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The former ambassador of the Czech Republic to the United Nations (UN), Martin Palouš, today director of the Václav Havel Program for Human Rights & Diplomacy initiative at Florida International University (FIU), spoke with our contributor Julio M. Shiling to discuss the implications that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will have on the West.
Martin Palouš believes that the world is once again at a “historical crossroads” and that what we know today will be different after Russia’s invasion of Ukrainian territory. This is due to the current reflection on the values that shape the conception of the West.
Taking into consideration his experience in a Czechoslovakia that faced the heavy hand of the Soviet Union and the advances of Adolf Hitler over Europe in World War II, Palouš recalls that both France and the United Kingdom, then under the command of Édouard Daladier and Neville Chamberlain, respectively, sought peace agreements with an enemy that was getting stronger in search of avoiding a war situation more devastating than World War I, but what they found was the opposite.
This is Shiling’s conversation with former ambassador Palouš:
We all know the tragedy of the Russian aggression toward the sovereign state of Ukraine, but I’m seeing a silver lining in that there’s a moral awakening between the world’s democracies. Having been involved in this process in the Czech Republic, what is your feeling about that?
“Look, the shortest, simple answer will be ‘yes,’ I share your opinion, but allow me to elaborate a little bit on that, please. I think that there’s no doubt that we are again finding ourselves on some sort of historical crossroad, that the world tomorrow will be different from what we had yesterday because what Mr. Putin decided to do really is changing the whole situation. It’s not just, I would say, a conflict between forces or these types of powers, but it is a conflict that has some sort of spiritual ramification. You rightly said on the one side you have those who believe that the future of this world is in open society, democracy, some sort of capability of critical thinking and solidarity between those who might have different opinions but still are able to participate in that. On the other side, you have a very strange and bizarre vision of the world. I have a deep respect for Russian literature, Russian contributions to world history and thought, and I have many friends among Russians. Sometimes it might be difficult for us, the Europeans, members of small nations that quite often got, I would say, they’re finding themselves in the middle of bigger nations
“My experience in 1968, with Russians, with the Soviet occupation, speaks for itself. So again, we are in this history crossroad. I think that Putin somewhat overplayed his game. I think that he already is on the losing side of things. We still can discuss how much time it will take, how many innocent victims will have to die because of his aggressive behavior. But I think that now things are much more clear than they were months ago. The west seems to be more united than before, and the world knows what the Putin activities are about in Ukraine and what President Zelensky said today was a loud and clear statement to the U.S. Congress.
Do you think the measures that the West is implementing, not just on the economic front but also on the military front, do you think they go far enough?
“Look, I’m a former diplomat and not [a] military expert, so certainly I understand the sensitivities of any decision to step into direct confrontation with Vladimir Putin [and] his government. He still has nuclear weapons at his disposal. That’s very clear. But let me just start by historical reminiscences. My check historical reminiscences. Actually, this was 1938, when Czechoslovakia was on the target hit list of Adolf Hitler and he was very effectively using the Sudeten Germans that were maybe for some right reasons not always happy about their own situation, but everything would have been resolved, I think within a democratic state by means of discussion. But Hitler exactly didn’t want that, and there [were] these policies of appeasement that big powers that at that moment (France and the United Kingdom, Great Britain) decided to apply for that situation. They maybe had a good reason. The memories of the First World War were still very fresh. So, they didn’t want to send their soldiers to trenches to die for a country out there that they didn’t know much about. So, my question today: is what we are seeing kind of appeasement, or is it something else? Because some deal might be better than the war, but I think that Ukrainians should tell us what’s the only option they would like to go for.
“It should not be some sort of enslavement of Ukraine or destruction of their spirit and free nation, and they are ready to die for it. So, I think that this is a big dilemma for all Western partners. We need to do anything possible to see the Ukrainian side winning here, this battle—let’s say a battle of ideas. I would maybe be more open myself if I were a leader to give them what they need, what they ask us to do. But at the same time, I understand that the basic approach of the West, of the United States, is to help Ukrainians but not to be actively engaged in the conflict itself because this could give the other side opportunities for further escalation.
I think the parallel that you raised with Europe and Hitler’s claim to the land and there’s a great similarity that Putin’s argument and rationale. I want to ask you, Ambassador Palouš: as a former diplomat and as a person that values treaties, the Budapest Memorandum that was signed by Ukraine, in which it gave up its nuclear arsenal, and the sovereignty of Ukraine was structurally part of that agreement. I’d like to get your sense of the Budapest memorandum.
