Allies need to focus more on their military capabilities and ensuring that they have well-equipped forces at high readiness, according to the Petr Pavel | Vldimir Simicek/AFP via Getty Images
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China cannot be trusted to mediate peace between Russia and Ukraine, Czech President Petr Pavel is warning, telling POLITICO that Beijing benefits from prolonging the war.
His comments come as China is trying to position itself as a peacemaker in Ukraine, recently floating a vague roadmap to ending the conflict. And while most Western allies have been skeptical of the overtures, some countries like France insist China could play a major role in peace talks.
Pavel, a former general and senior NATO leader, was unequivocal, however. When it comes to Ukraine, he argued, China only wants what’s best for itself — and, for now, that’s more war.
“I believe that it is in China’s interest to prolong the status quo,” Pavel said, “because it can push Russia to a number of concessions.”
Beijing, he said in an interview late last week, can get cheap oil, gas and other resources from Moscow — in exchange for its “no limits” partnership with the Kremlin. “It is also good for China that the West is probably becoming a little bit weaker by supporting Ukraine,” he added.
Pavel’s remarks seemed prescient when, only hours after he spoke, China’s ambassador to France provoked indignation by proclaiming that former Soviet countries have “no effective status” in international law — a comment that came in response to a question about whether Crimea belongs to Ukraine.
Although Beijing on Monday distanced itself from the remarks, the incident has stoked the heated conversation around whether China can ever help bring peace to Ukraine.
“I don’t think,” the Czech leader said, that “China has a real interest to resolve the war in a short time.”
Pavel, who took office as president last month, said Beijing is using the war to learn.
“China is taking lessons out of the conflict every day,” Pavel said. “They closely follow what Russia is doing, how the West is reacting.”
Pavel, who chaired NATO’s military committee from 2015 to 2018, won the Czech presidential race earlier this year on a pro-Western platform.
Now, he is using his knowledge of the alliance’s inner workings and his extensive military experience — highly unusual for a European leader — to advocate for more effective support for Ukraine and a more nuanced approach to NATO defense policy.
During a visit to Brussels last week, Pavel floated the idea of creating a new proposal for extending defense companies’ production lines — possibly using a mix of national and European subsidies — so that they could have extra capacity to draw upon in times of crisis.
NATO countries are debating the future of their current target of spending 2 percent of economic output on defense | John Thys/AFP via Getty Images
And as NATO countries debate the future of their current target of spending 2 percent of economic output on defense, Pavel is blunt about his belief that allies should focus on what their militaries can actually do, rather than how much money is spent on paper.
“We focus too much,” the president said, “on the line of 2 percent.”
“What matters for the commander on the ground are the tanks, aircraft, ships and a number of other capabilities, not how much a respective country spends for the defense.”
Allies need to focus more on their military capabilities and ensuring that they have well-equipped forces at high readiness, according to the former general. And they need to make sure that ordinary citizens are on board with Europe’s greater focus on defense.
“What I see as crucial, is to explain this new reality to our own populations,” Pavel said.
“We cannot make our hopes of peace our strategy,” the president said, “so we really need to be ready for any contingency — which is now very, very realistic.”
At the same time, the president was direct about his fears about the rise of populism and Russian influence in the Czech Republic’s neighborhood.
Pointing to the possibility of a populist win in Slovakia’s election later this year, the Czech president said that it would “be a difficult situation for Slovakia, but also for us as the neighbors and really very close partners.”
He was even blunter about Hungary. “There [are] a number of good reasons to be afraid of pro-Russian orientation of current Hungarian leadership.”
But speaking about anti-government protests that have been taking place in the Czech Republic over the past few months, Pavel said the protesters should not be lumped together — and that politicians need to put more effort into explaining policy to citizens.
“I wouldn’t put all the people attending these demonstrations and protests into one basket,” he said.
“Part of them are probably inspired by pro-Russian elements. But many of them are simply not happy with the way how government communicates different measures in the social and economic domains,” he continued.
“And it’s fair to admit that communication is not the strongest part of [the] current Czech government.”