Jan Kavan is a former President of the UN General Assembly (2002-2003), Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Deputy Prime Minister of the Czech Republic (1998-2002).
In its preamble, the UN Charter promises to prevent future wars and declares that “we the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind […]”. Despite these good intentions, about 50 wars have been raging in the world since World War II. Only Europe remained relatively peaceful, with the one exception of the 1990s Balkan wars including the terrible bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Today, this is no longer the case. Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians are losing their lives in the war in Ukraine, cities are turned into ruins, power stations, bridges, roads, schools, and even hospitals are being destroyed, while fertile Ukrainian land is being devastated. Many women are losing their husbands, brothers, and fathers. Millions have emigrated to other European states. The “collective West” has imposed severe sanctions against Russia which did not stop the war but also reduced standard of living in many European countries.
The war is no longer a regional conflict between Russia and Ukraine. It is a global conflict as the West is directly involved in the form of a massive military and financial aid on which Ukraine is totally dependent. It is thus a proxy war between Russia and NATO, a type of war which the UN Charter intended to prevent.
I am convinced that we all must do our utmost to stop the war. We have to pressure our governments to strive for a ceasefire which should create space for diplomats to search for a compromise that will lead to a stable peace. This means that the West has to cease sending weapons to Ukraine and Russia has to accept agreed terms of the ceasefire. The terms of the ceasefire, and a future peace agreement, would have to be guaranteed and its implementation observed by several powers, including, for example, the United States, Russia, China, Turkey, France, Brazil and the UN.
Together with two of my colleagues, I helped to launch a peace initiative entitled Peace and Justice in the Czech Republic in January 2023. We have to date attracted almost 20,000 signatures despite the boycott by the mainstream media and certain repression against the leading signatories. We became the main target of the government politicians and their loyal journalists. We are portrayed as supporters of the Russian President Vladimir Putin and pro-Russian collaborators. Our call for peace and the ceasefire is interpreted as support for Ukrainian capitulation. Arguments in our defense are not published in the major media.
The truth is that we do condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a clear violation of international law and a violation of the UN Charter. I did not discover the issue of peace in February 2022.
Following the Warsaw Pact invasion of my country in August 1968, I was expelled from the university and forced to emigrate to the United Kingdom. There in the 1970s and 1980s, I joined the European Nuclear Disarmament (END), a peace group, which opposed both the instalment of SS20 missiles in Eastern Europe and the Cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe. END (unlike the UK-based Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) demanded democratization of the Soviet bloc as well as demilitarization of Western Europe.
I returned to Czechoslovakia in November 1989 when the Communist government collapsed. In the years 1998-2002, I served as the Czech Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. In that capacity, I opposed the bombing of Yugoslavia and together with my Greek counterpart Jorgos Papandreu we launched a Czech-Greek peace initiative which contributed to the ceasefire, and later, to the Balkan Pact of Stability. Understandably, I also opposed the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo as a violation of the UN Security Council resolution 1244.
As President of the UN General Assembly, I opposed the U.S. Invasion of Iraq in 2003 and did my best to prevent the United States from getting a UN Security Council mandate for that war. In this we succeeded but, unfortunately, we could not prevent the invasion which was carried out by the United States and the “coalition of the willing”—without any mandate of the UN or even NATO. Around 650,000 people have died as a result. The so-called Islamic State was born in the American prison camps in Iraq and started a bloody war throughout the region.
Misconceptions as Formal Policy
Today’s war in Ukraine cannot be solved militarily. This has been admitted even by America’s top military officer, General Mark Milley, who stated clearly that a military victory for Ukraine is “unachievable.” Peace simply cannot be achieved by one side defeating the other. I was pleasantly surprised that Brigadier General Frantisek Micanek of the Defense University in Brno found the courage to oppose our government a few days ago. He also declared that there can be no military solution, that neither side can win, and that there is a danger of another frozen conflict. I also agree with Robert Fico, who may become Slovakia’s next Prime Minister in September 2023, that to believe that a nuclear power “can be defeated is stupidity and unimaginable naivety.” Even Putin’s ally, the Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, warned that if Russia faced real trouble or became worried about losing Crimea, for instance, Putin would be prepared to use a tactical nuclear weapon. The West believes that Putin is bluffing, and this irresponsible attitude gives me the willies. As shortsighted and spectacularly selfish I perceived the remark by our Defense Minister Jana Černochová, that such an event would not harm the Czech Republic. I also regard as absurd the notion expressed by the Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky that if the Russians are not stopped in Donbas, they will come all the way to Central Europe. Worse, he uttered these words with a straight face at the moment when the Russians were still stuck at little Bakhmut. This just effectively spreads irrational fear.
