Interviews

Alexandr Vondra: Keeping the West unified is key

Published: 30. 6. 2022
Author: Luboš Palata
Photo: Photo Matěj Stránský and archives of Alexandr Vondra
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Our interview with MEP, Alexandr Vondra, took place exactly three months after the bloody Russian aggression against Ukraine began. Though the European Union is struggling with other issues too, it is no wonder that the events in Ukraine were the main topic.

Did you ever think Russia could do something like that?

I never had any illusions about the rulers of the Kremlin and I was always of the opinion that we should keep a healthy distance. Putin's regime does not share many parallels with Soviet communism domestically, but it is a reincarnation of Russian authoritarian imperialism of the worst order. Putin is a modern-age tzar, drawing inspiration from Ivan the Terrible and Stalin. But I will admit that such a brutal invasion and attempt to subjugate Ukraine by directly attacking Kyiv is not something I expected. I thought it would likely be another attempt to absorb the Donbas region. Exactly the thing Putin is trying to do now that he has lost the war for Kyiv.

Did we, the Europeans, have anything to do with Putin's decision to attack Ukraine? Did Germany play an exceptionally negative role there?

Yes, we did, with Germany leading the herd. The West underestimated Putin for a long time, and its reactions to his aggressive moves in the past – be they the attack on Georgia in 2008, or the annexation of Crimea in 2014 – were weak and ambivalent. On one hand, it implemented anti-Russian sanctions aimed at specific officials which had no deterrent effect at all. It was just a moral alibi the West was trying to build to prove it was doing at least something to respond to Putin's aggression, but he found those sanctions laughable and it basically reassured him in his confidence to keep pushing. On the other hand – and the Germans led the way here – the West was proving to be rather naïve by increasing its dependence on Russian gas. The Germans pushed through NordStream I after the attack on Georgia and NordStream II after the annexation of Crimea. The Polish and Ukrainian voices calling the project a new Ribbentrop-Molotov pact were ignored. Quite the contrary, the Germans gave assurances that there is no danger and used the naïve argumentation that the dependence between supplier and buyer is mutual. They seem to have forgotten that if our primary supplier unleashes open war and starts murdering entire villages of people, we will not be able to pretend that things are business as usual.

Another thing I recall: In 2009, while Czechia had the EU presidency, we tried to push through the Nabucco pipeline that would supply central Europe with gas from the Caspian Sea, ultimately decreasing its dependence on Russia. We had the go-ahead from Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, a consortium of companies to build it, as well as the necessary EU funding at the ready, but the Germans convinced RWE to pull out of the consortium, basically killing the whole deal. They did not want any competition for NordStream.

Are Europe and the West as a whole providing enough aid to Ukraine to help it win this war?

We are doing and providing as much as we are able and willing to agree on. Keeping the West unified is key – in terms of the EU as well as in conjunction with the US. That is the only way the sanctions against Russia will work. They must apply across the board. Arming Ukraine to make sure it can defend itself is key because the West has decided not to get directly involved in Ukraine's defense for fear of escalating the war. Different member states have different levels of involvement in this regard. The bar has been set high right off the bat by Poland, Czechia, and the Baltics. Later came in the Romanians, Slovaks, Bulgarians, Scandinavians, Dutch, and the Germans too, even though their efforts are slow, careful, and bogged down by bureaucracy. Military aid from Great Britain and the US is the most important.

But isn't the USA's role in helping Ukraine much more vital?

Yes, its role is vital. I feel that President Biden initially made a mistake by explicitly stating that there will be no military confrontation with Russia. That meant a green light for Putin to attack. But the Americans have been doing their best ever since. Just recently, they approved sending arms to Ukraine on a basis similar to the Lend-Lease Act, which the US used to provide aid to Great Britain during WWII. That should be a big help, it facilitates financing and speeds up timelines. America has provided the most military aid – worth roughly $1.5 billion, so far. However, compared to how much the Americans spent on the war in Iraq ($100 billion/year) it is just a drop in the ocean. Another key aspect of the USA's role is bolstering the eastern wing of NATO defenses as a deterrent measure in case Putin's armies plan to march westward. “We will defend every inch of alliance ground,” proclaimed the US president correctly.

Are you satisfied with the sanctions the EU has imposed on Russia? Why are we still buying their gas when Russia is using the money to wage war on Ukraine?

Yes, Russian gas is painted with the blood of the Ukrainian people because Putin finances the war from the proceeds. Ideally, we would stop this kind of financing right away – for instance, by not sending the money to Russian banks but rather keeping it in a special escrow account that could later be used to finance reparations. Putin would likely end up halting the supply of gas in such a case, but it would not be easy for him. He has nowhere to reroute the supply to and halting mining operations is not an easy task. It would be a standoff, a game of poker. But the EU is not unified enough to go down this road. Germany, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary are heavily dependent on Russian gas, and dealing with these issues abruptly without plunging the countries into social, economical, and political chaos is difficult. Those countries with no access to the sea are the worst off because they cannot solve their issues by rapidly bringing in liquefied natural gas (LNG). We are forced to negotiate with Qatar, Norway, or the US and look for ways to quickly get gas into central Europe.

