these sorts of disinformation strategies were acceptable.
Relatedly, I was told, after asking if it was acceptable for media to interview Stalin during his peak despot years, that a big scandal had broken out in Poland about whether it was okay for the domestic media to air commentary from the Russian ambassador.
The sentiment in the room sided with the idea that in war time — and that is what we are in now — the normal rules of democracy no longer apply so deplatforming the Russian narrative is entirely justified.
I challenged this assumption on the basis that poor financial allocation loses wars too. Imagine, I said, if our side under spent on military or energy security (a la the Germans, let’s face it) because we thought relations with the other side were better than they really were, or because we thought we were doing better than reality. If you don’t know what the other side is saying, I argued, or if you misinform yourself about the scale of your own success, you risk believing your own disinformation and losing sight of the bigger picture.
This is why, I further noted, that in many despotic regimes, such as under Mao in China, information was often tiered. One morale boosting narrative for the masses, another more truthful analysis – warts and all — for the elite.
Dispassionate analysis that focuses on the big picture, a la what I am trying to do with The Blind Spot, is necessary to make smart financial decisions. That doesn’t mean the perspectives being raised or platformed are ones the outlet necessarily agrees with. But nobody benefits from the West being bankrupted because it drank its own kool-aid.
And on that front, if the mood at last night’s gathering is an indicator of the mood in Warsaw, there’s no doubt in my mind that Poland is now firmly on a war-footing too.
UPDATE: Someone just sent me the link to the new TVP World channel – aka Poland’s foreign news service. For those who want to keep an eye on the Polish perspective it’s worth a gander.