Jan Lipavsky, the Czech Republic’s foreign minister, spoke to VOA during a visit to Washington this week. The conversation focused on his country’s support for Ukraine including its EU membership aspirations, post-war reconstruction, the Czech Republic’s upcoming EU rotating presidency beginning July 1, as well as the enduring challenge coming from Beijing.
“I am 100% sure that Ukraine will win this war,” Lipavsky told VOA’s Washington-based diplomatic correspondent Natalie Liu. He acknowledged differences among EU member states on the question of Ukraine’s EU membership aspirations and timeline, and says his vision is to “carve in a stone that Ukraine has a right to be part of the European society and a member of the EU” during his country’s six-month-long EU presidency beginning July 1.
“We’re not just a trade bloc, we’re also values-based; and Ukrainians — as a nation, as a people — made a decision that those are the values they want to live by, and they’re literally fighting and dying for their choice now,” Lipavsky said, reflecting on the EU.
Lipavsky said that Russia’s brutal acts in Ukraine constitute an “urgent crisis,” but it is not the only global challenge. He warned that China continues to be “our rival and our global competitor,” calling on democratic nations to be ready to confront the China challenge, including at the United Nations and in other multilateral forums.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: What can you tell us about what the Czech Republic (also known as Czechia) has done to help Ukraine in this crisis?
LIPAVSKY: First of all, we have accepted 300,000 refugees, we’re providing them with shelter and basic needs. We are a country of 10 million people, 300,000 refugees [equal to 3% of the population] is quite a significant number. We consider ourselves to be at the forefront of the Ukraine crisis. We’re also sending significant amount of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and military aid; it’s not only government action, basically the whole nation is helping. We’re also helping Ukraine politically; we’re advocating for Ukraine in the EU, in Europe. We want to help the Ukrainians with their European ambitions, help Ukraine become a member of EU.
VOA: On that note, the Czech Republic is going to assume the EU rotating presidency on July 1. Where do you see the status of Ukraine’s EU membership aspirations at the end of the Czech Republic’s rotating presidency?
LIPAVSKY: It’s very hard to predict, honestly, but my vision for our presidency is to carve in a stone that Ukraine has a right to be part of European society, that Ukraine has a right to become a member of EU. I understand that there are different opinions on that already within the EU, I take [these different opinions] very closely. I am listening to [different opinions] very seriously. And for me, it’s a matter of different viewpoints being challenged and explained.
We know that once the war is over, we will pay for the complete reconstruction of Ukraine. Ukraine will win this war, I’m 100% sure of that. Once the war is over, we will be helping Ukraine to rebuild the whole nation, to rebuild the whole country, let’s do it in a way that Ukraine can then be a member of EU, that’s the point of the whole [struggle].
VOA: On helping Ukraine rebuild, where will that money come from?
LIPAVSKY: Honestly, it will (mostly) come from Europe. During our presidency, we want to [organize] a donation conference. Many countries are helping, we got a gift from Japan, we got a gift from Taiwan, U.S. is providing help. So, it’s about putting these funds together. But at the end of the day, Ukraine is in the EU neighborhood and will take the biggest share of help from the EU.
VOA: How would you define, or describe, victory by Ukraine?
LIPAVSKY: It’s not up to me to define it. It's up to President (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy and (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin, probably, to have some kind of deal. But, I’m standing — and the Czech Republic is standing -- on the side of Ukraine and their right for self-determination, their right to preserve their country and its internationally recognized borders.
VOA: On the question of Ukrainian identity and their wish to be part of the EU, how has the question of what it means to be European evolved in the last 10, 12, 20 years, and especially in light of this war?
LIPAVSKY: European institutions began after the Second World War as a [grouping] of countries determined not to wage war on each other again — Germany, France, Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg). This economic, but also value-based, project, was so successful that it transformed into the European Union. Nowhere else on the planet do we see as successful a cooperation of nation states.
And we’re not just a trade bloc, we’re also value-based.
And Ukrainians — as a nation, as a people — made the decision that those are the values they want to live by. They are literally fighting and dying for their choice now.
They’ve made their choice; we should be helping them with their European aspirations. It will not be done overnight, it's a long process, but we should have this mindset that the EU is a value-based organization. Values are part of our identity.
This [democratic] identity [for nations and individual citizens alike] is built upon a vision that every person can pursue his/her own way to be happy; and you have very basic values like human rights, rights of private ownership, rights to think and freedom of speech. This is something which you won’t find in Russia or in China, where the state, from top-down, tries to control basically every aspect of life. The European society doesn’t work in this way.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has highlighted fear from Central and Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, that they could lose their democratic way of life and once again be ruled by Moscow and be a part of Russia’s imperialist dream.
