Xi Jinping Wants to Have Siberia for Dinner

Karel Schwarzenberg believes that the West made a mistake at the Bucharest NATO Summit in April 2008, when it failed to extend the Alliance’s Membership Action Plan to Georgia and Ukraine. Here is the interview he gave ARCE. It was conducted several days after Russia attacked Ukraine.

“I think that at least for a while, NATO states are protected. Obviously, as we see today, states outside NATO are endangered. I am convinced that in Bucharest, when we gave in to Germany and France’s pressure and did not invite Georgia and Ukraine into the Alliance’s Membership Action Plan right away, giving them instead only vague assurances of future membership, that it was interpreted by the Kremlin as a direct invitation for them to act. First, Russians visited Georgia. And now Ukraine. Let’s be honest – it is partially our own error,” says Schwarzenberg.

Is it then a lack of Western resolve that is partially to blame?

Yes, and Georgia and Ukraine are paying the price. All the bullshit we have heard then finally led to this result. 

What does Putin want?

Based on what he said, it seems to me clear that he longs for the old Russian empire. We should not forget that what happened in 1989 threw Russia back centuries in their own eyes. They did not only lose the territory conquered by the Bolsheviks, but also that which belonged to them during the Czar. It pains Putin and I understand that. When you worked for and believed in the entity that lay from Vladivostok to Cheb, and suddenly all these satellite states disappear, it is a terrible blow to your self-confidence. He is clearly emotional about this. Similar sentiments reigned in the 1920s and 1930s in Germany. There are all these legends that Germany was not defeated honestly, but that it was stabbed in the back. It is not all that different in today’s Russia. 

Foreign policy realists argue that NATO’s expansion is partly to blame, that we have unnecessarily humiliated Russia when it was weak. We should have been more generous to Russia, much like Western allies were generous to West Germany after the Second World War. 

There is something to that argument. We should not forget that in the 1990s under Yeltsin there was hope for democracy in Russia. But after that, when Putin took over, he began to steer the state back to dictatorship. These tendencies were visible already in the second half of the 1990s. And the fear of Russia was key to why we wanted to expand NATO. By coincidence, I was present at Putin’s infamous anti-West speech in Munich in 2007. My speech immediately followed Putin’s. I think I was right when I said that I would like to thank the President of the Russian Federation for his words as they have clearly demonstrated all the reasons why we were right to have joined NATO. Germans were angry with me, saying that, after all, Putin was quite accommodating in his speech, but it was immediately clear to me what Putin’s words meant. He clearly delineated the policy that has led to today’s invasion.

Foreign Minister Lavrov once said later at one of those Munich conferences that Germany’s reunification might be illegal. People were laughing at him.

We cannot do anything about that – they have said several times over and over that they consider the entire arrangement after 1990 erroneous.

Russians have a special kind of relationship towards Germany. And it is also true the other way around. It is an emotional relationship. Putin is very proud of speaking fluent German.

Sixty years ago, when I studied in Munich and was looking at university courses in Germany, I realized that in even the smallest places there were institutes studying Russia and the Soviet Union. At Germany’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs there is a strong tradition of friendship towards Russia. And it is long. Before the First World War, Prussians and Russians had several common skeletons in the closet, namely Poland. It was only very poor politics that ended up leading to the War in 1914.   

Are you surprised by the depth of change towards Russia now under the Scholz government?

If even war does not change your bad policy, I do not know what else could.

Well, we have politicians here in the Czech Republic who have not changed their view substantially even after this recent Russian aggression, like Vaclav Klaus, who blames Putin for having made his own position, Klaus’, untenable. 

But President Zeman has changed his view.

Were you surprised by his 180? By his rhetoric – that Putin was a madman who has to be isolated?

Zeman always makes sure not to go against public opinion. If his pro-Russian policy was still more or less part of a certain kind of mainstream, he could say whatever he wanted. Post-invasion, that has changed.

How is Europe’s security architecture going to change?

I don’t know. I am no prophet. I do not know what is going to happen in Russia. If the invasion is not a success in the longer run, will Putin survive? That is a question.

When you talk to Lavrov, do you feel he believes what he says? Or is it just cynical posturing?

