While most of the world is focused on the battles still to come in Ukraine, the Czech Republic’s chief envoy in Washington says his country is already at work on the massive task of rebuilding.
“We’re sending generators to provide electricity, we have a constant flow of delegations traveling to Ukraine, to identify what is needed on the ground, evaluate those needs, and provide our help to them,” Ambassador Miloslav Stasek said in an interview this week.
Speaking at his residence adjacent to the embassy in a wooded area in northwest Washington, Stasek said his country has decided to focus its efforts on Dnipro, a major city in eastern Ukraine that has been heavily damaged by Russian airstrikes.
“It is dangerous for people to travel there, for sure,” Stasek acknowledged. “This is very close to the [battle] front, but that’s why we picked this area, because Russian forces have inflicted heavy damages [there].”
The Czech Republic’s commitment to helping Ukraine dates from the earliest days of the war a year ago, the diplomat said.
“On February 25, the second day of the conflict, we stopped issuing visas to Russians,” Stasek said, adding that his government was pleased to see some other European countries follow suit.
Stasek also pointed out that Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala, together with his Slovenian and Polish counterparts, became the first foreign leaders to visit Ukraine and meet with Volodymyr Zelenskyy at a time when “Russian forces were 60 kilometers away from Kyiv.”
On the eve of the one-year mark of the war, Fiala issued a statement in Prague recalling the journey his country undertook to support Ukraine.
“We clearly knew from the very first moment — perhaps thanks to our own historical experience — that we had to stand up for Ukraine. And we did it — not only the government, but the whole country, and it makes me truly proud,” said Fiala, who took office in November 2021.
Throughout the past year, the Ukrainian government’s message to its supporters has been consistent: weapons, weapons, and more weapons. Their requests initially were met with careful consideration — bordering on hesitation in some capitals — but Prague was quick to respond: It became the first country to deliver attack helicopters, main battle tanks, multiple rocket launchers and armored personnel carriers to Ukraine.
“We wanted to open the gate for other countries to follow suit,” explained Stasek. He said he was glad to see that his country, along with other Central and Eastern European nations, had taken the lead in answering Ukraine’s call for help.
“The ‘Zeitenwende’ brought about by the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, has indeed led to a subtle but noticeable shift in the power-balance of Europe,” Martin Weiss, who served as Austria’s ambassador to the United States from 2019 to 2022 and is currently the president and CEO of the Salzburg Global Seminar, told VOA in a written interview from Austria. “Zeitenwende” is a term made famous by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last year depicting the “critical shift” in geopolitics caused by the war.
While “the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and others” are making their weight felt, the Paris-Berlin axis is now “leading from behind, to put it nicely,” Weiss said.
The war has also enhanced ties within European countries, Stasek told VOA. Having had to diversify energy supplies “almost overnight,” the land-locked Czech Republic reached an agreement with the Dutch government to lease a liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal to facilitate the delivery of American LNG through Germany.
Before the war started, nearly 99% of the Czech Republic’s gas energy needs came from Russia; that figure is now near zero, Stasek said. Nearly two-thirds of his country’s oil demand was met by Russia and that is now down to a “minimal” level.
The sudden shifts in the energy sector have had “negative side effects” for his country’s economy and social welfare, Stasek acknowledged.
“With energy prices going up, [the] price of regular stuff in the shops also goes up, as does the cost of services,” he said. Being land-locked makes it especially costly to acquire energy from new sources.
Currently the country’s inflation rate stands at about 17%, one of the highest in Europe – a fact partly attributable to decisions by its independent central bank to keep interest rates low and the Czech currency strong against both the dollar and the euro.
“Our exports are now very expensive and not as competitive in the global marketplace,” he said.
In a fact sheet examining the war and its impact on the Czech society, the Prague government acknowledged that hosting Ukrainian refugees has been a sizable burden for both the central government and local administrations.
Together they have provided free health care and education for a peak number of almost 490,000 refugees, according to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), which is equivalent to a sudden expansion of the Czech population by 6%.
Stasek expressed satisfaction that his country didn’t have to build shelters for the refugees. “People opened their hearts and their homes” to bring them in, he said, noting that Ukrainians already represented “the biggest minority group in our country,” totaling 200,000 people before the war started.
Stasek pointed out that his country played a significant role in forging a united European Union response to the severe challenges brought on by the war during Prague’s rotating EU presidency in the second half of 2022.
“For us, the biggest task was to keep the unity of the European Union and strengthen transatlantic ties, to not allow Russia to divide us,” he said. To that end, “we were able to keep everybody together, and [together] put a ceiling to energy prices.”
Toward the end of its rotating presidency, Prague urged the bloc to consider negotiating energy prices as a single entity in order to put pressure on suppliers and get the price down for member states.
But, he maintained, inflation and the other stresses caused by the war have not deterred the Czechs from doing their best to help the Ukrainians. “This is the price we have to pay,” he said.