Luxembourg, the 28th of February 2022
Czech Republic’s perspective on the current state of play between Russia and Ukraine
Thursday 24/2/2022 in the morning hours Russia invaded Ukraine. What was your first thought about the Ukraine crisis?
Understanding that despite the efforts to resolve the situation diplomatically and peacefully over the past days, weeks and months, the Russian President has chosen the path of war. We are witnessing an unjustifiable and unprovoked aggression by Russia, with the participation of Belarus, against Ukraine. Russia is trampling on the principles of European security architecture, international law and peaceful coexistence. I don’t know to what extent the Russian president realizes this, but he is bringing war, chaos and suffering not only to countless Ukrainians, but also to its own citizens.
We must set the record straight – this is not about the Ukraine crisis or the crisis in Ukraine. This is ultimately a Russian crisis. As the aggressor that illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and now are entering another part of Ukrainian territory. Having not accepted the concept of freedom and democracy in Ukraine, Russia views it as a threat that it intends to eliminate.
The invasion was preceded by television appearances by President Putin and the recognition of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk Republics.
The manipulation of information, disinformation and artificial reasons for aggression prepared by the Russian security forces in eastern Ukraine can in no way justify the Russian invasion. As recently as 23 February, the Russian ambassador in Prague claimed that reports of the presence of Russian troops in the Donbas were merely disinformation from the Western media. It is therefore unfortunately obvious that lying has become a common tool of Russian state power, including Russian diplomacy. The Kremlin’s return to the historically outdated traditions of the Soviet Union’s imperial, expansionist and reckless policy, with which the Czechs and Slovaks also have had unfortunate experiences, cannot bring anything good to the citizens of Russia either. The West has never been an enemy of the Russians; I venture to say, that since the end of the Cold War, neither of the Russian state. It is only the current Russian leadership that has dragged the entire country into a war of aggression, without any regard for the cost to the citizens of Russia, including the lives lost in a pointless and senseless war.
What is your government’s response in the diplomatic and consular sphere?
Well, our State Security Council met immediately on Thursday and decided to summon Czech ambassadors to Russia and Belarus to Prague for consultations and suspend the operation of the Czech Consulates General in St Petersburg and Ekaterinburg; in addition, it has been decided to suspend the acceptance of visa applications of Russian citizens at all embassies except in humanitarian cases. Czechia also withdraws its approval of the activities of the Russian Consulates General in Brno and Karlovy Vary.
We are also launching an information service for Ukrainian citizens in Czechia. All Ukrainians who have a long-term residence permit in Czechia will be accommodated regarding its extension. We understand the difficult situation in which Ukrainians living in Czechia find themselves. “Ukraine is a victim of Russian aggression and we will not leave our friends without help. If Ukrainian citizens’ residency ends, they need not fear restrictions. Under a simplified procedure, they can apply for a special type of visa and stay with us,” Interior Minister said, adding that the system of extending their stay will continue to apply in the coming months. On top of that, if Ukrainian citizens have a wife, children or parents at home, these family members can come to Czechia visa-free with only their passports. All other formalities will be taken care of on our territory.
And in the humanitarian field?
Czechia will provide effective assistance to Ukraine at both European and national level; to start with, we are releasing over 12 million euros for humanitarian aid and we are ready to assist Ukraine within the framework of the Medevac humanitarian medical program. I should also mention that Czech Railways allow Ukrainian citizens who wish to return to their homeland to travel free of charge on its trains. On Thursday, the carrier also offered the authorities dozens of carriages for the possible evacuation of civilians from Ukraine.
The University of South Bohemia provides social scholarships to students from Ukraine. The university campuses, in turn, are giving Ukrainian students 50 percent discounts on accommodation until the end of the semester.
But that’s just the official support. There is a huge fundraising effort across the country to support Ukrainians and humanitarian organizations working in field. Czech volunteers are coming with their vehicles to transport people from the border, but also from inside Ukraine. On social networks, people are coming together to offer accommodation to refugees. The official website of the Refugee Facilities Administration of the Ministry of Interior has so far received more than 1000 different offers from citizens, ranging from single beds or rooms to mass accommodation – and this is just within one day.