Russia [only] understands [the concept of] force. The reason why the Russian army right now is not occupying Kyiv is not because there was a negotiation or something else, but only because Ukraine's soldiers took on the fight and beat them back. It was brute force which stopped Russia from attacking and occupying Kyiv. Now, the Russians have switched their plans and are attacking eastern and southern Ukraine and Donbas.
We’re watching Chinese steps [what China does with regard to Ukraine] very closely. And we’re sending a strong signal to China: don’t support Russia in this crazy [undertaking]. On the other hand, we’re witnessing Chinese media repeating Russian propaganda on this war, so it is very concerning.
VOA: Before the war in Ukraine broke out, the United States and other countries saw China as a top threat to the liberal democratic order, in part because of China’s capacity, seen as far greater than Russia’s. Now opinions have shifted some. Many people see Russia as an immediate threat, yet some still consider China the greatest medium- to long-term threat. A Lithuanian lawmaker once said that countries and people in Europe over the years have acquired much stronger immunity against Russia, but their immunity against the challenge posed by China needs improving. Your thoughts?
LIPAVSKY: Those things are very much connected. In a situation where you’re confronted with pictures of ruined Mariupol, the Bucha massacre, Russian genocide against (the) Ukrainian population, this is the immediate threat, this is what’s happening now, and we need to solve this urgent crisis. But it doesn’t mean that China is not our rival, our global competitor [any longer]. It doesn’t mean that the possible threats from the rise of China is not there anymore. Yes, China wants to change the international order. Putin is attacking the rules-based international order by its very brutal action against Ukraine. China has different means, more sophisticated, but still, they have their vision of the world, and we need to be careful of that and be ready to confront China on international platforms, at the United Nations, for example.
VOA: You listed the Indo-Pacific region as one of the priorities of the Czech Republic’s EU presidency, and Global Gateway was introduced by the EU late last year. Given the war, it hasn’t received a lot of attention. How do you see the Global Gateway pan out during the Czech Republic’s (EU) presidency and also in light of competition with China’s Belt and Road initiative? And on that note, I would also ask, Lithuania pulled out of the 17 plus one. Is the Czech Republic going to do the same? Do you see other nations also following suit?
LIPAVSKY: The European Union has demonstrated great geopolitical instincts in regard to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. We have agreed on five packages of sanctions, and a sixth package of sanctions will be approved. Global Gateway will [constitute] part of the EU’s geopolitical thinking. It will connect multiple EU activities in different regions of the world, so the EU will be a global actor and will become more visible and able to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative and provide significant help for infrastructure projects, etc., in certain countries. I would like to see Global Gateway be applied to the Balkans, too. I think that might be one of the legacies of [the Czech Republic’s rotating EU] presidency if we manage to advance this agenda.
On the 16+1 — it used to be 17+1 [before Lithuania declared its exit] — I do not see any kind of benefit from that. I am talking to my colleagues, no one is cheering for that, and I think we will see how that develops.
The current international order is built upon a vision that we have common ground and that we follow all the rules. China likes to cherry pick certain things. What we’ve become aware of, for example, is how China is trying to influence different treaties on technology [standards]. There are very specific areas where they put in their own vocabulary, which, for example, diminish the issue of human rights. They are really quite active, slowly but methodically changing — cutting away — the ideas on which the international order is built upon.
VOA: Please explain your understanding of European values and universal values.
LIPAVSKY: I don’t think there should be any major difference between the global values and European values. We are working with the U.N. Charter, with the Charter of Human Rights. Those are the very basic documents which were crafted from the horrors of the Second World War. And this is something on which European societies are built upon, and the rest of the world has publicly adopted. So, this should form the basis on which our thinking stands.
VOA: Some people say this war [against Ukraine] is Putin’s war, and some say it’s Russia’s war. They say the Russian people are very involved as well. Earlier you talked about Putin being the KGB and of a previous generation. Do you see the changing of times and younger generations making a difference in countries like both Russia and China? You, yourself, being only in your 30s?
LIPAVSKY: I see that the Russian nation was manipulated into believing this horrendous propaganda, which is sad to see; and it’s hard to distinguish between the state and the nation when systematic propaganda is truly Orwellian (dystopian view) — like we see in Russia and in China.
VOA: What are the prospects of the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment?
LIPAVSKY: Honestly, I don’t feel this is on the EU’s agenda for the foreseeable future. It has a lot to do with Xinjiang, and the fact that 10 members of the European Parliament were put on China’s sanctions list.
VOA: Do you see Europe ever working with Russia to help that country rebuild?
LIPAVSKY: That’s an interesting question. The war is still going on, it’s too soon to have this kind of discussion. If there would be change in Russia, of course, we could cooperate.