One year of helping Ukraine: The Czech story
On the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we look at how the event activated both the Czech state and society towards providing military, humanitarian and political aid for the war-stricken country – and how in turn Ukraine’s resistance inspired many Czechs do go the extra mile in their response.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began exactly one year ago. Days before, Vladimir Putin had announced that Russia would recognise the so-called separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics as independent. His speech was strongly directed against NATO and the Russian president called for a roll back of “the alliance’s military capability and infrastructure in Europe to where they were in 1997,” practically calling for a revision of the security structure in Europe where former Eastern Bloc states would become more vulnerable to future Russian aggression.
“The thing that we were preparing ourselves for, the tragedy that we were expecting, now started to materialise right in front of our eyes.”
Then, on February 24th, Putin authorised what he called a "special military operation" against Ukraine, claiming that his aim was the “demilitarisation and denazification” of the country. As much as 200,000 Russian soldiers had been amassing on the border between the two countries for months and they were now unleashed on Ukraine from four different directions.
Tomáš Kopečný, who was Czechia’s Deputy Defence Minister at the time.
“The thing that we were preparing ourselves for, the tragedy that we were expecting, now started to materialise right in front of our eyes.”
He says that he felt as if he were in an apocalyptic film, but one in which he knew it was necessary to act.
“So my feeling was: ‘Yes. It’s here. But we can’t wait any second longer. We need to start delivering weapons to Ukraine as soon as possible and we need to do everything imaginable to help our Ukrainian brothers as quickly as possible and stop the terrible Russian invasion.”
Gathering his immediate team, Kopečný began calling foreign governments and Czech billionaires in order to try and raise money for Ukraine. But it was insufficient.
“I told myself let’s try it all differently. I called the Ukrainian ambassador and suggested that we start a bank account under the name of the embassy and start crowdfunding the weapons.”
The crowdfunding campaign became a huge success. Over CZK 300 million was raised within less than a week. The Czech public, long accustomed to living with Ukrainians, who made up the second largest minority in the country after Slovaks, and with the memory of being themselves invaded by the Soviet Union in 1968, were shocked by what was happening. In a Median agency survey released on the day of the invasion, 87 percent of Czechs said that they considered Russia’s actions as an “unjustifiable act of aggression”.
Donations poured in not just to the account of Ukraine’s Embassy in Prague, but to the many Czech NGOs that were either already active or preparing to help Ukrainian refugees who were now fleeing in their millions out of the country.
Evžen Diviš, the regional manager working in Caritas Czech Republic responsible for Ukraine and Moldova, was having breakfast with his family when he heard the news.
Caritas Czech Republic set up an account for help to Ukraine already before the war started. It has since raised CZK 165 million, sending 11 lorries worth of humanitarian aid and is now working to provide accommodation to Ukrainian refugees both within the country and in the Czech Republic.
“It is being divided into two main packages. One is bigger and is to be spent within Ukraine. The second is to be spent here in Czechia, to help Ukrainians entering this country.”
When it comes specifically to Caritas’ help in Ukraine, Diviš says that the form of aid that was and is being provided can roughly be divided into several stages.
“In the first phase, which was around two or three months, it was almost exclusively material aid. By this I mean food and non-foodstuffs, medicines, generators, etc. Then, approximately from the beginning of summer, more sophisticated projects commenced. Things that were supported by institutional donors such as the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“These were projects in healthcare and shelter provision. By the latter I mean the construction of module housing, or the reconstruction and adaptation of collective centres for refugees, improving water sanitation conditions, etc. As for medical assistance, this includes providing refugees with cash so that they could buy medicine, providing medical equipment to medical service providers and organising psycho-social trainings and care.”
These trainings, or “interventions”, as Diviš also refers to them, are aimed at helping people cope with what they may have experienced in wartime conditions.
“Its external help aimed at being able to cope with potential post-traumatic stress disorder. To be able to process it, get over it and function normally again. The one delivering this form of assistance, or therapy, simply needs to talk to those affected. He or she are supposed to give them guidance and lead them out of it.”
Caritas is just one of many Czech NGOs that are helping Ukrainians. People in Need, the largest Czech charity, has provided more than a billion crowns in aid to hundreds of thousands of refugees. The country itself has taken in 480,000 Ukrainian refugees, one of the largest numbers in Europe.
Czechia, for its size, provided substantial aid both in terms of military equipment and humanitarian support in the initial weeks of the conflict. But the country’s government also made an important symbolic political statement when Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala, along with his Polish and Slovenian counterparts, decided to visit Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky in what was still an embattled Ukrainian capital on March 15. It was the first visit made by international leaders to Ukraine since the war began.
Czechia and several other states belonging to the former Eastern Bloc were sometimes seen as more suspicious of the threat Russia posed than some of their other NATO allies, such as Germany, and more confrontational. Tomáš Kopečný recalls when this attitude began to be accepted by those who had previously striven for more dialogue with the aggressor.
“They saw that all of these things that Central European countries were warning against were really happening.”
“To be very frank. In Washington D.C. it was around late-March or April that they first saw it was not going to be about guerrilla warfare and that they were going to need much more than what the United States had been considering before. Second, they saw that Ukraine will survive this. And third, they saw that all of these things that Central European countries were warning against were really happening.
“So, my impression is that in D.C. this happened in April. With other major European countries who were more prone to be less suspicious of Russia historically and traditionally – France and Germany – this happened over the summer. And I understand that it’s not culturally easy. I understand it completely. The decades-long perception of the identity of Russia as being something that Eastern Europeans were warning against is not easy to accept. It’s not accepting that one was wrong. It’s about accepting a completely different reality.”
