June 1, 2023

Why We Have a Stake in This War: An Honest View from Czechia

Karel Řehka, Chief of Defence of the Czech Republic speaking at the Lennart Meri Conference 2023 on 13 May 2023.
Karel Řehka, Chief of Defence of the Czech Republic speaking at the Lennart Meri Conference 2023 on 13 May 2023.

We have enjoyed freedom and prosperity for the past 33 years. Czechia has joined the strongest defence alliance and become part of the European community economically, politically, and culturally. All our neighbours are our allies and friends. Our society is based on individual liberties, human rights, the rule of law, and equal opportunities, as well as respect for freedom and diversity.

In other words, we live in a democracy. We decide our future in free democratic elections, without anyone dictating from the outside what our country should do. Such an unprecedented degree of security allows us to focus on our development. Naturally, we wish our prosperity and quality of life would continue to improve so that our children and grandchildren benefit from it, too.

Sadly, we know that it is neither for free nor forever. From a Czech historical perspective, these last three decades of freedom and security have been an anomaly rather than a rule. We must never take it for granted but proactively defend our way of life – otherwise, we risk losing it.

The world is not free from wars

The world that we live in is not safe – it has never been and probably will never be safe. People will always have diverging opinions, as well as conflicts deriving from those. States will, likewise, sometimes opt for organised violence as a means to solve them. Hence, wars will break out from time to time.

Albeit shocking for some, this has always been the case throughout human history, whereas we – on the contrary – have been extraordinarily lucky not to have experienced a conventional war first-hand. In our lifetime, we have only heard about wars as something remote and abstract that only marginally affects us. We have enjoyed this comfort. We did not have to sacrifice our blood and treasure for our own defence. We only had to send military professionals into hotspots to assist our allies and prevent a distant problem from spilling over into our homeland.

We have deluded ourselves into believing that there is no big war looming in our civilised European home. We were convinced that were such a war to occur, we would have an advance warning to prepare. Yet, this is not how the world works. First, a war in Europe has never been inconceivable. Second, we would never have had enough time to prepare if we had not made adequate preparations already in peacetime. Third, blinded by comfort and prosperity, we are apt to overlook the warning signs and thus act upon them in due time. The present-day Russian aggression stands as an excellent example of that.

Wake-up call

The Russian aggression in Ukraine has been a wake-up call. The question is whether we are awake now and for how long. Since 2007, the Russian President has indicated – in words and deeds – that Russia will not accept the current international order. Nor will it recognise the sovereignty and free will of militarily weaker countries unless they fall in line with Russia’s interests. To advance those interests, Russia did not hesitate to use military force wherever and whenever Moscow had a reason to believe that it would get away with it and that the price to pay would not be too high, as were the cases of Georgia and Crimea.

Although Russia’s aggressiveness and unpredictability have been on the rise, they reached a whole new level by waging war against Ukraine. Russia has labelled its war of conquest in Ukraine as a clash with NATO and the West at large. It has called us the enemy and demonstrated hostile behaviour towards us. In Russia’s own words, it has been strengthening its military capabilities to prepare for a conflict with us.

We used to overestimate the Russian military might before the invasion of Ukraine. Today, we tend to underestimate it. This is dangerous thinking. Russia still possesses significant military capabilities. The invasion certainly keeps Russia busy and weakened. However, a weakened Russia does not necessarily mean a less dangerous Russia – it may well be the other way around.

Russia has been working to replenish and reinforce its military capabilities – a goal it has the potential to achieve. For us, it sets a clear assignment: we must start strengthening our own defence now. And time is limited. Even if we had the luxury of ten years ahead of us, it would still be a sprint rather than a marathon.

Does Putin want a war with us?

Does Vladimir Putin want a military conflict with NATO – the strongest defence alliance in history? In all probability, not today. Yet, we shall not rejoice either. Below are the reasons why.

First, the decisions that Vladimir Putin takes next may be completely different because he will be taking those decisions in a different situation. Accordingly, we do not know what options he will have. So far, he has only been driving himself into a corner by limiting his room to manoeuvre.

Second, although it would be catastrophic for Russia to go to war against NATO, Vladimir Putin has repeatedly taken steps that are fraught with disastrous consequences for Russia – the invasion of Ukraine being one of them.

Third, we do not know for how long Putin will have Russia under control and how long he will remain in power. Thankfully, he will not be in the presidential office forever, at least given his age. What will happen to Russia afterwards is a big unknown.

The Kremlin has a tight grip on the information environment and manipulates the Russian population, whose continued support is crucial. Everybody can see how Russia shapes its youth in a nationalistic spirit by utilising distorted history, symbols, and uniforms. It should be noted that this is a systemic effort. These generations of Russian youth, affected by propaganda, will one day form the basis of the Russian armed forces.

If a war between NATO and Russia were to break out

It is delusional to think that a potential war between Russia and NATO will not affect us here in Czechia, in the centre of Europe, or that we will not be too exposed to military aggression for we are surrounded by friendly nations.

