On August 30, 2023, InterRegional for Strategic Analysis held a discussion panel entitled, "Prague Doctrine: How Does Czechia View the Future of European Security Post-Ukraine War?" The panel was moderated by Dr. Jan Kovář, head of the Centre for European Politics, Deputy Research Director at the Institute of International Relations, and Professor of International Relations at New York University and Metropolitan University in Prague, Czech Republic. The panel discussion focused on the impact of the Ukraine war on the EU and Prague’s vision of the future of European security from a comprehensive perspective.
Dr. Kovář also addressed several issues concerning developments in Europe’s regional security in recent years, particularly the shift in Czechia’s foreign policy toward Central Europe over the last two decades—highlighting the intense debate over the nature of the EU’s role in security and defense issues and the positive repercussions of the Ukrainian crisis on the role of NATO.
Dr. Jan Kovář reviewed the features of Czechia’s and the Central and Eastern European countries’ vision for European security issues in the period following the Russia-Ukraine war, most notably the following:
1. Czech tendency to strengthen its relations with Central European countries: According to Kovář, Central Europe has not been a key focus in the history of Czech foreign policy over the past twenty years. Prague has not cooperated much with other Central and Eastern European countries, with the exception of Slovakia, and there has been no clear Czech foreign policy for Central Europe.
Nevertheless, according to Dr. Kovář, the dictates of European security—following the outbreak of the Ukraine war—automatically prompted Prague to seek further bilateral and multilateral cooperation with the region’s countries, including Germany and Poland, as well as within what is usually called the "Bucharest Nine," which make up the eastern flank of NATO.
2. Conviction of the importance of strengthening NATO’s security role: According to Dr. Kovář, Prague adheres more to the notion of reducing the EU’s role in security and defense issues, although there is still some skepticism over NATO’s role as a major guarantor of European security in the long term, especially with the growing fears regarding the US’s withdrawal from Eastern and Central Europe and its focus on the Indo-Pacific region. Thus, from Czechia’s perspective, the optimal strategy may include bilateral security cooperation between the EU and NATO, given that deterrence, regional defense, and the general use of hard power are at the core of NATO’s competency, not the EU’s.
Kovář noted that the outbreak of the Ukraine war was the catalyst that prompted NATO to reawaken and rediscover its purpose as the "primary guarantor of European security." In other words, there is no longer an urgent need to involve the EU excessively in the region’s security and defense issues; consequently, the impetus gained by the idea of "European strategic autonomy" has receded.
3. Initiative to aid Ukraine to strengthen its position: Kovář pointed out that the Central and European nations—led by Czechia, Poland, Slovakia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia—rushed to support Ukraine after Russia declared war on it in February of 2022. Czechia also proposed several EU-level initiatives to support Ukraine, with Dr. Kovář noting that this issue has shaped the positions of these countries toward European security.
Dr. Kovář reported that the Central European nations—led by Czechia—are among the countries hosting the largest number of refugees per capita, with approximately half a million Ukrainian refugees in Czechia. He noted that this percentage is very high for a country of 10.5 million people—i.e., refugees make up 5% of the population—and stressed that this is also the situation in Poland and Estonia.
Kovář also noted that at the end of last year, Czechia decided to allow the training of Ukrainian soldiers within its territory, despite Prague’s policy of prohibiting the presence of foreign troops, even American troops, on its soil. Thus, this development represents a clear shift in Czechia’s traditional security, foreign security, and defense policy. Kovář also mentioned that Czechia was the first country to deliver T-72 tanks to Ukraine and to supply Ukrainian soldiers with large amounts of ammunition and military aid.
4. Reduction of Czech cooperation with Russia to the minimum extent possible: Kovář pointed out that Czechia’s foreign policy toward Russia changed greatly after the outbreak of the Ukraine war. Czech President Miloš Zeman was always supportive of China and Russia in his foreign policy, and during his president campaign in 2013, he was funded in part by a Russian company. However, this position changed significantly after the war broke out, with Zeman describing Putin as "crazy and in need of isolation"—a position previously unheard of.
Kovář emphasized that Czechia depended heavily on Russian gas before the start of the Ukraine war, at a rate of more than 90%, but this rate has decreased a great deal at the moment. Czechia has now almost stopped importing energy from Russia, after obtaining energy supplies from global partners other than Russia became one of the main strategic goals of Czech foreign policy. This has already been implemented in the short term, and work is underway to implement it in the long term.
Kovář also stressed that this shift means that Czechia will completely separate itself from Russia and has basically joined the list of the most vocal opponents of any cooperation with the Russian Federation, citing Czechia’s imposition of a travel and visa ban on Russian citizens.
5. Support for efforts to build a unified European position against Moscow: Kovář noted that Czechia is now eager to build a firm and unified stance for the Central European nations against Russia. These countries are trying to stick together as much as possible, despite the existence of countries that remain outside the fold, such as Hungary, which has been following a pro-Russian policy throughout. Kovář described Hungary as "not in our camp (Slovakia, Czechia, and Poland), and we distance ourselves a lot from the Hungarians, who take what I would call a pro-Russian position."
