Notes on the Russia-Ukraine War
19 januari 2024 | Václav Klaus
Remarks by President Václav Klaus
World Economic Forum, Davos, 15 January 2024.
Many thanks for the invitation. It has made some of us part of the annual political pilgrimage to Davos, which – I have to admit – not all of us support. Not all of us are happy with the radical turn of the Davos Forum into a Mecca of progressivism in recent years.
There are many pressing issues to be discussed here tonight, but our friend asked me to say a few words on the very risky topic of the Russia-Ukraine war from the perspective of a former Central European politician. A politician who does not pretend to be an expert on Ukraine, but – hopefully – can claim to have some expertise on the – in the case of Ukraine – unsuccessful and unfinished transition from communism to parliamentary democracy and market economy. I have quite deliberately used the words “unsuccessful and unfinished transition”, I consider them appropriate and relevant for this debate.
As compared to other ex-communist countries, Ukraine before the war couldn’t have been described as a Western-type democracy, a country with full-fledged market economy or a consolidated country as regards its territory and the composition of its inhabitants. To pretend that this was not the case and to discuss the current war on Ukrainian territory as if it were taking place in a vacuum is neither helpful nor productive.
With that in mind, let me make a few comments about this war:
1. The entire Ukraine war could and should have been avoided. We have to admit that we – the rest of the world – have failed. It becomes increasingly obvious that after this tragic historic event there will only be losers. There will be no winners. The war has changed the world and the fate of all of us.
2. The geopolitical debate about it, especially in Europe and in the US (and in my own country, in the Czech Republic, as well) is more superficial than it deserves to be. It has been avoiding important and relevant pieces of knowledge about Ukraine, the whole region and the overall geopolitical context. Especially the fact of the end of the monopolar world of the last decades.
3. We shouldn’t forget its historic context. This war started on 4 April 2008. On that day, at the NATO summit in Bucharest, the decision was made to admit Ukraine and Georgia to NATO. I was present at that event, I was sitting there and I knew already there that what happened was a tragic mistake. I tried to argue against it there. This decision was pushed through by the US and the UK (George Bush and Gordon Brown) against the stances of the majority of the participating member countries and in opposition to the positions of Germany and France. I must admit that I felt very depressed there. Many of the attending Presidents and Prime Ministers were irresponsibly silent during the very long evening. It is also well-known that the US ambassador in Moscow, W. Burns, warned the US government at the time that this meant crossing all the so-called “red lines” for Russia.[*]
4. All the evidence suggests that on February 24, 2022, the Russians did not intend to occupy Ukraine, but to change the regime in Kiev and to stop the prospect of Ukraine’s NATO membership. That is why they entered Ukraine with only very small military forces. It was and is evident that they were not going to risk an attempt to take over the whole Ukraine. The Russians knew perfectly well the results of the important presidential elections in 2010, a pro-Western candidate winning in the west, north and centre of Ukraine and a pro-Russian candidate in the east and south. It was a big mistake not to pay attention to this fundamental split of the country.
5. There has been already since 2014 (not February 2022) a civil war in eastern Ukraine with all its terrible casualties and human tragedies.
6. After almost two years of war, it appears that all sides in the conflict have miscalculated. Not only Russia and Ukraine, but also the US and the whole of Europe.
7. Looking at the military situation, the 1,200-kilometre front, leaving aside small shifts, is more or less frozen now. The end of the war is not in sight. It is “in the stars” as we say.
I am convinced we should discuss this issue, without aprioristic prejudices. We should also avoid accepting the new popular ideology that is sometimes called “both-sides-ism”. It doesn’t lead anywhere.
I have only a procedural advice. My modest advice is to start negotiating. Not only between Russia and Ukraine.
12. 1. 2024
[*] As someone who spent most of his life in a communist country under Soviet domination, I believe I can afford to say that.