So the Czech Republic is not turning its back on migration, as some claim…?
I would say that people tend to see the world in black and white for simplicity’s sake. But it’s rarely that simple… You’d be surprised how many people are prepared to give up their comfort at a moment of clear aggression and threat to the lives of their neighbors…
Speaking of a black-and-white perception of the world, I think it is important to resist the cheap temptation of collective guilt, which is why I think it is important that the Ministry of Education has prepared instructions for schools on how to discuss the situation in Ukraine with students so that they do not blame the Russians or Ukrainians in the Czech Republic for the conflict.
Does the Czech Republic perceive concerns about the energy crisis that may come in connection with the conflict?
In regard the energy, we are in contact with energy companies and allies who are ready to help us face the difficult situation. This is understandably a concern but sometimes we are forced to step out of our comfort zone, and if we heat less, it is still less harm than our Ukrainian friends are currently facing. So yes, we are prepared for supply disruptions of raw materials such as oil and natural gas.
After the first day of the invasion, the Russian plans for a quick seizure of Kiev do not seem to be working. What do you predict the next developments?
This is difficult to predict, but it seems that Russia did not expect such tenacious resistance. On the other hand, Russian frustration at the loss of an empire also seems to be a driving force. Russia will want to keep expanding. First, it annexed Crimea in violation of international law and now it is trying to gain more Ukrainian territory. The Baltic states rightly feel threatened, however, the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine is sure to impact us all – especially in terms of security (including cyber security). We are witnessing an unprecedented disinformation campaign and increased activity by Russian intelligence– we must stop being naïve about their long-term effort to alter democratic procedures all around the world. We have to work at EU level to reduce the Russian intelligence threat to Europe.
The moral support of the whole world is important for Ukraine, of course. However, strictly speaking, lighting more buildings blue and yellow and pinning more symbolic flags to FB profile will not win the war in Ukraine. It is extremely important that the EU behaves in an action-oriented manner and that Member States provide not only moral support but also military support. The Czech government has already increased the volume of weapons it has delivered to the field several times.
Do you think that the modern history of the Czech Republic helps you understand the Ukrainian desire for self-determination?
Absolutely. We have strong empathy with Ukrainians and their desire for freedom: like us in 1989, Ukraine has chosen to integrate with the West – it respects freedom of speech and human rights and holds free elections, so they don’t have a political leadership that is cemented in office for 20 years. It is reforming its political and economic system, has signed an Association Agreement with the EU and a Free Trade Area Agreement, and is seeking to join the Union and NATO. No one has the right to prevent it from doing so, and only the citizens of Ukraine can decide Ukraine’s future. Czechia has always supported Ukrainian efforts to decide their own destiny independently and to strive for a democratic future and a Euro-Atlantic orientation for their country, and will continue to do so.
Speaking of the history of the Czech Republic or Czechoslovakia: it is remarkable how the Russian narrative copies the situation in Europe in 1938-1939, when the Nazi leaders and press used (and abused) the German minority in the Czechoslovak borderlands. Let us recall where the politics of appeasement has brought the world. Not only was it naive to think that Hitler would be satisfied by annexing Austria and Czechoslovakia, “which is far away and therefore we will not bleed for it”. However, as it turned out, the Allies sacrificing Czechoslovakia only whetted Hitler’s appetite, and he had already used tanks acquired in Czechoslovakia to invade France.
Thirty years later, in 1968, the Czechoslovak public was awakening to the so-called Prague Spring. At that time, the USSR also did not want to allow the revival process to threaten the fundamental ideas of the communist camp and sent tanks into the Czechoslovak streets to attack the civilian population. The Russians stifled the revival process for the next twenty years, during which Luxembourg took in many Czechoslovak refugees.
It doesn’t matter that the bully is bigger and makes up excuses to oppress the smaller. It would be naïve today to think that Ukraine is far away. The fight for Kiev is a fight for democracy around the world.
Let us hope that the world has learned some lessons from the ineffectiveness of the appeasement policy. In the meantime, let’s prepare for a big wave of refugees from Ukraine.