“That’s got to be worth something. Look, first of all, I would remind you of the old Latin saying “Historia Magistra Vitae” and I already mentioned 1938: this Munich crisis and appeasement policy. Then, I can add the tragic mistake of our second president, Dr. Edvard Beneš, who decided to yield and not fight. I think that the example of current Ukrainians and President Zelensky shows what is the right choice to be made in this situation. And then, obviously, I can go on through our Czech history through 1968 and 1989 but, to your concrete question, obviously what we are seeing here is just almost as a reality show, the destruction of the system, based on the charter of the United Nations, the system that was created after the Second World War, that tried to install really the principle of equal sovereignty and peaceful relations within the states, and the commitment to resolve the conflict not by violence but by some other peaceful means that are enumerated in the system.
“Today, the International Court of Justice asked the Russian Federation to stop their war activities in Ukraine immediately. So, I think that Russians need to know what they are doing. They are really trying to destroy the system that was the source of basic stability even in the East-West conflict when nuclear weapons were the most important arguments to try to keep the status quo and not to step into mutual assisted destruction. How the doctrine was also named.
“After the First World War, we had the League of Nations as a response to this tragedy. After the Second World War, we had United Nations. So my question is, can we still have United Nations as we used to have United Nations months ago? Would the United Nations at least need some sort of profound reform? When I was there for five years, we were discussing the reform of the Security Council. We are not at the beginning of the discussions nor in the middle, but this discussion has never ended. So I think that now with the Russian Federation, a permanent member of the Security Council with this type of aggressive behavior, I think this is really something that is shaking the terrain on which international relations were built and were more or less stable for good or bad in the past decade. I will be tomorrow on the way to New York. I would like to explore the informal atmosphere there with people who are there thinking about that. There was a special session of the UN with more than 140 countries voted in favor of a resolution, very strongly worded, clearly describing the situation. Over 30 plus abstentions, including China, Cuba, India. And you can go through the list.
“So, there is a discussion, but I would like to know what is this multilateral reflection of this unprecedented, irresponsible, and very dangerous action of the Russian Federation? I think that this current government or leadership needs to pay price for it. And the question is how things will turn out. So, I hope that this solidarity with Ukrainians will be really transformed into very massive and effective action on their behalf, so that the independence of Ukraine and the principle of equal sovereignty [are respected], and then the right on the Ukraine population to make their own choices on where they want to belong. And then also respect for public international law.
“You mentioned the Budapest Memorandum. There are some other international treaties, both bilateral and multilateral, that have been clearly violated. And so, we need to know: is international public law a joke? Or is it in the hands of [the] powerful? Or is it a really important instrument for international cooperation in order to all be able to resolve the real problems of this world? It can be poverty; it can be climate change; it can be pandemics or diseases that can spread all over the globe.
“There’s a whole bunch of things, and this is something that really needs to be given a proper name and politicians should act based on that identification of the problem.”
I am so comforted to hear from you, a former representative before the United Nations of the great Czech Republic, a critique of the actions that we’re seeing in the current setup which totally undermines the purpose of having the United Nations. In other words, if Russia can serve as a veto to any effective power, it’s like having a criminal on a judicial bench where the criminal is not going to vote to condemn a crime if he committed it. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
“Well, one simple thing. The whole world is observing what’s happening in Ukraine. I’ve registered a couple of clear statements coming from Cuban Democratic opposition. I think that the outcome of this crisis will have tremendous effect on the Cuban discussion on the future of Cuba. So, I would certainly advise Cubans to be ready and to follow the discussion from their perspective and to try to read along the lines what is the current state of the world and whether there is an opportunity for Cuban Democrats to not only make statements, but to do effective actions to bring Cuba closer to democracy, at least a little bit.”
The world’s position towards the dictatorship in Russia will have profound effects for the Castro Communist regime, for the Maduro regime, for the Nicaraguan regime, and potentially for the dictatorship in Bolivia as well. So I do think that this could serve very well and I would like to get your insight on that in a future date, if I may.
“There are many things to talk about and let’s But for now, we have many things to talk about and let’s continue in this conversation at some point in the future.”