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Realistically about the Tragic Situation in Ukraine

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The following editorial was written by former Czech president Václav Klaus, and was submitted for publication at the Visegrád Post by the Václav Klaus Institute.

The suffering of hundreds of thousands of civilians as well as that of soldiers (and not only professionals), not to mention the enormous material damage that will affect not only the places where the fighting is taking place, as well as huge consequences of the massive wave of refugees are still incalculable. There is no reason to try to quantify them at the beginning of the whole tragic process. Now, it is necessary to appeal for an immediate ceasefire, for a truce, for a readiness to be able to accept meaningful and seriously proposed compromises.

Such an approach, however, requires something other than emotions, sorrow, sympathy, and cheap gestures, not to mention attempts by politicians to abuse the situation to denounce by their political rivals. It requires a return to a rational way of looking at the causes of today’s situation. That’s the prerequisite for finding solutions that would minimize losses and costs of all kinds.

To find such solutions, exaggerated rhetoric and political slogans are not sufficient. It is not enough to engage in political games that always end up being about domestic politics (and in the Czech case, about the upcoming local, senate and presidential elections).

The war has been going on for three weeks now, and it will not come to a quick end by itself. What is still missing is an analysis of why all this happened. During the first few days I was urged to remain silent and not to analyse the situation. Now it is perhaps slowly becoming not only possible, but necessary.

It should be said that the biggest victim of all that is going on, Ukraine, has been from the beginning only a tool in a larger game. It would be cheap to condemn Ukraine on the grounds that it should not have accepted this role and that it should have seen through it long ago.

That is easy to say, especially in hindsight. In a complicated post-Communist as well as deeply divided Ukraine, it is questionable whether anyone had the sufficient strength and mandate to do so.

It is evident that, for at least the last ten years, there has been a clash in Ukraine between the West and Russia (I was going to write West and East, but that would leave China aside).

It is a “delayed match” of the Cold War. For the US and its allies, it is a continuation of the policy of unipolar hegemony (which resulted from their victory in the Cold War), and for Russia it is a decision not to allow – as they now say – the crossing of the “red line”, which for Russia was the membership of its neighbouring country in NATO.

I agree with the realists in American foreign policy – from Kissinger and Brzezinski to a generation younger Mearsheimer and Carpenter – that this is how the cards were handed. Ukraine didn’t have the same cards (it was playing a different kind of card game) and therefore could only join one side or the other. Since the “Maidan” in 2014, Ukraine, or rather Ukrainian politicians, have opted for a confrontation with Russia, especially in anticipation of NATO and EU membership (and the connected, on the side of Ukraine not properly understood benefits).

Ukraine had anticipated a confrontation of a different type than the one that broke out on February 24, 2022. Did Ukraine make a mistake? Should it have expected what happened? I have repeatedly admitted that I had not expected a full-fledged war, but I am not a Ukrainian politician. For me it was a secondary, although very seriously taken, problem (and a huge concern); for a Ukrainian politician, it must have been a question of life or death.

Should they have been able to “read” Russia’s plans and intentions? Should they have seen into the soul of Russia and Putin better than we have here in Prague? And than in Berlin, Paris, and Washington? Should they have taken Putin’s months-long statements more seriously? I somewhat excuse them by using my earlier analogy: They were holding different cards than Biden and Putin were. And they were being persuaded of the full support and the help from the West.

The issue now is the seriousness of the negotiations that have been initiated. The key to their success is the answer to the question, “What vision of Ukraine’s future will make Russia stop the war?” The response from the West must come as quickly as possible. Every day, the costs increase exponentially. For the Czech Republic as well, this is an absolutely crucial issue.

Václav Klaus
President of the Czech Republic (2003-2013)