Interview with the Czech foreign policy analyst and former diplomat about war in Ukraine and what might be the way out of it
Veronika Sušová-Salminen, Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat
Cross-border Talks spoke at the end of April 2022 to Petr Drulák – former deputy minister of foreign affairs of Czechia and former Czech ambassador to France. We asked him about the roots of the current conflict, which he discussed with great detail, following the post-Cold War relations between the USA, Europe, Ukraine and Russia. He also had a take on the possibility for a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine. Finally, he also provided a perspective that takes into account the interests of Central and Southeastern Europe. In Drulak’s view our region is not interested in prolonging the war. But the Czech foreign policy expert also makes a number of different very precise observations, that show a European, more precisely: Central European view about the conflict by someone knowledgeable on international affairs.
Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Welcome everybody to yet another episode of Cross-border Talks focused on Ukraine. We would have been both very happy to declare that the war is over and the refugees are able to go back home safely. But unfortunately, this is not the case. There is a Russian offensive going on in Donbas, heavy fighting in southern Ukraine. And in the last few days we also had rumors about possible violence around Transnistria, the separatist region, that is the separatist republic on the western borders of Ukraine, not far from Odessa. We are going to discuss regional implications of the war in Ukraine, the possible consequences of what this war will bring to the entire region with somebody who has a very valuable insight into both Ukrainian and Russian way of thinking, somebody who served in diplomacy in Ukraine, somebody who had absolutely unique expertise. So welcome, everybody, to Cross-Border talks. My name is Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat. I am accompanied today with my Czech colleague, Veronica Sušová-Salminen, who is going to present our very special guest.
Veronika Sušová-Salminen: Hello, everybody. And I’m very happy that I can be welcome in our next episode professor Petr Drulak. As was already said, he has really special expertise in my opinion, because he is himself a professor of political science. He specializes in international affairs. He’s professor at the West Bohemian University in Plzen, Czech Republic. But he also served several years as a deputy of foreign affairs minister of the Czech Republic. And he served at the time of the beginning of all this story about Ukraine at the time of Ukrainian crisis in 2014. So he has this specific insight and he’s able, in this case, to combine practice and theory, which is important. And he has also served as our ambassador in France – indeed Milan Kundera the most, interesting living Czech literary figure, owes the return of his Czech citizenship (lost in the seventies during the communist time) to Petr Drulak. But today we focus on the regional implications of the war in Ukraine. What does it mean for the region of Central and East Europe? Of course, Petr Drulak will represent a more Central European Czech view on the matter. So I would like to ask Petr Drulak how we got here. What are the roots of the Ukrainian crisis and now the war in Ukraine, in your opinion?
Well, thank you very much for this invitation. Thank you, Malgorzata. Thank you, Veronika, I’m honored and thank you for the kind introduction which you just made, Veronika. The question which you just ask is a question which would require a one hour or two hour, perhaps 3 hours of lecture. So I try just to say a few ideas and words about where we are now, because right now we are in the middle of disaster.
This war is a disaster. It’s a disaster for Ukraine. It’s a disaster for Central and Eastern Europe. And no doubt it’s a disaster for Russia as well. So I would say it’s a general disaster. So it’s right to ask the question, what are the roots of this disaster? And I do not have any master’s theory. I cannot say that there is just one, be just one cause, which would explain everything. Because, I mean, what we often hear now in the media and what is. So what I would say is the official version is that it is all due to Russia or Russian craziness. Or Mr. Putin’s craziness. And that’s it. And we are now close to the point when actually the people who contest this interpretation are threatened. Until now they are threatened just by being accused of being pro-Putin. They are still not criminally accused, but some of them are actually close to it. So the freedom of speech has been suffering recently. So I don’t say that this cause doesn’t exist. It’s undoubtedly true that Mr. Putin’s behavior is reckless, it’s very brutal, it’s hazardous and I don’t think that he’s really serving his country’s interest.
