Lipavský: The more Russia does, the more the West listens to us on Ukraine
2022 was a very busy year for the Czech minister of foreign affairs, Jan Lipavský. He became a major supporter of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion of the country in February, regularly calling out Moscow’s aggression in forthright language. The issue of the war was also key during the Czech presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of the year. Numerous aspects of the Ukraine conflict came up when Mr. Lipavský visited our studio this week, but the conversation also took in the Visegrad Four, China – and several other issues.
Czechia’s EU presidency has just come to an end. You won a lot of praise for how Czechia handled the presidency. What does the country gain from having this kind of positively received presidency?
“I’m happy that I hear very often that we did a good presidency.
“Of course it was a huge task for the Czech state and for our new government, and I’m happy that we did it successfully.
“And what is the gain? The gain is the good name of Czechia in Europe.
“We showed that we are a constructive partner, we showed that we are able to manage and lead by example – and sometimes offer a good compromise.
“It was not about showing and dictating what Europe should do.
“The European Union is about a lot of work and finding the right compromise when things are sometimes very delicate, especially the sanction regimes, or the debate about energy security and the energy crisis caused by Vladimir Putin.
“These are very hot topics and we were able to navigate through them. That was our role, to navigate.”
Speaking of Vladimir Putin, generally speaking what impact do you think Russia’s war on Ukraine has had on the EU in the last 11 months? Has it strengthened the EU, or has it highlighted differences?
“Putin’s aim was to divide and conquer. I am very happy to say that he is not successful in dividing Europe.”
“Putin is mentally at war with the West.
“The European Union is part of the West he wants to fight and destroy.
“And his aim was to divide and conquer, which is a Latin saying.
“I am very happy to say that he is not successful in dividing Europe.
“Of course, we have a lot of discussions, there are different views and different interests.
“But at the end of the day the European consensus on a common foreign and defence policy is very, very strong.
“So we have to say he is totally unsuccessful in his attempts to divide us – and we are stronger than ever.”
But at the same time Czechia does take a stronger line in supporting Ukraine and opposing Russian than some countries. I know some Czechs are disappointed by, for example, the performance of Germany during this crisis. How do you explain the difference in approach, or attitude, to what’s happening in Ukraine between countries like Czechia and other countries in the former Eastern Bloc and big states like Germany and France?
“We have to explain our position, we have to explain our fear and we have to explain our historical experience, which is very strong, with Moscow’s rule in Czechia and in Poland and the Baltics.
“And the more Putin is doing, the more Western countries in Europe listen to us, understand our experience, and the more they listen to our warnings.
“It’s a complex matter and patience and a lot of work are helping us to push our political positions ahead.”
Czech leaders frequently say that Ukraine is also fighting for our freedom. Is that purely an abstract concept? Or is there a literal sense in which Ukraine holding out against the Russians so well is making Czech people safer?
“Definitely Ukraine is fighting for our freedom, for our way of life.
“They are holding back the Russians.
“If you look at the Russian media and the propaganda which is there you will hear and see such hatred against Europe, open calls to invade other European countries and to bombard and destroy cities.
“And brave Ukrainians are holding this kind of evil back.”
Especially the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, how did the West come to evidently underestimate Putin so much?
“There was a notion that Russia could be changed through trade, through business relationships.
“There was a notion that Russia could be changed through business relationships. This notion, especially in Germany, proved totally wrong.”
“This notion, especially in Germany, proved totally wrong.
“Of course it would be nice if Russia were able to transform into an at least semi-democratic and semi-free country.
“It did not happen. We see the opposite. Every day in Russia now brings more and more totalitarianism and people are fed with war propaganda, so the development is not good.
“But I see that all these atrocities and horrendous war crimes which have happened in Ukraine because of Mr. Putin’s decision to wage a war against Ukraine – I’m thinking about Bucha, the destruction of Mariupol, the systematic destruction of the energy infrastructure of Ukraine – all proves to even the most skeptical European countries that definitely this attempt to have good relations, good business relations, with Russia is wrong and that we need to support Ukraine.
“This is what is happening every day.”
