The Russian Invasion of Ukraine - Could the Czechs Surprise us Again?

Jonáš Syrovátka

March 2023


The strong Czech response supporting Ukraine at the onset of Russia‘s full-scale invasion surprised many people. On the day of the invasion, the Czech Parliament convened an extraordinary session with the Ukrainian ambassador present, unanimously approved a declaration with clear, non-diplomatic wording such as “barbaric, inexcusable and unprovoked aggression”.  Prime Minister Petr Fiala was – together with his Polish and Slovenian counterparts – the first Western leader to visit Kyiv less than a month after Putin ordered his forces to invade, and while they were still trying to capture the city. Additionally, the Czech Presidency of the Council of the European Union which began in the autumn of 2022 found ways to maintain European unity and introduce new sanctions against Russia.

However, a closer look at the opinions and attitudes of the Czech political elite, society and public debate show that the actions of the government did not have universal support. Research undertaken by the Beacon Project, supported by the International Republican Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy, reveals that on the contrary, there is a very clearly defined political camp including both parties of parliamentary opposition –– whose support to Ukraine is conditional or even questionable. These parties would have been very close to getting into power if the 2021 parliamentary elections results had been slightly different. If that had been the case, the Czech reaction to the invasion of Ukraine would likely have been far more cautious. And more concerning, the significant enough part of the population would not have minded.

The reason for the existence of these contradictory scenarios is that the Russian invasion of Ukraine uncovered the fundamental conflict that is defining current Czech politics. This is not a conflict about an attitude towards Russia – since the openly pro-Russian part of the society is negligible and Beacon Project research showed that narratives hostile to NATO do not get significant traction in the public debate. Two competing opinion camps in the Czech politics have divergent visions of  the Czech position in Europe and, on a more abstract level, values which are the best guide for the country’s foreign policy. The liberal camp, represented by the current government, emphasizes the importance of anchoring the country in the European Union, the need for strengthening the transatlantic security framework and the unquestionability of universal values represented by Western democracies. In their interpretation, the development in Ukraine in the past decade strongly resembles the Czech historical experience since it is perceived as a story about liberation from the Russian influence, refusal of the communist past and return to “normal” values embodied by the community of Western states. The resolute support of the Czech liberal camp for Ukraine is partially driven by its own feeling of insecurity since its representatives see their belonging to the West as uncertain. They fear only a moment of inattentiveness or disunity, and Russian tanks could once again be rolling into Prague. On the contrary, the Ukrainian victory followed by its integration into Western structures is desired not only for the sake of Ukraine or the Western community but also because it reaffirms that policy choices made after 1989 promoted by the Czech liberal camp are universal and therefore unquestionable.     

The reaffirmation, which has been in high demand at the moment since the last decade, brings the emergence of alternative perception about the country’s trajectory after 1989, emphasizing disillusionment from the political development after the Velvet Revolution. The ideological postulates of this illiberal political camp – represented in Parliament by ANO and Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) but also resonating among non-parliament subjects and a silent yet substantial group of non-voters – are still in the making. However, this important feature is suspicion of or even open hostility towards international institutions – the EU – along with isolationist tendencies. These perspectives are clearly manifested in their understanding of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which they perceived as a horrible yet distant war about which the Czech Republic should not care. Respectively its politicians should care mainly about limiting its economic impacts on the well-being of Czech citizens. Beacon Project research, for instance, mapped how the prominent representative of this camp SPD chairman, Tomio Okamura, tried to use these sentiments to stimulate narratives hostile towards Ukrainian refugees – particularly those of Roma origin. Even though the Czech debate about Ukrainian refugees remained free of hostile narratives – only 13 percent of analyzed content mentioned them – Okamura’s significant reach on Facebook shows that there are certain segments of the population among which they might resonate. Therefore, finding quick ways to peace that could require Ukraine to cede territory to Russia was their preferred strategy. The belief on their part is that this would lead to a return to business as usual, a return to the pre-war status-quo.

But it is impossible to return to a pre-February 2022 world. The isolationist and passive foreign policy promoted by the illiberal camp does not contribute in any way to finding solutions for the conflict in Ukraine nor to other global challenges of the 21st century. It is not clear whether calls from the liberal camp in support of remaining in the Western community are convincing for the Czech population – especially to that segment feeling left behind and not benefitting from the country’s development during the last 30 years. The opinion about the war in Ukraine – and in fact the nature of the Czech foreign policy – will continue to divide Czech political scene. Ultimately, Czech citizens will decide which direction their country should follow. 

At the beginning of 2023, the champion of the liberal camp, former Chair of the NATO Military Committee and a firm supporter of Ukraine, Petr Pavel, won the presidential elections. However, his opponent, chairman of ANO and critic of the government’s support for Ukraine, Andrej Babiš, received 2.4 million votes. This shows that the illiberal camp in Czech politics remains strong and might grow even stronger since the country is facing economic problems and the government is forced to cut public spending. Beacon Project research highlighted this vulnerability since the topic of energy security and rising prices of commodities, in general, was the most prone to hostile narratives appearing in 27 percent of analyzed content. Therefore, in the long run, voices calling for a quick end to the conflict, even at the price of concessions on the side of Ukraine, might become increasingly vocal. So, while the Czech Republic surprised many in its initial strong support for Ukraine, it can easily surprise us once again with a move in the opposite direction after the next parliamentary elections scheduled for 2025.