Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine shocked the world. While US intelligence had warned that an attack was imminent, few anticipated that the Russian president would launch a full-scale war that could result only in destruction and disaster. In the Czech Republic, too, the initial reaction from politicians and most of the population was characterized by strong opposition to Putin and an outpouring of sympathy with Ukrainians.
For many Czechs like my mother, the invasion stirred painful memories of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, ending the country’s short fight for a liberalized socialism. When I phoned her a few days after the invasion, she recalled her memories of when, at age seven, she looked on terrified as Soviet tanks rolled down the main road of her hometown.
Another parallel widely used in Czech politics is the Munich agreement of 1938, a defining moment in the country’s twentieth-century history. There, Britain and France agreed to give Hitler the Czech borderlands where Germans were supposedly oppressed. The Nazi leader persuaded them that he just needed to liberate the Germans who had lived in the Sudetenland for centuries — before swallowing up the rest of the country a few months later.
The years 1938 and 1968 thus each play a major role in Czechs’ overwhelming support for Ukraine. The Ukrainians’ brave defense against the invading forces inspires them to try to relive these historical events — and unlike in the past, this time fight back against the aggressor. When current Czech prime minister Petr Fiala went to Kiev to visit Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky alongside his Polish and Slovenian counterparts on March 15, it might have sent a morale boost to Ukrainians. But it was more about sending signals to the home front that this time, we will defend ourselves — a message that received a broad positive reception.
Yet, this war has also forced a change of positions. Particularly notable were the actions of President Miloš Zeman, previously known for warm relations with Putin. He vehemently condemned the Russian invasion, calling on the world to “isolate this madman.” He later even offered the Order of the White Lion — the state’s highest honor — to Zelensky. Even though Zeman had little room to act otherwise, given that, most Czechs — and more significantly, most of its political elite — today support Ukraine, it is not impossible that he genuinely recognized that his past approach had failed dramatically.
Indeed, this marked a sharp U-turn by Zeman, a former prime minister who has now been president for nine years. During his speech at the Council of Europe in 2017, he suggested that Russia’s annexation of Crimea should be considered a done deal. Zeman was also heavily criticized for sticking up for his close economic advisor Martin Nejedlý, cofounder of the Czech division of Russian petroleum company Lukoil, who has ties to Putin allies. Immediately after the invasion, Nejedlý briefly disappeared from public life, before showing up for state celebrations at the Prague Castle. He has also retained his official advisory post.
Zeman’s spell as president has been marked by his plan to open up to Eastern markets, especially in Russia and China, to counterbalance the country’s dependence on the West. Although in the Czech parliamentary-democratic system the president’s role is meant to be symbolic, Zeman has played a more active role, using his influence to push through his agenda. This cooperation has, however, produced dismal results, as is well-illustrated by the story of Zeman’s main economic advisor for Czech-Chinese cooperation, Ye Jianming.
The director of China Energy Company Ltd, after years of stirring only meager Chinese investment in the Czech Republic, Ye Jianming suddenly disappeared in 2020. A year later he was convicted of corruption by a Chinese court and jailed for life. Today, his whereabouts are unknown. The only real output of this cooperation was Chinese investment in Slavia Prague football club, as well as President Xi Jinping’s controversial visit to the Czech Republic — overshadowed by shocking scenes of the police repressing attempts to protest human rights violations in China.
The “Eastern turn” had limited political or public support in the Czech Republic, and it is also not of the same type as Viktor Orbán’s illiberal turn in Hungary, where state-owned media openly promote the prime minister’s party and crusade against ”LGBT ideology.” Hungary is also heavily reliant on Moscow for oil, gas, and nuclear energy, and the prime minister, reelected on April 3, also decided not to be drawn into the conflict in Ukraine. When Zelensky criticized this neutral stance, Orbán retorted that “Hungary stands with Hungarians.” This caused a major rift even between Orbán and his conservative partners in Poland and the Czech Republic, resulting in Hungary’s growing isolation within the EU.
In the Czech Republic, conversely, few forces have remained loyal to Putin through this crisis. They include the xenophobic Freedom and Direct Democracy party — a far-right force led by Czech-Japanese entrepreneur Tomio Okamura, whose international allies include Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage — and the Communist Party. This latter has long associated itself with xenophobic, racist, and nationalist tendencies, and in recent years its electoral support has cratered, in 2021 failing to secure election to parliament for the first time since its refoundation in 1990. While from 2018 it supported the government led by former prime minister Andrej Babiš’s catch-all populist party ANO, in last year’s general election it was the billionaire media tycoon Babiš who managed to pull over large parts of the Communist and Social Democratic electorate, not least given their failure to challenge him on key economic issues like housing.