As I have said above, I unreservedly condemn the invasion of Ukraine. But I believe that we need to recognize what led Putin to make this decision. Russia, because of its history, has traditionally feared encirclement. In 1990-1991, Western politicians, including American President George H. W. Bush and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl assured Mikhail Gorbachev that if he withdrew Soviet troops from East Germany and allowed German reunification, NATO would not move eastward “one inch”—according to the records that reveal this to be the words of U.S. Secretary of State James Baker. I recognize that it was a bit foolish of Gorbachev—who was always an opponent of war—to believe these verbal assurances and not have it signed into a binding treaty. But this proven fact—I have seen more than 300 pages of transcripts of these conversations, and I have also spoken with Gorbachev—has been ignored by Western leaders. NATO began to move closer to Russia’s borders, and when Ukraine also applied for NATO membership, President Putin made it clear that the presence of the Alliance’s troops at Russia’s borders was completely unacceptable.
On February 10th, 2007, at the Munich Security Conference, Putin unequivocally warned against further expansion of NATO. A year later, in March 2008, at the NATO summit, Putin repeated this warning, saying that the admission of Ukraine and Georgia to NATO would be seen as a direct threat to Russia’s security. Surprisingly, the United States ignored these warnings, and two months later, at the NATO conference in Bucharest, the intention was announced to expand the Alliance to include Georgia and Ukraine. Furthermore, U.S. President Joe Biden promised Ukraine membership in NATO even in December 2021. I believe that this was irresponsible. The truth was revealed only by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who announced in March 2022 that “the admission of Ukraine to NATO was never on the agenda.” Too bad he didn’t say so 3 weeks earlier. Perhaps he could have prevented the war.
Today, warmongers believe that ceasefire and peace talks, let alone any peace agreement, would be a repetition of Munich in 1938 and that this would amount to surrender and betrayal of brave Ukraine. I, on the other hand, believe that the greatest betrayal of Ukraine is to support a continuation of the war, which will only lead to more bloodshed, casualties, and greater destruction of the country. This, of course, must be clear to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who, however, is publicly repeating the American mantra that his army will drive the Russians out of all of Ukraine thanks to Western modern weapons. I don’t believe that he believes it himself. Despite his tough rhetoric, we should not forget that over a year ago he was willing to sign a 15-point “neutrality agreement” with the Russians at their meeting in Istanbul. That agreement included a firm assurance that Ukraine will not join NATO. Shortly afterwards, the then UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived in Kyiv and (backed by the United States) persuaded Zelensky to abandon this agreement. And today, while he officially rejects China’s 12-point peace plan, he has also expressed his willingness to negotiate with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Recently, Xi called Zelensky and, according to the Ukrainian President, they “had a long and meaningful phone call […] I believe that this call, as well as the appointment of Ukraine’s ambassador to China, will give a powerful impetus to the development of our bilateral relations.” Furthermore, China will send its “special representative” Li Hui (whose previous positions include that of Ambassador to Moscow) to open negotiations with Zelensky. At the same time, President Xi warned that “in a nuclear war there are no winners.”
It seems that Western politicians do not welcome Chinese efforts to become a peace intermediary and continue to suspect that China simply plans to help Russia, though there is no evidence to justify such skepticism. A few days ago, this position was also adopted by the new Czech President Petr Pavel, who supports Ukrainian military victory and has made it clear that he does not believe China’s intentions. “I do not think […] China has a real interest to resolve the war in a short time,” said Pavel, adding that Beijing apparently only hopes to force Russia into making more (primarily) economic concessions. This provoked Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to reject Pavel’s comments as “statements that have nothing to do with the work of a normal political figure.”
In my opinion, the leaders of the so-called collective West are now worried that a peace agreement may be reached on terms other than those dictated by the United States. An outline of such a peace agreement was discussed in Beijing during the visit by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Zelensky’s supporters also speculate that a combination of battlefield successes with the impact of economic sanctions could convince Putin to end the war, or someone around him to violently overthrow and replace him. Barry Posen, a writer, journalist, and professor at the American university MIT, argues that this is a completely false illusion. According to Posen, both sides must understand that they will have to make some painful concessions. Posen reiterates that diplomacy is cheap. Apart from time, airline tickets and coffee, the main prize is entirely political. Posen, like former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, mentions certain basic contours of a possible peace agreement. Ukraine will have to relinquish control of part of its territory, especially where the Russian-speaking population is located. Russia will have to relinquish part of the territory it now occupies. These details would have to be elaborated and agreed upon at the future diplomatic peace talks. However, it is obvious that Ukraine with its oligarchs and its enormous corruption, will have to remain part of the West, though it will not be a formal member of NATO and there should not be offensive weapons on its territory, says Barry Posen.
