Jana ČERNOCHOVÁ: We are united by our past and our vigilance towards Russia

We are united by our past and our vigilance towards Russia

Photo of Jana ČERNOCHOVÁ

Jana ČERNOCHOVÁ

Minister of Defense of the Czech Republic.

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.Similar languages are not the only thing we have in common with Poland. We also share security interests, largely due to the vivid memory of Moscow-controlled totalitarian regimes. Like the Poles, we know full well that today’s Russia cannot be trusted, much as the former Soviet Union couldn’t be in the past. Therefore, we have a much better understanding of what is happening east of our borders than many other states. That is also why we began to act and assist an independent Ukraine in defending its sovereignty immediately after 24 February. Our shared history makes us far more vigilant than Western countries. 

I experience this dually. Having a Polish mother and being half-Polish myself, I am more sensitive to the consequences not only of the communist putsch in Czechoslovakia in 1948, the terror of the 1950s, August 1968 or normalisation but also of Poland’s fate throughout history – partitioned by the great powers several times, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Katyn, the Warsaw Uprising, martial law in the 1980s… My Polish genes manifest themselves in stubbornness and determination. In situations like the one we experience now, I am always reminded of the Polish nation’s ability to stand up to adversity and not give in to violence.

It is a well-known fact that Poles appreciate Czech culture, our films and literature; we are probably a role model for Poland in this area. The Czechs, on the other hand, should follow the example of the Poles, who were able to swiftly assess the situation and make the necessary decision to build a modern, well-trained army ready to defend the country against the Kremlin’s aggressive policy. The Czechs acted much more sluggishly. Russia’s aggression against Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 was watched with concern, but we allowed ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security by relying too much on the protective umbrella of the EU and NATO. Many believed that oil and gas money would keep Putin in check, but it had the exact opposite effect: Russia used raw materials as a weapon to break up Europe and the Western community. Poland tried to secure alternative sources of energy raw materials far in advance; the Czech Republic, unfortunately, abandoned that idea. Now we are making up for what previous governments neglected by ensuring the energy security of the Czech Republic and gaining new suppliers of gas and oil.

The same applies to the military and defence. Putin woke Europe up mere seconds before midnight, and everyone’s desperately trying to catch up. Poland grasped the situation earlier than everyone else. Your defence spending will account for 3% of GDP, with no complaints from the opposition. Our country’s military expenses will make up at least 2% of GDP, which was not seen in many years – until the end of our term in any case, as we’ll keep fulfilling our commitment to our allies. After all, the Polish experience of Russian domination is much longer, so you have far fewer illusions. Poles enjoy the Czech sense of humour; we should admire Polish patriotism, courage and readiness to defend yourselves without waiting for someone else to do it for you. Still, I am convinced that in recent months, we have repeatedly demonstrated that the Czechs can also act decisively instead of just keeping a low profile. For example, the Prime Ministers of our countries [the Check Republic and Poland], along with the Prime Minister of Slovenia, were the first to visit Kyiv after the conflict outbreak and declare our countries’ position and support.

However, none of our states is an island, and membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Alliance is extremely important to us. Especially now, when we can no longer count on Russia to become a democratic state and our ally, as was the case 20-30 years ago, when nobody saw China as a future superpower, except maybe political scientists. Today we’re facing a completely new geopolitical and security situation – an aggressive empire to the east, trying to regain its former superpower status, and a strong state that considers itself a world player even further to the east. Russia must therefore be contained and not allowed to expand further. Putin’s plan to disrupt the world’s food supply, starve the poorest regions of the world and destabilise Europe through migration and terrorism highlights the interconnectedness of the various threats and shows the need to confront Russia in different regions of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa. If we also add the rapid development of technology, we must consider possible battles not only on land, air and sea but also in space and cyberspace.

We will not be able to fight it off alone, but we can do it as the EU and NATO. The combined strength of NATO’s military and the European Union’s non-military instruments gives the West a chance to effectively defend the rule-based international order against its destructors.

This time, our common historical experience with Russians turned against them because our states, like Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries, have a lot of military equipment from the Warsaw Pact era. We know how to repair this equipment, we know how to produce ammunition for it, and we have the industrial and other necessary capabilities that Ukraine so badly needs to survive. From the very beginning of this war, we did not doubt for a second that we had to use these capabilities for defence – and that is precisely what we are doing.

Of course, for security reasons, we will not mention the details of our supplies. But the most important thing is that we are sending Ukraine the functional equipment they’ve asked for, which significantly supports their ability to resist Russian aggression.

But the conflict in Ukraine is not only limited to the territory where the fighting is taking place, but it also indirectly affects our states. The Czech Republic and Poland have provided and continue to provide shelter to hundreds of thousands of war refugees. Both our countries have risen to the challenge – we have handled and continue to handle the massive wave of newcomers. Many refugees have already returned to their homes, but a huge number of them have been cared for and supported in integrating with our societies. We have provided them with accommodation and health and social care; we have welcomed their children into our schools. Many refugees have found employment and are becoming full members of our societies.

Furthermore, we also provide support through an exchange of information and experience. All our warfare experts are constantly following the current conflict. Thanks to the rapid and effective assistance to Ukraine, both us and Poland have the opportunity to observe the events from a much closer perspective than other states, and thus, notice more. During my visit to Kyiv, the Ukrainian side displayed an apparent willingness to share considerably more information with us than with other states. 

I believe that the assistance Ukraine receives from us will help stop Russian aggression and bring all territories illegally occupied by them back under Ukrainian control. I also believe that Ukraine will move towards the Western communities and that we can cooperate in building the armed forces the same as we cooperate in all other areas. 

.One of the challenges for the West will be the post-war rebuilding of Ukraine and its integration into Western structures. It should be a matter of concern for the Czech Republic and Poland in the coming years, as should be providing support for other Eastern Partnership member states, specifically Georgia and the Republic of Moldova. I am glad that Poland is an ally and friend to the Czech Republic and that we have excellent defence cooperation bilaterally and within the EU and NATO.

Jana Černochová

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