Citizens are pushing their leaders to stand up to Russia's aggression
The Prime Ministers of the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia made a risky visit to war-torn Kyiv this week, kept a strict secret until they were already in Ukraine. Their bravery was applauded when the news became public, but concerns were also raised about the trip’s capacity to bring the West a step closer to joining the conflict. The question of what would have happened if one of these NATO leaders had been caught in the crossfire by Russian troops was left unanswered.
The trio took pains to portray themselves as active wartime allies, attending a war-room meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky while posting pictures of themselves poring over maps of Ukraine. They looked, to all intents and purposes, keen to become involved in the war — and although none have yet broken ranks on NATO’s rejection of actual military intervention, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki today announced that he will propose sending a peacekeeping mission into Ukraine at a NATO summit next week.
It might seem surprising that countries which remember suffering at the hands of Russia — and which would see themselves as the Kremlin’s next potential victims if Ukraine falls — should be so bellicose. Yet this new hawkishness isn’t limited to Eastern European politicians — it extends to public attitudes too.
In the Czech Republic, applications to join the army reserves have increased tenfold since the war in Ukraine began. Meanwhile, an acquaintance who frequents shooting ranges in Prague tells me he’s seen a major surge in interest in such pursuits since the invasion. Czech weapons sellers have reported a spike in sales, as well as increased registrations for firearms training courses. And at the political level, the Ministry of Defence has received a boost in its budget and there’s pressure to complete long-running arms procurement programmes.
War in Eastern Europe has clearly brought home the importance of self-defence, but there’s something else at work here too. This new hawkishness is now turning into action. Upon his return, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala immediately called for the West to ship more anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine. Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger’s decision meanwhile not to join the risky expedition attracted stern criticism and he was forced to apologise for his absence.
Interventionist impulses in the Czech Republic have been further channelled into directly funding the Ukrainian war effort. A fundraiser set up by the Ukrainian Embassy in Prague allows ordinary people to contribute to the purchase and delivery of weapons from Czech arms manufacturers. It’s being portrayed as a “sponsor a donkey” type participation scheme, only for anti-tank missiles and small arms. Hundreds of millions of Czech koruna (around £20 million) have already been donated, and the Ukrainian ambassador claimed Czech weapons bought through the scheme are already being used on the front line.
Inevitably, in this climate, calls are also growing for more direct intervention, with demonstrators in Prague calling for the implementation of a no-fly zone over Ukraine on Tuesday. A senator attending the event described imposing a no-fly zone as “our moral duty,” while another speaker argued the step should be taken regardless of whether NATO is drawn into the conflict, claiming the West needs to “stop being afraid of Putin”.
However unrealistic, such calls evince a growing sense among Eastern Europe’s other Slavic nations that, like it or not, they are already implicated in the war in Ukraine. These countries have long lived with fear and suspicion of Russian aggression — now it’s a reality, they’re keen to get on the front foot.