But having said that, we need also to look at the other side, because in international relations we always have other sides. And in this conflict we have at least three sides, not just two sides, but three sides. We have Russia, we have Ukraine, and we have something which we would call the West, which means the United States and Europe, basically. And well, if we look at Russia, then we see it’s the story of the past 30 years, actually. It’s the story we have to take into account the Russian transformation in the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Empire. After the collapse of the Soviet Empire, Russia started a transformation towards what many hoped would be a Western liberal democracy. This has never been the case, even under the Yeltsin years. So what we saw at that time was not Western liberal democracy. It was a special kind of oligarchy.
Mr. Putin actually changed the system. He made it more autocratic. He actually tamed the oligarchs. He subordinated the oligarchs to his power. But from the perspective but what the West saw as an authoritarian turn (and it was an authoritarian turn) was seen by many ordinary Russians as a return of a certain order, return of certain stability – the fact that the wages were paid, that the retired people could receive their support, etc., etc. Public health and schools actually work better than in the chaos of the 1990s. What was actually part of the Putin agenda and what was more difficult for the West was the fact that he also had this idea of restoring Russian power, because in the 1990s, Russia felt humiliated by certain moves by the West. So NATO’s enlargement, that was something which even Yeltsin opposed, but there was something which Russia could still swallow. What was difficult to swallow for Russia was the bombardment of Yugoslavia at the end of the 1990s, because Yugoslavia or Serbia was Russia’s ally. And where was the red line? That was the enlargement of NATO’s relationship with Ukraine or Georgia. That’s in 2008.
At that point, NATO just announced that it would be possible. So NATO itself was not unanimous about it, and that’s another story. But for Russia, that was a red line. No, it’s not possible to have Ukraine in NATO. And they repeated that that’s something to which they would react strongly. So the Western policies in this respect actually still considered Russia as a collapsed empire, as a weak country of the 1990s. And what was the problem in that? After 2008, the United States and European great powers actually continued with this policy. The fact that Russia said that Ukraine is important strategically to its interest, that it cannot actually have a hostile military basis as a Ukrainian territory. That was something which Russia had repeated and the West thought that it would safely ignore it.
Now, let’s look at Ukraine itself. I mean, the Ukraine transformation was another sad story because that’s a story of so many missed opportunities. There was a country which had a huge potential at the start of the 1990s. I mean, if you compare the standard of living and the economic level of Ukraine in 1990, if you compare it with Poland, Poland was doing better. But the difference was not very big. Actually. today we actually compare countries which are from two different worlds. So when we compare Poland and Ukraine, we cannot actually compare them. But in the 1990s, their level of socioeconomic development was actually quite comparable, even though at that time Poland was doing better.
But what Poland did in the following 30 years was actually able to really undertake very ambitious modernization. The path to democracy, market economy, etc., etc., etc.. Ukraine’s transformation led to the oligarchy, to the to the to the rule of strong economic, economic players who grabbed the assets which used to belong to the Ukrainian or Soviet Ukrainian state. And they basically ruled over the country. They have control over the country. That was one thing which is important. So the transformation actually did not deliver.
The second question is that Ukraine has always been culturally divided between the Russian-speaking east and the Ukrainian-speaking West and the center. But that didn’t have to be a major issue because all the Ukrainians wanted to have prosperity. They wanted to have a decent government no matter where they lived in the regions they lived in Luhansk, Donetsk or Kiev, or if they could agree on it and all of them could agree on a European perspective that they could have Ukraine as a European country. At the end of the first decade of this century after 2008. And crucially was the development between 2008 and 2014, this European perspective became very difficult because it started because the West made it clear to the Ukrainians that a European perspective was not really compatible with close ties with Russia. Although it may seem strange today, at the start of the century, it was considered normal to combine good, strong and intensive ties with Russia with a European perspective.
Even Russia had a European perspective and even Putin wanted to have Russia as a European great power. So it was hardly surprising that Ukrainians thought that they could have both, actually. However, that was that was beginning to be difficult once the later became involved, because for Russia, the NATO was, as I say, a no go, and it was internally divisive in Ukraine.