Also notable in the Czech Republic’s response to the war in Ukraine is the huge support for Ukrainian refugees; everyone is willing to help. Nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping the people fleeing the war received record amounts of money from the public and there has been a growing tendency for people to directly donate money to the Ukrainian army.
One can only feel proud at seeing ordinary Czech citizens come to train stations to help refugees, who dearly need their support. At the same time, the contrast with the refugee crisis in 2015 when people were fleeing bombs in Syria could not be starker. Just a few years ago, a small number of volunteers who were trying to help Syrian refugees not only received little help from the government or wider public, but were often subjected to verbal threats and even physical violence.
Back then, the anti-immigrant movement also affected mainstream politics, which adopted a hostile stance toward refugees. President Zeman stood side by side with the most hardcore pro-fascist anti-immigrant initiatives protesting against Muslims and political Islam. The current prime minister, Petr Fiala, who was at that time leader of the opposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS, conservative), visited the Hungarian-Croatian border to check the newly built barbed wire fence that was supposed to stop the flow of immigrants from Syria and Afghanistan into Europe.
Today, Fiala’s government is helping approximately three hundred thousand refugees from Ukraine to settle in Czech Republic, which compared to his attitude toward Syrian and Afghan refugees leaves a bitter aftertaste. In 2018, then prime minister Babiš vehemently and proudly denied political asylum to fifty orphans from Syria who were held in refugee camps in Greece.
Yet, this internationalism is hardly without precedent: for decades, this country, and Prague especially, did welcome refugees. In the 1930s, the refugees arriving in Czechoslovakia were mainly anti-fascists from Germany and Austria who fled their countries when Nazis and fascists took power; Prague also offered asylum to anti-Bolshevik émigrés from the Soviet Union.
In postwar decades, Communist Czechoslovakia provided education to thousands of people from socialist countries in Africa, Vietnam, and other Third World states. However, this internationalist approach started to collapse after the oil crisis in 1973. Eastern European countries faced an enormous debt crisis and were under pressure from Western financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Hence, they started to demand debt repayment from their non-European socialist allies.
This cooperation of Western financial institutions with Eastern European economists was the start of what historians nowadays call the “long transition” from late socialism into neoliberalism. In his book 1989: A Global History of Eastern Europe, British historian James Mark suggests that European unification after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 created a new wall between Europe and Africa in the Mediterranean sea. Eastern Europe’s solidarity with African countries and the Third World countries stopped. The contrast between the reaction of the Czech people to the refugee crisis in 2015 and now proves his point.
Clearly, the war in Ukraine is not perceived in the same way outside the West. In the March 2 UN vote condemning Russia’s invasion, 141 countries voted in favor, 4 against and 35 abstained. But if a large majority of UN member states voted to condemn Russia, weighted by population the vote looked different. Of the 7.7 billion people represented by governments taking part in the vote, only 42 percent were from countries approving the motion condemning Russia. Governments representing 51 percent of the world’s population abstained.
Russia’s ties with African countries from the Cold War period and Russia’s presence on the continent to this day — often cynically supporting various dictators and helping them to put down local uprisings — plays a crucial part in this decision. It is also worth reckoning with African countries’ fears of how they will be affected by the war in Ukraine. Disruptions in Russian exports of fertilizer could impact crop yields in African countries. And the knock-on effects of disruption in supply of animal feedstocks could impact other agricultural markets. Food prices have already started to increase, but this could also lead to material shortages.
War on Our Doorstep
If Syria was a “distant war”’ for most Europeans, hardly affecting their countries, the war in Ukraine is happening just a few hundred miles from its borders. For most Czechs, Ukrainians are also fighting for their freedom. The trauma from what Czechs call the ”Munich Betrayal” of 1938, and the Soviet invasion of 1968, play a huge role in a sometimes over-militaristic and warmongering response to the war in Ukraine. There is a shared sense that Czechs cannot leave Ukraine alone in their fight against the Russians. Some Czech political commentators, artists, and influencers were not shy to propose sending an army to help Ukraine in their fight and no-fly zone over Ukraine — effectively a declaration of World War III. The problem is, this means direct military conflict with the country that possesses thousands of nuclear weapons.
NATO has also became the word of the day. Critics of NATO started to be compared to pro-Putin agents, on account of whatever nuances of disagreement they might have on what NATO represents for global security and its role in the development of the conflict. In a way, it is understandable that openly pro-Putin propagandist media and online servers in the Czech Republic were shut down right after the Russian invasion; and even among Czech leftists, you won’t find many people pointing fingers at NATO for their part in escalating the conflict in Ukraine.