Kovář explained that, while the Eastern European countries responded to the developments that occurred immediately after the outbreak of the war, the Western European countries had unrealistic perceptions of the war. These countries, especially Germany and France, faced many criticisms for being hesitant and slow, as Kovář described it, thus confirming the "moral superiority" of the Eastern European countries over their Western counterparts, according to Kovář.
Support for Integration
Dr. Jan Kovář touched on Czechia’s view of the future of European integration, pointing out that Czechia is among the biggest supporters of greater European integration. The following are the highlights of what he discussed:
1. Czech support for increased EU participation in security issues: Kovář emphasized that recent regional security developments in Europe, particularly before the outbreak of the Ukraine war, had created major controversy over the nature of the role the EU should play with regard to security and foreign policy issues, and whether soft power or regional defense and deterrence was the most appropriate choice for addressing the region’s crises.
According to Kovář, the period of stagnation through which NATO has passed in recent years, which prompted former US President Donald Trump to describe the alliance as "obsolete," allowed French President Emmanuel Macron’s calls for "European strategic autonomy" to gain great momentum at the time. This debate extended to Czechia, and during the years 2017-2022, there was a significant, though gradual, shift in Czech foreign policy toward supporting greater EU participation in security issues.
2. Strong support from Czechia to expand membership in the EU: Kovář emphasized the importance of expanding EU membership by admitting Central and Eastern European states, led by Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, to the EU, noting that Czechia was basically promoting granting Ukraine "candidate status," which actually occurred in June of last year. Czechia pressed for the inclusion of these countries during the six months at the helm of the EU. Kovář added that Czechia continues to exert political pressure to begin accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova as soon as possible.
3. European security is dependent on integration among all European nations: Kovář linked the potential for achieving future European security with integration among all European nations. He stressed the need to see the six West Balkan countries and the three Eastern European states (Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine) as future members of the EU, which represents an important security dimension that consists of expanding EU territory toward those countries. Kovář added that this issue is essentially one of the main aspects of Europe’s future security structure.
Kovář believes that Europe’s future security structure will not be complete without officially incorporating Ukraine and other countries into the process of European integration. He thinks that, without Ukraine’s membership in the EU, the Central Eastern European region will not be fully self-secure, even with Czechia being a member of the EU. Kovář stressed the need to use Russia’s war on Ukraine to pressure for further expansion in order to impose European values.
4. Opposition in some countries critical of expanding EU membership: Kovář pointed out that several European countries, notably France and Germany, have rejected the question of EU expansion. In a speech two years ago, French President Emmanuel Macron stressed that there would be no EU expansion, even for security purposes, unless the EU underwent institutional reform.
According to Kovář, France here is referring to reforms related to the difficult process for making foreign policy decisions, which requires consensus and approval of all member states. This occurred recently with Hungary when it alone refused to impose sanctions on Russia. Thus, the French and Germans link the accession of any other country to the EU with institutional reform. Kovář mentioned that Czechia criticized this view.
Furthermore, Kovář believes that the dilemma of carrying out institutional reform of the EU can be overcome, adding that European countries are now less committed to overstated nationalism, tend more toward greater federalism, and aim toward full integration with Brussels. Because the EU has most of the powers, there will be an opportunity to achieve shared goals.
Dr. Kovář outlined the Czech view of the Arab Gulf states’ position on the Ukraine war. The most significant aspects of this view are as follows:
1. Czech monitoring of Gulf-state mediation in the Ukrainian crisis: According to Kovář, the Arab Gulf states have played a major diplomatic role during the Russia-Ukraine conflict, especially with regard to the mediations that took place after the outbreak of the war, on two occasions, when the exchange of prisoners was negotiated through some Arab Gulf states. This confirms that the Arab Gulf states have good relations with both Russia and the rest of the European countries, which, according to Kovář, may benefit the European countries, including Czechia.
2. Prague’s hesitations over Gulf-state neutrality in the Ukrainian crisis: Dr. Kovář stated that Czechia was disappointed with the Arab Gulf states’ positions not supportive of the Western countries against Russia after the outbreak of the Ukraine war, such as the vote in the UN Security Council or the General Assembly debates when the Arab Gulf states flatly rejected or balked at the alliance with the European nations and NATO against Russia.
Finally, Kovář ruled out the possibility of the European nations creating their own defense mechanisms independent of NATO and the US in the short term. However, he expects instead that there will be a project of joint cooperation, such as joint weapons purchases and the development of military-systems interoperability, as well as deeper, incremental cooperation in the interoperability of European armies through joint research and development policies. Kovář stressed that most EU countries currently do not support the idea of strategic independence in the area of defense, nor would Washington welcome this.