The decisive moment was the association agreement with the European Union, because before 2014, the European Commission actually offered Ukraine an ambitious sort of association package, including a customs union. But that customs union was not compatible with close economic ties with Russia. They would have to give up on these ties. And Brussels at some point made it clear to Ukrainians they have to choose between Brussels and Moscow. And that was a big mistake because it was an impossible choice for Ukrainians. So that was actually the dilemma of Yanukovich and that was the thing which destroyed his presidency because at one point he said to Brussels, Yes, we want to have it, we want to have this Associated Association agreement. Then he talked with Putin who explained to him that this is not possible. So he gave up. And then came the Maidan demonstrations.
People in Kiev were rightly upset that Yanukovych had given up on the European perspective. That was understandable. I think his position was much better understood in Donetsk and Luhansk than in Kiev or Lviv. The problem was that these demonstrations turned violent. They turned violent from both sides. They turned violent because Yanukovych was quite brutal. So he suppressed these demonstrators. Unfortunately, the demonstrators themselves were not that peaceful. I’m talking about 2014, about the first weeks of 2014. January, February, there was all the violence which was actually committed by anti Yanukovich people. And these people actually understood that they had the backing of some Western powers, notably the United States, because for the United States, it turned into a geopolitical game. “Well, well, let’s have Ukraine. Let’s have Ukraine. Let’s push Russian influence back to the east.” So the result of the Maidan was the overthrow of the Yanukovych regime. A new regime started – an American sponsored regime. That’s actually documented. Victoria Nuland actually made sure that this regime was unambiguously Western oriented and actually said who should be in the Kiev governments. So the new government was basically created in the United States, and this was the government which was considered like the real government, which, which can, which can bring Ukraine to Europe. But for Russia, that was like the end of any reasonable dialogue with Ukraine about Ukraine. They understood that they were losing Ukraine completely, that this government will do things which will go against Russia. So they sent their troops to the Crimea. They fomented the conflict in the eastern Ukraine. That was 2014. That was not something which would be justified by international law or by any international custom. It was brutal. But we can understand actually why Russia did it, because what happened in Kiev was something which was actually the breach of many of many rules and customs. And we were in this situation from 2014 until 2021 a simmering civil war in the east and occupation of Crimea.
And then Putin started to push on Ukraine. We are not sure what the justification for his troops on the Ukrainian border was. Also, the Ukrainian government actually mobilized its troops against Donbas. The Ukrainian government also thought that it would like to reunify Ukraine against its Crimea, eastern Ukraine. And Putin said to the west in the fall of 2021, well, let’s talk about it. We need you to accept that Ukraine will never become a member of NATO and other demands some of which were reasonable. Some of them were not reasonable. In this respect I think that perhaps what we have missed somehow in the West was the opportunity to talk seriously with Russia about it. And we said no to all basically with the exception of two or three demands which were secondary. We said we were not able to, that we are not ready to talk about the Russian security interest in Ukraine, that it’s for Ukraine to choose whether Ukraine will become part of NATO or not. And I think that was a very serious mistake. NATO is not an organization to which any country is entitled. When NATO enlarges, it does so for the security of its members. And if the members themselves were not unanimous that the enlargement with Ukraine would enhance their security, then it made sense actually to speak with Russia about Ukraine saying “we understand your concern. Your control of an important part of Ukrainian territory is actually unlawful. So let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about how to resolve it”.
But this didn’t happen. And eventually (and unforgivably) Russia actually started the invasion.
As I said, this invasion is a huge mistake. It’s a huge mistake because it brings a lot of suffering to everyone. But I still believe that this war could have been avoided. This war could have been avoided if the West was actually able to seriously talk with Russia in the fall of 2021. So from my perspective, we have actually two kinds of arrogance involved in this conflict. There is a Russian arrogance in Ukraine because the Russian discourse of Ukraine is difficult to accept since they don’t consider Ukraine a nation. They deny any right to statehood. This is something which is not acceptable. On the other hand, we are also faced with Western arrogance, which actually is not able to recognize any security interests, strategic interests of Russia in its neighborhood. This doesn’t mean that I would say that we should recognize that Russia is right in saying that Ukrainians have no right to the state. That’s not the issue. It’s the fact that we should be able to recognize that Russia has a legitimate concern about military bases, military installations in the territory, which is its immediate neighbor and which can be used to launch an attack against Russia. So in this respect, that’s what we miss because of our arrogance, which, as I said, it does not deny that the Russian responsibility for the situation is.