Lavrov is a very good diplomat.

I have a story with Lavrov. During my first year as Foreign Minister I traveled to New York City for a regular UN session. They always throw a lunch for the ministers of foreign affairs of EU states with Lavrov. When I was there for the first time, I was silent as is proper for someone green behind his ears. I just shut up and listened. When it was over, Edita Hrda, my cabinet chief asked me, how was it? And I told her it was highly interesting – when you observe how a football team from Dolní Počernice plays against Maradona, it is always interesting. In foreign affairs, he is a Maradona.

There is no doubt. He has some achievements under his belt. The way he elbowed the West out of Syria, you have to admire that. 

What do you think he really thinks? Does he have any influence?

He does not have a large influence. He was always a good servant. He is intelligent, so he must be thinking about how to get out of this. He is looking for an escape route. 

What is the relationship of oligarchs to Putin?

Mafiosi cooperate when it is to their benefit, but when it is not, they start shooting each other. That’s why the smartest ones are based in Israel or London. 

Do they have any serious influence over Putin?

I don’t know. I guess not a large one. 

Did you expect that the West would use such drastic and overwhelming sanctions against Russia?

Not before the war, I did not expect that. But when the tanks rolled in, yes. 

Even Switzerland joined in on the sanctions.

A huge change.

What happened?

Television, videos, social media – people see what is going on, see that Russians are killing women and children—and react. The same happened when Americans saw videos and pictures from Kosovo, how Serbs were killing Albanians and driving them out of their villages. That changed American politics. The United States was forced to act against its own will. 

This war will bring China and Russia even closer, won’t it?

That has already happened to some extent. They will cooperate against America. On the other hand, for Chinese President Xi, Siberia is a dinner that he is slowly preparing for himself and wants to eat. And Putin has no illusions about it. Their cooperation has its limits. 

Will the Western unity last? If this drags on for months on end, the price of petrol will go through the roof…

When the pressure lasts, then we will stay united. But if Putin lets go partially, and attempts to selectively embrace some western countries, then I will be worried about our unity.

If he played it smarter, could he achieve more?

I think that right now against his own intentions, he has managed to unify the entire Western world against him. 

Orbán comes to mind. But even Orbán agreed to sanctions.

Orbán is smart and he needs time to maneuver. The question is whether he survives the Hungarian elections. I remember Orbán in the late 1980s. He was a liberal and anticommunist and had no illusions about Moscow. Now, he has been closest to Putin among the EU leaders. This has obviously changed. 

How do you explain the tremendous evolution of Orbán in 30 plus years?

Power. Too long in power and in politics.

And so is Putin. Some people are nostalgic for the Putin version 2000.  He was supposedly a reformer.

That is different. Putin in his heart has always been a KGB officer. And as of 2007, it must have been clear to all. 

When we Czechs observe President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s tremendous heroism, we cannot not think of President Edvard Beneš and Munich.

Not much of a parallel. Beneš did not stay to fight. I appreciate Zelenskyy’s stance more. The Ukrainian people know that one has to fight.

For a nation it is sometimes better to be defeated in a fight than to capitulate without a fight, because it can start a bad tradition like here at home.

Tomáš Klvaňa

is visiting professor at New York University Prague and Senior International Management Consultant. His most recent book is Perhaps Even a Dictator Will Show Up (Možná přijde i diktátor, Bourdon Prague 2017).

Karel Schwarzenberg

is a Czech politician, former leader of the pro-european liberal-conservative TOP 09 party and was its candidate for president of the Czech Republic in the 2013 election. He served as a member of the Chamber of Deputies from 2010 to 2021. He served as Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic from 2007 to 2009 and again from 2010 to 2013. In the early 1990s, Schwarzenberg served as Chancellor to President Václav Havel. Schwarzenberg has been the head of the House of Schwarzenberg, a formerly leading family of the Habsburg empire, since 1979. From 1948 to 1990, he lived in Austria and was involved in Austrian politics and became a noted critic of human-rights violations in the eastern bloc, chairing the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. Following the fall of communism, he became a close adviser to Václav Havel and relocated to Prague.

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