One thing I often thing about is this. If, as many people say, Russia is essentially a dictatorship headed by Putin, how much can ordinary Russians be held accountable for what the country is doing to Ukraine? If you protest in Russia, you may go to a pretty nasty jail for a long time.
“This is almost a philosophical question of collective responsibility of nations for their actions.
“But we know exactly who gives the orders in Russia.
“It was Putin and his leadership who decided to attack Ukraine – those should be held accountable.
“Therefore Czechia supports the idea of creating a tribunal for the prosecution of the crime of aggression, as it is defined in the Charter of the United Nations.
“Of course in many cases we know who were physically conducting those war crimes, specific war crimes, such as in Bucha, who ordered this: which general, which colonel, sometimes even the name of specific soldiers who were going door to door and killing innocent civilians – men, women, elderly people, kids.
“And those crimes should be prosecuted too.
“So the fate of the individual Russian… of course it’s not in direct action in this war, but the war is happening on such a scale that it’s hard to distinguish, specifically.”
I think the EU has already had nine packages of sanctions against Russia. Are sanctions now kind of exhausted as a method of responding to Russia?
“I wouldn’t say they are exhausted. On the contrary, we have new options.
“Especially we see that Russia is trying to procure Western technologies, because Russia is not able to produce many things which are necessary for their war effort, for the production of high quality weapons.
“This is very important, to be looking for the ways how they are trying, through different kinds of proxies, to avoid sanctions.
“Of course the biggest task is to sustain our effort to impose sanctions.
“They need to be prolonged every six months. The regime will be discussed again, and it’s quite a lot of effort.
“I think the sanctions are working. We see that production in many industrial areas in Russia is falling.
“And it is impacting significantly the war effort.”
How long do you imagine this conflict could go on for?
“This is a very hard question and there’s no clear answer to that.
“We need to be ready for a long war. We need to be ready for a war effort.
“And it must be the Ukrainian side, which is protecting its sovereignty and territorial integrity, which will say when it’s ready to negotiate about peace.
“Anyway, Zelensky proposed a peace plan, but of course it includes a demand that Russia leave Ukrainian territory, which is definitely contrary to what the Russians are trying to do with all that fake annexation and presence on the ground.”
The war could of course continue for a very long time. But assuming there is a conclusion eventually and that Putin is still in power when that conclusion happens, how will the West be able to deal with him after all these atrocities, after all these war crimes?
“There’s no clear answer to that.
“When I speak about the fact that there should be a special tribunal for the prosecution of the crime of aggression, of course this is pointing to Mr. Putin for his responsibility for the Russian war against Ukraine.
“On the other hand – we have examples in history – every war ends with diplomacy and we have seen different ways how wars can end.
“But I think it’s not about creating a vision of how to do that; I think it’s more about assuring Ukraine that we won’t negotiate peace without them – and that we will not destroy the very basic principles of the UN Charter and the international order created after the end of the second world war.
“This very basic principle is that borders are not changed through brute force, which is the crime of aggression, actually.
“So it’s not easy to construct such a situation, but the war may end in different ways.”
You have visited Kyiv. Tell us about your experiences of going there.
“I visited Kyiv three times last year.
“Once before the war started, three weeks before the war, I met with the complete leadership of Ukraine.
“Ukraine is able to use very effectively the help we are providing to them.”
“I met my counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and President Zelensky.
“Before the war the atmosphere was very tense.
“And after the war broke out I have to say I have seen such strong resolution in the Ukrainian leadership to fight and win, to protect Ukraine from Russia, that I am fully convinced that they are able to do so.
“Of course they are not able to do so alone, they need Western help, but I’m very happy to see that Ukraine is able to use very effectively the help we are providing to them.
“This gives me hope that they will be able to fulfil this task.
“Personally seeing this city, which used to be buzzing with everyday life – streets full of people and coffee shops and restaurants – now half empty because people left the city, or are not able to be so much in the streets, is strange.
“But on the other hand, Kyiv is still working as a city – it’s not a ghost city.
“It’s touching in a certain sense.”