One aspect that may have helped in accepting this “reality”, as Kopečný calls it, was the uncovering of the atrocities committed by Russian troops in the towns of Bucha and Irpin in April, after the Russians retreated following the battle of Kyiv. The events that took place there and in other locations are now being investigated as war crimes.
Petr Pojman, from the organisation Team 4 Ukraine, is part of a group of experts who have been working in the country since 2014. He spoke to Radio Prague International just ahead of flying back to Ukraine where he does much of his work.
“I can conclude that in the Russian Army you have a large number of persons with deviant behaviour.”
“First of all we are working in support of Ukraine in general. Monitoring war crimes and this sort of deviant behaviour. Criminological research is just one of our activities though. The other ones include information security, cyber security and, of course, humanitarian support.”
He says his speciality is “deviantology”, a discipline that he incidentally studied under a Russian professor in Saint Petersburg.
“So far we have been working especially with victims and witnesses. I had the opportunity to talk with some of the Russians, but for now it’s not systematic enough to say something about it. I have seen a lot of crime scenes, I was talking with many witnesses and victims who were describing the behaviour of Russian soldiers.
“Based on this information, I can conclude that in the Russian Army you have a large number of persons with deviant behaviour. It’s not only about the criminals. It’s quite well known that these private military companies and the Russian Army in general are using Russian prisons as a reservoir for soldiers.
“These persons who no one counts on are ready to kill. It’s normal for them. In this regard we see similar behaviour also with people who have no criminal record but their social background and their social profile is deviant anyway. A criminal record is not necessary to be able to commit war crimes.”
He says that this behaviour is also largely down to the nature of the Russian state itself and its social conditions.
“We had the opportunity to talk with Ukrainians who were defending Kharkiv and they were fighting with some of the worst Russian soldiers who were in a school not far from the centre of the city. The Ukrainians offered them the chance to surrender. They didn’t. They were fighting for the next five hours. Jumping out of windows. They fought like real professionals. They didn’t give up, fought.
“But when I saw them, some of them were children. Very young soldiers who would perhaps be willing to give up, but they were afraid that they would be killed by their own officers later when they would be exchanged. Others looked like homeless people, not like real professional soldiers. The way in which they were fighting was not because they were heroes.
“They were fighting like this because they have nothing to lose. Because their life is so poor. They are still humiliated in the Russian Army, so it’s not a big difference. They feel that if they die now it won’t be so different if they are suffering humiliation every day, including sexual humiliation.”
It was also around the time of the uncovering of the Bucha massacre, in early April, that reports appeared in the media of Czechia having been the first foreign country to provide tanks to Ukraine since the beginning of the invasion. Sources from the ranks of Czech officials stated that the country sent some of its Soviet-era T-72 tanks to help the Ukrainian cause. Tomáš Kopečný says that he sees this as perhaps the greatest contribution by the Czechs.
“We were trying to show our partners that it can be done because what Western countries were delivering before, and not just Western countries but Estonia and the Baltic States as well, were MANPADS [portable surface-to-air missiles], RPGs [rocket propelled grenades]. However, those are weapons for guerrilla warfare.
“What we were delivering were weapons for what we see now – a full scale conventional conflict. That was what they were fearing the most. By this I mean governments across the Western hemisphere. By literally showing them that it arrives there and saves lives, saves the front, and of course it took many more months that felt like infinity for the Western coalition to agree on sending tanks, for us and the Poles, we did it already in the first weeks. But it was important to show that it’s not a danger for the countries who send it. Not for the delivery itself.”
This week Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala revealed that Czechia had sent hundreds of pieces of military equipment to Ukraine since the conflict began. This includes 89 tanks, 226 fighting and armoured vehicles, 38 howitzers, 33 multiple rocket launchers, six air defence systems and four helicopters.
Czechia also played a major role in coordinating the wider EU internal and external effort in both supporting Ukraine and extricating itself from its dependency on Russian energy supplies through its six-month-long EU presidency in the latter half of 2022. During this time, Prague Castle hosted the historic first meeting of the European Political Community, which was attended by representatives of 44 European countries, including Ukraine.
The head of Czech Radio’s international news desk, Filip Nerad, evaluated his country’s presidency in an interview with Radio Prague International in December of last year.
“I would say generally it was keeping the EU united during these very difficult times. Because you still have the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the energy crisis and the EU discussed a lot of measures to deal with these things. And even though there were some problems, some disagreements, in the end the Czech presidency reached an agreement and kept the EU united. From this general point of view, I think that was the biggest achievement.”
One of the primary goals of the Czech presidency was also to manage the preparations for Ukraine’s post-war recovery. A special position was set up for Czechia’s role in this task and it was assigned to none other than Tomáš Kopečný, who assumed the role of Government Commissioner for Ukraine’s Reconstruction in January of this year. He says that Czech involvement in rebuilding the war-stricken country will not just be beneficial for Ukraine, but will also make Czechia wealthier.
“Only by what we have been delivering last year in the arms sector, Czechia has gained a lot of money for the state budget through taxes and the social insurances. The same will of course be done in all of the other sectors. Every company based in the Czech Republic that will successfully be reconstructing Ukraine will increase employment and bring more money into the public treasury.
“So yes, we will all be safer, because Ukraine is defending us, but we will also all be wealthier because together we will be building and producing technologies and solutions that Ukraine needs in order to become part of the European single market. It is therefore in our vital national security and economic interests that we help Ukraine as much as possible.”
Czechia has declared its aim to focus on reconstructing the Dnipro Region in southeast Ukraine, which Kopečný calls the “industrial heart of Ukraine”, adding that Czech companies already have a presence there. Czechia is also helping rebuild the damaged local energy infrastructure and providing humanitarian aid. However, the man tasked with Czechia’s reconstruction effort adds that Czechs are ready to support other parts of the country as well.