If the war between NATO and Russia were to break out, we would be actively involved from the very first minute. A large portion of our armed forces would deploy to fight in accordance with NATO defence plans. Our territory would become a critical transit zone and a rear area.

From Russia’s perspective, it would offer a multitude of legitimate targets for weapons that are already capable of reaching us. Given the pace of technological progress, there will only be more of such weapons. Hardly would Russia wait for us to get organised and deployed to the battlefield – it would act swiftly.

The life of our citizens would instantly turn upside down. Everything would change. Does it paint a grim picture? Indeed, it does. Yet, we must face the truth and stop deluding ourselves. We must also appreciate that we belong to the strongest military alliance. Therefore, we will not be left alone to defend ourselves, and so the likelihood of someone attacking us decreases.

Total defence

Fighting the big war requires a whole-of-society approach. It is not only about the military – national defence is a nationwide endeavour. It is about the industry, transport and logistics, civilian infrastructure and medical facilities, etc.

In some, the very word “mobilisation” sparks off a reaction verging on panic, which is understandable. However, let us be frank with ourselves. The potential war with Russia – that would likely last more than a couple of weeks – would initially draw on our limited resources of all-volunteer armed forces and the active reserve. Yet, these would not suffice, and the Czech authorities would soon have to mobilise people and materiel.

Defence is not limited to the military: there is a mobilisation system in place and a draft activated in times of military crises. Society should be aware of those – informing the public does not equal fearmongering. Communication is part of building resilience and defence readiness. If that means someone may be afraid for a while, so be it. Society should be aware of the threats, manage to live with them, adapt, and dynamically develop – not be paralysed by fear.

War in Ukraine affects us all

The war against Ukraine has already had a direct impact on the international organisations and security architecture, including those of Europe. The end of it is nowhere in sight, so let us concentrate on the aspects that are closest to our defence posture.

Russia will not achieve its objectives, and Ukraine will not be defeated on the battlefield. Yet, Western support is vital here. It is both morally right and in our immediate interest to support Ukraine. Ukrainians are fighting for all of us by holding the Russian aggression far from our borders.

Coercing Ukraine into accepting some sort of compromise and returning to business as usual with Russia would be detrimental to our future. It would entail acknowledging spheres of influence, recognising the use of force as a means to advance state interests, and limiting the sovereignty of those militarily weaker. In other words, it would mean that might makes right.

It would not be hard to envision what – or who – would be next. Do the Czechs want an aggressive Russia on the Ukrainian-Slovak border? The answer is self-evident. However, we must also realise that Russia will not disappear and will continue to pose a danger to us all. It will likely be less predictable, more hostile, increasingly aggressive, and potentially frustrated, filled with hatred and desire to wreak vengeance.

Course of Action

The key to what happens next is what we make out of it now.

First, we should strive for Ukraine’s military victory on the battlefield. As long as it takes. There should be no doubt about our resolve.

Second, we should start preparing for a potential clash with Russia as it will continue to be a threat. Even if we were to suggest that such a confrontation would happen ten or fifteen years into the future, it would still be urgent to start preparing now. Building defences is not achieved overnight, and we must not let a single day pass in vain.

Third, NATO is the cornerstone of our security. In order to be stronger together, we must invest in our defence, and the 2% target is a bare minimum. In Czechia, we should always remember that security is neither free nor for granted. We should also remember that the Alliance is only as strong as its individual members. We should remember that although building defence is a marathon, we must keep moving fast to enhance our defence capability.

Fourth, the basic precondition for successful defence is a societal commitment to it. We live in a democratic country, wherein the responsibility for national defence is vested with a democratically elected government. In a democracy, no cabinet lasts forever. And national defence posture is not developed in one election cycle either. If we are to stand any chance of success, it is crucial that our society understands the threats and risks and that the government communicates them so that the public can identify them and demand their elected representatives defend our country and our values.

End goal

The legacy carryover debt in the armed forces is huge and risks slowing us down. How could this have happened to us? We yielded to a false sense of security. We failed to grasp how critical it was to devote adequate resources to defence. And we must never let this happen again. Although some may perceive it as scaremongering (well, so be it), it is our duty to talk about our security openly and bluntly.

Our objective is not to incite war but to prevent it by deterring the aggressor, and if the war does occur – to win it. The only option is to communicate to belligerent Russia that its efforts are doomed to fail. The only language that Russia understands is that of our allied cohesion, resolve, massive armaments, and readiness. This endeavour should naturally go hand in hand with clear and effective diplomacy.

It is, by no means, sabre rattling on our part. Soldiers are the least likely among us to wish for war for we have seen it with our own eyes. We are also least likely to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that the danger will pass us somehow or that someone will take care of it for us. The war teaches us to keep our eyes open, see things realistically, always take the initiative, and tackle our problems ourselves as no one else will do it for us.

This text first appeared in the Czech media in the spring of 2023.

Filed under: Commentary