How many nations would have been able to stand up as they have stood to the Russians? What do you think it is about the Ukrainian character that allows them to be so united and strong?
“When you speak to Ukrainians, you will hear a lot about their history.
“They will be speaking about 1,000 years back.
“Ukrainian statehood is a long story, it’s a long history.
“Different empires have controlled and tried to control the territory of Ukraine and always Ukrainians tried, in their own way, to have their own state.
“They finally achieved that, they value it and they are doing a 100 percent job to protect it.”
Closer to home, Czechia has been quite active in the Visegrad Four. But I guess it’s fair to say that Viktor Orban is seen as rather toxic by much of Europe. You’ve said in the past that the Visegrad Four is a “discussion forum”. Does that mean that it’s over as a kind of active political alliance, or is it on hold?
“Czechia needs partners for its foreign policy. Czechia needs strong European dialogue. We don’t want to do things in the world alone.
“Would there were a better atmosphere in the V4, I’m ready to do much more in the V4.”
“The V4 is a very logical format for cooperation, but it’s not the only one – we have, for example, Slavkov cooperation.
“I was speaking about visiting Kyiv – two visits out of the three happened under the umbrella of the Slavkov format, with my counterparts from Slovakia and Austria.
“And we are doing more and more in this constellation.
“Would there were a better atmosphere in the V4, I’m ready to do much more in the V4, which is a logical format.
“It’s 30 years old. It was founded as the V3 at the time that Czechoslovakia existed, and it was founded by names like Vaclav Havel and Lech Walelsa.
“So definitely with the current atmosphere in the V4, which is quite tense I have to say, cooperation is not much active.
“But that doesn’t mean that we would like to discard the V4 as such – definitely not.
“We need to meet, we need to discuss, we have to have a frank and open debate, which happened in Bratislava recently.
“Czechia will preside the V4 in the next cycle, which begins in summer, so we are now in active preparation of the platform of this V4 co-operation.
“We live in the Central Europe area, we share the same problems.
“The energy crisis is hitting Czechia, Slovakia, Poland and also Hungary in the same way.
“The same goes for illegal migration and the same goes for many other issues, so we have a lot in common.
“Maybe politically we are not able to put the same punch-lines into our speeches, but it doesn’t mean that the V4 as such should be abandoned.”
If I can move on to China, in 2014 Czechia launched a so-called reset of relations with China. There was a big shift in policy. From today’s perspective, how do you view that move, or that attempt?
“So we are in the process of revision of our relationship with China.
“I would say that those areas of security issues, which are now rising in our eyes, are being dealt with in organisations like the EU, NATO.
“We want to be a constructive partner here, because the important policies for the security of supply chains – speaking about microchips, or medicines, for example – need to be done commonly.
“This is also valid for our policies in organisations under the umbrella of the United Nations, etcetera.
“So this is one big result of our revision of policy between Czechia and China.
“Bilateral relations are not so intensive as such, but also it would be nice to be looking for ways to change the deficit in trade, for example.”
But was it a mistake to try to be a “friend” of China?
“I think it was an attempt which proved totally wrong, especially in the way which it was conducted.
“And definitely we should not abandon any of our values, especially when we see that Ukraine is literally fighting for those values.
“We should definitely not abandon them in any kind of hope that we will please the Chinese side.
“So our relationship with China needs to be pragmatic, we need to be protecting our core values.
“But on the other hand, let’s be looking for business opportunities, of course.
“That’s not something which we should completely exclude.”
In the past we’ve heard from some Czech leaders about the importance of so-called economic diplomacy. To be honest, I’m not sure what that is. Is economic diplomacy still a thing? Is it something that you are pushing?
“It is a big thing and we are pushing it very much.
“Economic diplomacy is about promoting Czechia as a modern, open country for business, as a country which is producing incredible things which may help, and are helping, our partners, for example in Africa, to lift the quality of the health service.
“In certain other areas it may improve their military capabilities, if they are procuring for example Czech Tatra trucks.
“Of course the war in Ukraine focused us on security issues here in Europe, but for example my deputy has travelled all around the world with many companies to promote their businesses.
