The Czech Republic was quick to denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and prime-minister Petr Fiala even took a risky trip to a besieged Kyiv, to show his support. The most surprising Czech reaction came from president Milos Zeman, a staunch pro-Russian who unequivocally condemned the invasion and asked for a firm response to Putin.
From president Milos Zeman to the Communists and the far-right, the pro-Russian Czechs distanced themselves from Kremlin
When Russia attacked Ukraine, normal political life practically stopped. Although US intelligence had warned of Russian aggression, the awakening on 24 February came as a real shock to many people, if only because of the scale of the invasion: tanks rolling towards Kyiv, missile strikes as far as Ukraine’s western cities.
It should be stressed that the reaction of the Czech society in the first weeks after the attack was quasi-unanimous –- there were hardly any voices defending Russian aggression. Even the usually pro-Russian political forces condemned the invasion – or at least tactfully remained silent. The Communist Party itself issued a cautious statement the day after the invasion saying that it "disagreed" with military operations in Ukraine. Tomio Okamura, a far right politician who bases his politics on scaremongering about migration and criticism of the European Union and the West as a whole, then hid his Facebook posts containing statements by Vladimir Putin. Okamura’s SPD movement explicitly condemned Russian aggression in the first few days.
The biggest turnaround, however, came in the position of President Milos Zeman – he and his associates had been staunchly pro-Russian before the invasion. Even shortly before the attack on Ukraine, Zeman, whose key adviser had worked for years in Russia and refuses to offer explanations about that, had ridiculed the US intelligence services and claimed that Russia would not invade.
On the day of the attack, he completely changed his stance – giving a very tough extraordinary speech. For example, when speaking about Putin, he declared that 'the madman must be isolated'. Zeman also insisted that with concrete measures have to be taken against Putin. The president’s associates described him as genuinely surprised by the Russian attack.
Zeman admitted his mistake in the aforementioned speech. "A few days ago I said that the Russians are not crazy and that they will not attack Ukraine. I admit that I was wrong. The irrational decision of the leadership of the Russian Federation will cause significant damage to the Russian state itself," Zeman said, calling for the imposition of tough sanctions – which he had previously rejected, arguing that they were ineffective. Zeman didn’t speak much in public after that, but he still maintains this position on the war in Ukraine – for example, he announced that he would honor Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The government’s response: weapons for Ukraine and a risky trip to Kyiv
Less surprising is the position of the Czech government – it consists of five pro-Western parties. Both Prime Minister Petr Fiala (ODS) and Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský (Pirate Party) have adopted an unequivocal stance from the outset, which contrasts with the often indecisive stance of the previous government of Andrej Babiš.
"Russia's unprovoked military aggression, the invasion of Ukraine, cannot be described as anything other than an act of aggression against a sovereign state. I unequivocally condemn the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin and they cannot go unanswered," the Prime Minister said in the first hours after the invasion.
The Czech Republic has even joined the leading countries of the European Union in taking action against the Kremlin. It was among the first to ban Russian aircraft from entering its airspace, close Russian consulates-general on its territory, and stop issuing visas to Russian citizens.
Petr Fiala, together with two other European prime ministers, the Polish and Slovenian, then took a risky train journey directly to Kyiv, where they met President Zelensky. "We must know and we must realize that they are also fighting for us, for our independence, for our freedom, and we must support them in that fight. That is why we went there personally. We went there to let them know that they are not alone, to show by concrete action that we stand with them and that we are aware of what they are doing for us at this moment," the prime minister explained the reason for the trip upon his return.
His delegation was very small – he was accompanied by his security adviser and spokesman. Almost no one in the Czech Republic was briefed on the preparations – even key ministers were only briefed shortly before the delegation left. This may be the reason why information about the upcoming event was not leaked in advance. Fiala consulted the secret services, which did not recommend his trip for security reasons.
However, upon his return, Fiala explained that he was aware of the risks, but in his opinion, one should do things that one considers right. The trip was widely acclaimed abroad and in the Czech Republic, and made headlines in the world media. Czechs overwhelmingly supported the move, although not unequivocally. Sixty percent of respondents agreed with it, according to a STEM/MARK poll for Czech Television.
Zelensky told the leaders that Ukraine needed mainly anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. The Czech Republic supplies weapons to Ukraine, but usually does not specify what type. Since the first days of the war, an unusual system has been in place – the Czech state has been ordering weapons and paying it by the funds sent by the Czechs to a special bank account – they have already given about 30 millions Eur. "The feedback fills me with satisfaction: when people write to us from the front that they managed to shoot up a tank convoy with what we sent them. That's exactly why we do it. For example, anti-tank missiles have been successful since the first days," Deputy Defence Minister Tomáš Kopecny described the operation of the scheme to Deník N.
The mass support for the Ukrainian collection reflects the mood of the Czech society; sociological data show that the overwhelming majority of the public condemns Russian aggression against Ukraine. When asked whether they approve the Russian invasion, 94 percent of people answered negatively in mid-March. Three percent agree with the attack, according to the survey cited above. It’s a low number in view of the fact that a relatively constant group of people in the Czech society – around 20 percent – expresses confidence to Vladimir Putin. The latest data from the end of last year showed that 15 percent of people trusted him at that time – when he was escalating tensions on the Ukrainian border.
The Czech’s past history explains why there’s virtually no support for Russia’s invasion
Why is it that, when it comes to aggression against Ukraine, Putin’s supporters are hardly to be found in the Czech Republic? One can only speculate: an attack of such a scale would surely have shocked even people who have supported Russia so far (as in the case of President Zeman). In addition, the Russian regime this time has almost gave up trying to justify the invasion abroad, targeting its propaganda outputs mainly at the domestic audience. Readers of disinformation websites, which until the invasion had claimed that Russia would not attack, may have felt disoriented. Moreover, the Czech authorities this time cracked down on the most prominent disinformation websites and blocked them. The atmosphere in society, which as a whole strongly rejects Russian aggression, may also have played a role.
In addition, the Supreme Prosecutor's Office made it clear shortly after the start of the Russian military operation that endorsing it could be assessed as a criminal offence, which has already happened in several cases – at least nine people have been charged.
In addition, there is the Czech historical experience – the experience of a small nation that has had to face pressure from a larger neighbor for virtually its entire existence. In the 1930s, Czechoslovakia experienced pressure from Nazi Germany, which threatened it because of its alleged oppression of the German-speaking population, then Hitler annexed the Sudetenland, only to subsequently occupy the rest of Czechoslovakia. In September 1938, German tanks were on the border, a general mobilization took place in Czechoslovakia and soldiers and citizens were ready to defend the country. The order did not come, the German troops occupied the Czechoslovak borderlands without resistance. This moment left a deep scar in the soul of the nation, and to this day Czechs are still left wondering whether they should have defended themselves then or not. And of course they project this "pain" onto the current situation in Ukraine and often “envy” the Ukrainians for defending their country.
The Czechs have direct experience of Russian aggression from 1968 (formally it was a military invasion by Warsaw Pact countries). At that time, the Soviet Union wanted to suppress, above all, the democratization of society, which could have led not only to the disengagement of Czechoslovakia from the USSR, but could have spread to other Eastern Bloc countries.
Even in 1968, Czechoslovakia, already a communist country and a Soviet satellite, did not defend itself militarily. There were many instances of civil bravery, but this did not change the outcome. What followed was a change of reformist people in government, purges in all spheres of social life, and twenty years of occupation and socialist grey.
That’s why the Czechs can probably empathize with the situation in Ukraine and are ready to support the country.