Should the EU change its Green Deal considering the Russian aggression?

It should be modified to a much bigger extent than is currently planned. Yes, on one hand, it certainly makes sense to support energy efficiency and renewable sources like solar here in Czechia. The government has plans to do so, after all. On the other hand, however, I feel that the war on CO2 emissions should be drawn out a little longer. There are several tough winters ahead of us and we cannot survive them without coal. Taking abrupt steps towards decarbonization does not make sense when key players like China, Russia, India, or the US are not following suit. Trying to speed up the adoption of e-mobility also makes no sense if coal-powered plants make up for any potential difference in emissions. And lastly, we have to work towards clearing the name of the nuclear industry. Once again, the Germans are the dog in the manger here.

Czechia accepted more than 300 thousand Ukrainian refugees and most Czech people are either helping the Ukrainians directly or at least rooting for them. Where did this openness towards refugees come from now compared to what went on during the Syrian refugee crisis when the general feeling was that we would not accept a single migrant?

I see three main reasons here. First, the Czech people saw with their own eyes this time that the people coming are women, children, and the elderly. Meaning actual refugees escaping war. Second, they saw young Ukrainian men fighting vigorously for their country's freedom and independence, and they saw those who have worked here alongside them in Czechia joining their countrymen. And the third and final reason – we have also experienced foreign aggression in the years 1938 and 1968. We did not fight back then. And seeing the Ukrainians fight back, we feel for them. The situation in 2015 was rather different. The refugees coming here were predominantly young men seeking a better life, leading us to question why they would not stay home and fight the Islamists. Considering the political and religious radicalization of many Muslims living in Europe, people were naturally afraid that the rampant inflow of young men from the Middle East would bring with it a threat to our safety.

Poland has played a big part in helping Ukraine. All the while their relationship has not been the greatest, especially in terms of their shared bloody history in the twentieth century. What do you think is behind this Polish willingness to help?

It is similar to what we have here, I feel. Only Poland is receiving many more refugees because getting there is easier for them. How close their cultures are certainly plays a role as well. The Poles do not view the Ukrainians as a danger, but rather as an opportunity. When the war is over, many Ukrainians will go back home and they will feel grateful to the Polish people for the help they received when they were in need. And those who stay will help deal with the demographic issue of low birth rates in Poland. These are motivations stronger than any memories of past grudges.

Does the current Czech-Polish cooperation in aiding Ukraine mark a new beginning for closer relations between Prague and Warsaw?

I hope so. I am happy that the new government solved the neighbor dispute surrounding the Turów mine. That lifted a weight off our mutual relations. It paved the way for a joint visit of prime ministers Fiala and Morawiecki to Kyiv, which was a significant event in EU circles. Poland is one of our key neighbors and its importance to the West in regard to Russia is vital. It is currently the most important European NATO member state.

Czechia is in command of the NATO unit charged with defending Slovakia. Is it an honor for us?

It represents a recognition of our role in NATO. Its doors at the Brussels headquarters as well as in Washington are open to us thanks to what we are doing. We must seize that opportunity.

The author works as a European editor for Deník

CV BOX

Alexandr Vondra (born August 17, 1961, in Prague) is an MEP and deputy chairman of the ODS.

He teaches international relations and security at UJEP in Ústí nad Labem and at CEVRO Institute in Prague. He is also the chairman of the board of the Center of Transatlantic Relations at CEVRO Institute, honorary president of the Czech Euroatlantic Council, and member of the Czech-German Discussion Forum.

He graduated in geography. He later worked as a curator of the Asian collections at the Náprstek Museum.

Vondra also managed the Národní Třída band and co-published Revolver Revue, a samizdat magazine. In 1989, he became the spokesperson of Charter 77 and a co-author of the “Několik vět” petition. He was imprisoned for his actions. In November 1989, he was one of the founding members of the Citizen's Forum.

In the years 1990-1992, he worked as an advisor to President Václav Havel. He then spent 5 years as the first deputy minister of foreign affairs and later worked for four years as an ambassador to the USA starting in 1997.

He returned to high politics in 2006, becoming minister of foreign affairs for a year. He also spent six years as a senator and two years as minister of defense. He has been an MEP since June 2019.

Vondra is married. He and his wife Martina have three children – Vojtěch (30), Anna (28), and Marie (25).

He walks through the Winston Churchill building to get to his Strassbourg office.

The three E's

Czechia will take over the EU presidency in July. What does Alexandr Vondra think should be the key topic during this term? “I see three key topics. The three E's: East, Energy, Economy,” he says. “Strangely enough, things are quite similar to our first presidency in 2009. We took over at the time just a few months after the Russian attack on Georgia, now it is Ukraine. Back then, we reacted to the situation by coming up with a project dubbed “Eastern Partnership”, now we have to put together a sort-of Marshall Plan to help Ukraine. Back then, we were faced with the first gas crisis, now we are dealing with another, more serious one. Energy safety will be a key topic. And finally, the economic recovery of the EU. At the time, we were faced with a banking crisis. Now we are dealing with soaring inflation, energy, food, and other basic necessities increasing in price, and chaos raging in global supply chains. In short, history does sometimes repeat itself.”

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