You say we could have avoided the war/ Sadly, this is history. The war has been raging for more than two months now and more and more civilians are getting killed in Ukraine. Well, the question is, how can we come to a diplomatic solution right now? Is it possible to come to a diplomatic solution? And if it is possible, then what are the actors who actually have some force to change the course of the negotiations we saw so far? Who are the actors who could effectively join the peace process so that the peace is achieved?
If you say it right now, it’s important to stress right now because right now is the end of April. And at this moment, I don’t see that the situation is mature for the diplomatic solution, unfortunately, because to be ready for diplomatic solutions, you need to have a mutual interest, interest of both warring parties to end the hostilities and to start to talk. What we see on the ground is the opposite.
We see Russia, which believes that it can militarily gain more territory, the territory it considers it needs. But at the same time, we also see Ukraine, which believes that it can actually beat Russia, that it can actually win this conflict militarily, of course, with EU and American help. So we have a strong belief on both sides that fighting is worthwhile. And if you have this situation, you do not actually have much opportunities for diplomacy. However, I believe that there will be a point at which both parties will be exhausted enough, destroyed enough to come to the conclusion that diplomacy is needed. And at that point, the result will depend on the situation on the ground. It will depend on the territory which will be under Russian control. And it will depend on what is under the control of Ukrainians.
Unfortunately, I believe that the borders of Ukraine will be different from what they were before the conflict. And it will be reasonable to ask actually from Russia to give security guarantees, to give some compensation. The question of neutrality will be discussed. The question of the neutrality of what will remain of Ukraine. But as I said It’s too early to say that because the whole diplomatic solution will be based on the military strategic situation on the ground. So the more the war lasts, the worse it will be for everyone. But unfortunately, this simple logic does not does not come now, because we are in the war and people are keen. They are keen on fighting.
If people are keen on fighting, then is it possible that this war will not last months but years? We are now wondering in Poland, can this conflict, which is just behind our border, turn into another Syria where fighting lasts for more than a decade right now? Or can we expect that a frozen conflict, yet another frozen conflict appears in a post-Soviet territory? What scenarios can we expect?
Unfortunately, we cannot rule out what you just outlined. And that’s I mean, if you listen to the discourse of Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, he recently said that it can last until the end of next year, which means like, I mean, almost two years, two years of fighting. So that’s a horrible, horrible alternative. There are actually forces in the West who are actually keen on this because they see it as an opportunity to keep Russia occupied, to keep Russia busy, to weaken Russia. And perhaps if Russia became weak enough to bring about a regime change in Moscow. Some people in the United States and in the UK are clearly betting on that.
So the idea is to supply as many weapons as possible to Ukraine so that Russia gets exhausted by the war and this exhaustion of Russia will definitely be conveyed. And if everything goes according to the sort of these Anglo-American dreams, there may be a regime change. So it’s a very wild, very dangerous bet. But this may actually inform the policy of Washington and London on Ukraine. So unfortunately, there is part of the West which may be interested actually in a long war on Ukraine or in a frozen conflict. It doesn’t have to be that violent all the days. It can get frozen, unfortunately. But it’s Ukrainians who will pay a huge price – and a very huge price will also be paid by their neighbors, I mean Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Czechia, Romania, Moldova?. So for us who are in the immediate neighborhood, this is not a good use. The long fight of Ukrainians against Russia is not good news. And the supply of the weapons is destructive not only to Ukraine but to our neighbouring economies and societies.
I will now put two questions in one that we will get in time. Well, I would ask you, first of all, of course, some kind of evaluation, what this war means for our region. As you said, we are countries which are nearby. This is a war which is in our neighborhood. Russia’s behavior is completely changing in a way, the security environment. So how do you see, at least in the short term, in the few years and based on today’s trends, of course, because we cannot say what will be in few years, but we can think based on trends which we are seeing – what kind of environment, security and international environment we will be living as a region now. And then the second question connected with it: we have war and a failed relationship with Russia, because this is the result of failed relations with Russia after the end of the Cold War, that from one Cold War, we came to the second Cold War. It’s really tragic. So are we able to get some historical lessons from it or we are forever being in the cycle of blaming Russia and saying that we are all the time victims of great power. Is there some kind of lesson for us from this happening? What is going on?