“In certain countries business and politics are very much connected – basically meaning the same thing.
“I’m not speaking about the most democratic countries, I’m speaking about countries where the power is shared in a different way.
“We have a lot of monarchies, for example, in the world, and states which still we want to have as business partners, which is totally legit.
“The politics and foreign affairs plays an important role in promoting business interests, so my ministry is actively working on that.”
Some observers say that under your leadership at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs there has been a return to a more values-based foreign policy. What are the values that underpin your approach?
“It’s human freedom, democracy, freedom of speech.
“It’s what has allowed our Western way of life and we need to protect and to nurture it.
“If you look around the world, it’s not something that’s a given.
“It’s something we need to protect – and something we need to protect internationally.”
Practically what are you doing to help foster, for example, democracy in other parts of the world?
“It’s a long-term process, it’s a long-term investment.
“For example, our human rights policy is very much focused on helping journalists and to build up the capacity of free media.
“We do a lot of projects in that regard, we are members of the Media Freedom Coalition, which was formed in reaction to the Chinese ‘seizure’, I would call it, of Hong Kong, and many other aspects.
“So this is a long-term investment.
“Václav Havel said if we don’t care about the problems of others then nobody will care about us.
“So we are trying to care about the problems of others.”
The outgoing president, Miloš Zeman, has at times publicly advanced policies that are different from the official foreign policy of Czechia. He also doesn’t communicate with you. How would you like the next president, who takes office in March, to ideally behave, especially on the international front?
“I would like to see a president who will represent Czechia in its full colours, and a president who will unite society, a president who will protect and nurture the constitution.
“We recently celebrated 30 years since its adoption, since the Czech independent state, the Czech Republic, is 30.
“And I think there are candidates, and I won’t put forward any name, who are definitely more than 100 percent able to fulfill this role.”
In 2022 there was a fresh push to promote the name Czechia as a short name for the Czech Republic. I notice that you use Czechia, but at the same time you must know that many people dislike it. Why are you in favour of Czechia so much?
“Czechia is the short name for the Czech Republic. It’s like that. It’s a fact, it’s not something to discuss [laughs].
“Czechia is the short name for the Czech Republic. It’s a fact, it’s not something to discuss.”
“It’s something to get used to and to promote, and my ministry is doing a lot to promote Czechia on the international scene.
“Of course many people were used to Czechoslovakia and the name the Czech Republic, which is the full and proper name and is used sometimes in places where Czechia, as the short name, should properly be used.
“Look at Turkiye, which was able to change its name basically overnight.
“And the name Czechia is not something new, it’s something that was there almost always.
“We have historical evidence of that many, many hundreds of years back.
“And to have one proper short name also is very important for building a good national identity.
“We have witnessed that the Czech population has got used to the word Česko quite well.
“And I see a lot of positive vibes around Česko and Czechia, so I’m also promoting it internationally.”
Just this morning I went on the website of the Czech Embassy in London and it says it’s the embassy “of the Czech Republic”. Don’t you need to be more consistent in presentation?
“The Czech Republic is the official name and there’s a set of rules on when to use it and when not to use it.
“We are slowly adopting and looking into cases like that, so I don’t know what should be the proper way on the website it London, but it’s definitely not wrong.”
The EU presidency is over. What’s next for the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this year? Are there any particular projects you want to focus on? Or countries or parts of the world you want to focus on?
“Definitely I would like to promote Czechia in distant regions, like South America, Africa and Asia.
“I’m preparing trips there. I will lead a business delegation to India.
“That’s one part. The other part is of course the war in Ukraine.
“As long as it’s here, we need to be ready to solve all the issues, to help Ukraine and to solve the consequences of the war in Ukraine, like the migration crisis, the energy crisis.
“So that’s a big effort.
“And last but not least, we are writing new versions of our strategies.
“I’m speaking about our security strategy and foreign affairs strategy, so this is what will fill our days at the Ministry.
“And the Magnitsky Law, the sanction law, started to be valid on January 1, so we are actively working on that too.”
That’s the law that you proposed even before you were minister?
“That’s the law, yes.”
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