The sheriff of the new West

The European Union’s strongest moral response to the Ukraine war came from its eastern members who more strongly see Western values at stake. One country stands out: the Czech Republic.

A woman kisses her son as people gather in Prague, Czech Republic, Oct. 11, to protest Russian strikes against Ukrainian cities.

The capital of Ukraine was again under Russian rocket fire last week, but that didn’t deter a visit by a large delegation of the Czech government. “Our support, our help, is all the more important to strengthen Ukraine in its struggle,” Prime Minister Petr Fiala said after the two sides signed several agreements of cooperation.

It was not the first time the Czech Republic – a Central European country that doesn’t share a border with Russia – has displayed unexpected moral leadership within the European Union on the Ukraine war. 

A nation of only 10.5 million people, it was the first to send tanks to Ukraine’s aid – even though it was highly dependent on Russian gas supplies at the time. It has welcomed a large number of Ukrainian refugees and still provides outsize military support. It has promised economic support to Kyiv through 2025 to help it rebuild. And it led the EU to restrict visas for Russian tourists. 

Its moral voice was perhaps loudest in September when Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky called for the immediate creation of a special international tribunal to punish war crimes in Ukraine. That would include putting Russian President Vladimir Putin on trial for starting a war of aggression. “In the 21st century, such attacks against the civilian population are unthinkable and abhorrent,” Mr. Lipavsky said.

The Czech Republic has taken a tough stance against Moscow in part because of revelations last year that Russian secret agents were behind large explosions at Czech ammunition depots in 2014 that killed two people. The sabotage may have been aimed at preventing the ammunition from being shipped to Ukraine.

In addition, the country took over the rotating EU presidency in July. This raised not only its profile but also that of many other states of the former Soviet empire demanding a stern EU response to Russia. The crisis has helped shift the moral center of the EU away from its traditional leaders, Germany and France, and toward Eastern and Central Europe – with the Czechs out front.

Only three decades away from being under Moscow’s yoke, these countries do not take their independence for granted. Nor do they see membership in the EU as merely an economic benefit. Ukraine’s struggles and sacrifice “remind us of the values on which Europe stands and falls – freedom, democracy, and respect for the individual,” the Czech foreign minister wrote on the Novinky news site. That gave him and other top Czech officials the courage to travel to Kyiv despite the risk of Russian rockets.

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