You can actually do two readings – the first being that we underestimated Russia, that we treated Russia too leniently in the past. So we must be much tougher with Russia or we should actually have a more united, more American presence in Europe. That’s actually the reading which is now getting widespread and which is the reason which actually aims at having a new iron curtain between Central Europe and, say, Eastern Europe, maybe that this Iron Curtain will rise in the eastern Ukraine. Who knows? So that’s one reading.
The second reading is the one which I would favour. But it’s actually much more difficult to accept that we acknowledged that not only that Russia is brutal, hazardous and are able to commit all possible crimes, but that we also made serious mistakes. We got too dependent strategically on the United States and on their geopolitical game. So the second reading would suggest that as Europeans or as Central Europeans we seek to create a real strategic autonomy The initial positions of Paris and Berlin have been and still are different from the position of London and Washington. The question is whether we are actually able to create a European security architecture, which would be which would actually be which would give us some strategic autonomy. Right now, it’s almost impossible to think about a European security strategy architecture with Russia, even though in January that was still one of the options which even President Macron acknowledged as a possibility. So that’s not for today.
But once the fighting ceases and once the once sort of things calm down, that will be another thing on the agenda, how this European security architecture or even Atlantic security architecture is able to involve Russia or deal with Russia. But at this moment it’s not possible because that requires diplomacy. And all the European countries are giving up on diplomacy. So they’re actually sending back Russian diplomats. So if you look at the diplomatic relations between European countries and Russia, it’s actually converging to zero in our region. Our region is part of this, of course. So we – the people in our region, are probably more scared than people in Western Europe because they are exposed to these ventures, especially in Poland or in the Baltic countries, because they feel the immediate effects. Our societies are destabilized by the massive migration. I think that the initial reaction of our countries was admirable, was actually exemplary, especially the Polish reaction was exemplary because as far as I understand, there are almost 3 million refugees in Poland, 5 million refugees in total, 3 million in Poland, which is really a lot. It’s actually much more than what the Western countries experienced in 2015. And Poland is not complaining about this. It’s not asking for redistribution around Europe. Poland is actually doing its job in a way which everyone should have and everyone should have a deep respect for. But in the long run, it cannot work.
Our societies and economies are not actually strong enough to absorb all of this. So that’s a real problem, an issue we need to address. And then, of course, the economic disaster. I mean, the Russian economy and European economies are intertwined – for example in energy. So right now, we cannot actually cut these ties, even though some people are calling for it. I consider these calls irresponsible. But today we live in a period of irresponsibility. So the economic damage will be huge. It will be a direct economic damage to our economies and then indirect economic damage because of the crisis in Germany, which is heavily dependent on Russia. And the German economic crisis means the economic crisis for our economies as well. So the future of our region or the next months or the next years is actually very, very dark. And I don’t see that our governments are taking this challenge seriously. I hear the Czech government calling for cutting off the supply of Russian energy supplies. So it’s as if we could deny economic reality, but this economic reality will come back to us with a vengeance. With a vengeance. So I actually expect a lot of social instability, because people will be desperate.
Well, it would be good to finish on a more positive note, but unfortunately what you say is very relevant. Even now I can say in Poland we are starting to see a debate: what next for our country? Now, when Russian gas was cut by Gazprom from Poland, we are not receiving it anymore, effective today, that is from 27 April. So we also start to realize that the millions of Ukrainian refugees we welcomed with open hearts will not all find jobs in Poland. And definitely we had social problems we hadn’t resolved before. More challenges came to us. I would like just to thank you for your remarks. Thank you for your comments. Thank you for your expertise. And I hope we will be able to meet one day in Cross-Border talks to discuss a post-war, peaceful Ukraine with perspectives for rebuilding, perspectives for renovation.
Thank you very much. And let us hope that we will meet in a better time.