After the fall of the Moscow-aligned Warsaw Pact, some former member states — especially Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary — jumped at the possibility of joining NATO. This was not the only approach: after 1989 there was a brief moment of idealism where French president François Mitterrand and new Czech president Václav Havel, a long-time dissident, suggested some sort of pan-European military cooperation that would be independent of NATO and offer cooperation “from the Atlantic to the Urals.”
But these plans were swiftly rejected, especially in the wake of the failed coup in August 1991 by Soviet hardliners, war in Yugoslavia in 1991, and later the first Chechen war in 1995. For many people in Central and Eastern Europe, these events confirmed fears of potential Russian danger — and hardened them in favor of NATO membership. They feared that their hard-won independence might easily slip away — and that they needed to ensure their military security.
Yet this also had other consequences, far beyond Europe. Czech political representatives wanted to show Washington that they could be regarded as trusted partners, and willingly sent their troops to Afghanistan and later to Iraq. Miloš Zeman and Václav Havel were key supporters of both wars. Zeman even offered President George W. Bush information from the Czech secret services that Iraqi consul Samir al-Ani met with Mohamed Atta, the mastermind of 9/11 terrorist attacks, in Prague in April 2001. This information was never confirmed and al-Ani sued the Czech state for false accusations. It was nevertheless used as a proof of connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attackers.
If the war in Afghanistan found near-unanimous political and public backing in the Czech Republic, the Iraq War was a different story, with polls reporting that two-thirds of Czechs disapproved of the US-led invasion. Vladimír Špidla, leader of Social Democrats at that time, called invasion in Iraq “unjustified.” But President Havel bypassed the Czech parliament and officially supported the war, signing a joint letter to support Bush together with seven other European prime ministers.
If in the 1990s people in the former Eastern Bloc felt a threat from Russia, things there weren’t going well either. It slumped into unprecedented decline, with Western-injected shock therapy transforming the planned economy into a neoliberal market economy, with disastrous results. It is something that Putin gladly brings up when there is a chance to warn fellow Russians about the evil West. As M. E. Sarotte’s new book about the development of the relationship between NATO and Russia after 1989 Not One Inch shows, the United States’ careful approach in both negotiations of NATO enlargement and maintaining positive cooperation with Russia was abandoned in the second half of the 1990s and replaced with a much more offensive approach personified by the late US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, herself born in Czechoslovakia.
Albright wanted to use NATO’s military for what she called “spreading democracy and humanitarianism” throughout the world. Back then, many critics warned the United States against this potentially dangerous strategy. George Kennan, the architect of the successful postwar policy of containment to limit Soviet influence, warned in 1997 that the enlargement of NATO might lead to a long-term decline in the relationship between Russia and the United States, creating new conflicts between these two nuclear superpowers. He even considered the enlargement of NATO as the most fatal mistake of American foreign policy in the post–Cold War era.
Zeman was prime minister of the Czech Republic when it joined NATO in March 1999; that same month, President Havel approved the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia, to stop the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Kosovo. The decision also bypassed the UN Security Council and was unrelated to either Article 5 or aggression against another state. Russian president Boris Yeltsin was enraged. It was a very dangerous precedent. Yeltsin told Bill Clinton that it was difficult for him to try to turn the heads of Russians toward the West, and it was a tragedy to lose all that because of the NATO intervention. Yeltsin’s implication was that the United States was sacrificing its own nuclear safety for Kosovo.
From that point on, large strides in arms control made during the 1990s were reversed and treaties from earlier decades were shredded by both Washington and Moscow. Nine months after the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary joined NATO, Vladimir Putin was named successor to Boris Yeltsin as president of the Russian Federation. He dedicated his reign to undoing what Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the West had done to the Russian empire.
Certainly, it is legitimate to criticize the double standards of the West with regards to Ukraine and the wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, or the occupation of Palestine. Yet, today Russia is a hypernationalistic, authoritarian state, an enemy of all progressive forces in the world. This is important, especially for the Western left, to keep in mind, for this is not always clearly stated — easily earning distrust from people in central and eastern Europe.
Even aside from his war on Ukraine, Putin’s economic policy provides huge resources to a few percent of the superrich, who are therefore his close allies, whilst ordinary Russians are struggling to get by. In all the geopolitical debates about NATO and Russia we shouldn’t forget about Ukrainians and their right to decide a future for themselves. For decades, their country has been a playground for the geopolitical ambitions of rival imperial blocs. We should support their fight to defend their independence.