Lech Wałęsa, the former president of Poland, spoke to a full auditorium in Rackham Amphitheatre on Tuesday about the ongoing crisis in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, his role in leading the Ukrainian Solidarity Campaign and subsequently leading Poland. 

Russia invaded Ukraine in February, expecting a quick victory in the war. Wałęsa’s talk at Rackham follows Ukraine taking back about 2,300 square miles of previously Russian-occupied territory on Monday. He drew parallels between the current war and his time working in Poland.

Wałęsa helped to institute democratic elections in Poland while leading the Solidarity movement. He was also a Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 1983 before becoming the first President of Poland elected via a democratic election since 1926. He served as President from 1990 until 1995. 

The event was hosted by the Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia (WCEE) in conjunction with the Copernicus Center for Polish Studies, Ford School of Public Policy, Democracy and Debate and the Weiser Diplomacy Center. 

Wałęsa said the world is in a state of transition and that the United States must rise to lead the world. 

“One (era) has fallen down, the other has not been created yet,” Wałęsa said.“Somebody has to lead. I would like to encourage you, to plead with you, to lead.”

Wałęsa went on to discuss the current war in Ukraine. Wałęsa encouraged attendees to acknowledge the urgent need for help for Ukranians, while also thinking about the root cause of the war.

“We have to help (Ukrainians) so they survive,” Wałęsa said. “But the cause, the causes are really more important. And what that is — is the bad political system in Russia. It’s not just Stalin or Putin, it’s the political system that makes it possible for people like them to show up.”

Wałęsa critiqued Russia’s political system, specifically criticizing two consecutive term limit laws that  allow Putin to hold onto power until 2036. He said even if Ukraine were to win the ongoing war, “Russia will rise again.” He said there should be a term limit law limiting Russian leaders to two five-year terms.

Wałęsa said there are two main ways to increase power as a state: through freedom and democracy or through war.

“So now there is a question,” Wałęsa said. “Which one of them (democratic forces or Russia) is going to win? Which one will we allow to win?”

Wałęsa concluded his discussion by emphasizing the need for the United States to rise back up and be a world leader, saying the country is well-positioned to help Ukrainians. 

“I am pleading with you to please realize that you’re responsible for the whole world,” Wałęsa said. “That this is your fate. This is your God-given role: to lead the world.”

Public Policy graduate student Oieshi Saha told The Michigan Daily she valued Wałęsa’s comments about the need for America to regain its leadership on the world stage and said the discussion connected to what she has studied in class. 

“What I took away from this talk was that leadership and dominance are not one (and) the same,” Saha said. “There are ways of leading that don’t demand dominating and appropriating like America has done.”

Music, Theatre & Dance freshman Tim Kulawiak told The Daily he felt Wałęsa’s talk was “personally relevant” since his father was Polish and took part in the Solidarity movement Wałęsa led. He said Wałęsa left him feeling inspired about what is to come next in the world. 

“What stood out most was this call to action,” Kulawiak said. “Very much singling out the U.S. as the place where there’s the most potential for change … it’s our responsibility, our  privilege to be able to be in this position where there’s a gap of leadership and a transitional time where there’s so much potential for positive change.”

Daily Staff Reporter Julia Forrest can be reached at juforres@umich.edu.