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Polish See Shades Of 1939 In Russia's Crimea Grab


What will Mr. Putin do next? A lot of people want to know but the question is especially urgent and personal for those living in a country that shares a border with Ukraine and that have a long and bitter history of being invaded, occupied and dominated: Poland. We're joined now by Konstanty Gebert. He's a columnist for Gazeta Wyborcza, one of the leading newspapers in Poland. He joins us from his home in Warsaw. Mr. Gebert, thanks very much for being with us.


SIMON: What concerns Poles most at the moment?

GEBERT: There is substantial outrage at Mr. Putin's latest moves. A lot of solidarity with the Ukrainians, a lot of concern that the situation might degenerate into actual welfare and a lot of concern whether Western public opinion and Western governments really appreciate the gravity of the situation.

SIMON: Help us understand how you see the gravity of this situation and many Poles do.

GEBERT: Well, basically, if Mr. Putin gets away with it, no border in Eastern Europe is safe. Whatever the historical arguments he has made for grabbing Crimea, there really isn't the piece of real estate in Eastern Europe that somebody can make a reasonable historical argument for. I've just completed a piece for my paper comparing quotes from Mr. Putin's Kremlin speech out of Hitler's Anschluss speech, Adolf Hitler's Sudetenland speech, and the analogies are staggering to the point that I'm asking myself whether Mr. Putin's speechwriter didn't intentionally model elements of the speech on the more famous predecessor.

SIMON: Well, what do you say to those people who find that analogy overblown, who say whatever drawbacks Vladimir Putin has a democratic leader, on the other hand, he hasn't undertaken to extinguish an entire people the way Adolf Hitler did?

GEBERT: Certainly in 1938, Adolf Hitler had not yet undertaken the Holocaust. In 1938, his arguments were reversing unjust borders, uniting old German speakers with the motherland, correcting historical injustice. This the same kind of argumentation Mr. Putin uses. Now, of course, as of today, the analogy with Hitler remains overblown and may it remain so. Having said that, I really do not see an example of this kind of blatant land grab in recent post-war European history.

SIMON: Any concern that Ukrainians who feel anxious might wind up fleeing to Poland?

GEBERT: We've had our first 100 refugees, Tatars from Crimea, entering Poland over the last couple of days requesting political asylum, and we expect more. If the situation on Ukraine's eastern land borders with Russia flares up - and I'm pretty sure it will - it won't be very difficult for Mr. Putin to whip up trouble there to make proper conduct of presidential elections impossible - then I can imagine that the numbers of refugees will not be in the hundreds but in the thousands, and Poland is Ukraine's major outlet on the European Union. So, yes, the country is getting prepared to receive and accommodate refugees. But, of course, we hope that they will not arrive.

SIMON: And is there confidence that the United States would support Poland in one measure or another if it needed it?

GEBERT: We hope we will not have to test that. Poland has a long history of alliances with allies who did not live up to their promises. The U.S. has not been tested. We're pretty sure the U.S. will back us, to a point. It is not possible to say where that point is, and nobody really wants to find out.

SIMON: Konstanty Gebert, who's a columnist for Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland. Thank you so much for being with us.

GEBERT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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