The Roman statesman Cicero once argued that an unjust peace is better than a just war. For Zelensky, finding a compromise between preserving sovereignty with territorial integrity and ending a just, but cruel and devastating war, will be extremely difficult. For Russia to withdraw from some of the territories it now occupies will not be easy either, though Putin could present Ukraine’s neutrality as a victory.
Emotionally, it will be difficult for Ukrainians to accept the secession of part of their territory, though they have not controlled it since 2014. The West will be reminded that it endorsed the secession of Kosovo—without any referendum—which incidentally has not been accepted by five EU member states. We are obviously well aware that the principle of national self-determination can be applied only when it suits the West, which of course never considered any recognition of the separatist republics of Luhansk and Donetsk.
Any peace agreement must take into account the right of Ukrainians to live freely in a country where they can democratically elect their own government. On the other hand, any such agreement must account for Russia’s security concerns. I recognize that this puts spheres of influence and bloc arrangements back on the agenda. Dreams which we entertained at the end of the last Cold War will have to be put on hold for a while. We are already living in a new cold war. In fact, the reality of spheres and zones of influence has never gone away. Fortunately, in 1962, Fidel Castro did not even think about including Cuba in the Warsaw Pact, and Nikita Khrushchev wisely avoided a nuclear war by withdrawing Soviet missiles from the proximity of the U.S. border.
American political scientist John J. Mearsheimer recently reiterated that power creates a kind of law in the international system. And he emphasized that “the United States would never allow Chinese troops to be invited by Canada or Mexico to Toronto or Mexico City.” Mearsheimer admitted that “we pushed Ukraine to become a NATO member […] we pushed Ukraine to become a Western outpost on Russia’s borders […] We will not fight for the Ukrainians, we will fight to the last Ukrainian. […] But we will supply them with weapons and train them,” the professor described the American strategy. Note also that U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that the purpose of American policy in Ukraine was “to weaken Russia so that it would not be capable of any more such invasions.” No mention of Ukrainian democracy.
I recall that former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, referred to the ancient Chinese philosopher and military strategist Sun Tzu, who once remarked that if we are facing a strong enemy whose defeat will mean that many of our own people will die, then it is best to build a golden bridge at the enemy’s rear, allow him to retreat and then declare that he has achieved some success. Yanis Varoufakis admitted that a possible peace agreement would not satisfy anyone completely but would at least result in an end to the killing of people and in an independent democratic Ukraine.
I would not be surprised if President Zelensky was afraid of eventually losing American support, without which he would be lost, because he realizes that the 2024 American presidential election is on the horizon. Already today, about 50 percent of Republicans believe that the United States is helping Ukraine too much and their presidential candidates recognize that Ukraine’s victory is “not a U.S. national interest,” but only an interest of the American arms industry. To this day, Ukraine has received more financial and military support than Afghanistan, Israel, and Egypt combined. These three countries were the top recipients of American support to date. Once Uncle Sam turns off the taps on his support, Ukraine will have to sue for peace regardless of the actual situation on the battlefield. It seems to me that it may be more advantageous for it to act immediately and make full use of China as one of the intermediaries.
Let me reflect on two recent developments. The first is the call to bring President Putin before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. The second is the efforts to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from the Olympics and other major sports tournaments, despite the recommendation of the International Olympic Committee. This is a hypocritical demonstration of double standards. American athletes were not obstructed even at the time of the war in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq. Neither Russia nor the United States are signatories to the ICC, so The Hague has no jurisdiction anyway. But above all, did someone call on President George W. Bush to appear before the court in The Hague, when more than 650,000 people died in Iraq? And I stress that the United States and the so-called “coalition of the willing” knew as early as March 2003 that the pretext for invading Iraq—i.e. that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction—was a lie. I was the President of the UN General Assembly at that time, and we were acquainted with the preliminary conclusions of the UN arms commission headed by Swedish diplomat Hans Blix, who warned that (at that time) there were no such weapons on the Iraqi territory.
The Way Forward
I reiterate that this war has to stop as soon as possible. The argument that the war could end, and peace can be achieved only by the increased supply of even more modern destructive Western weapons to Ukraine has to be firmly rejected, as it will result only in greater bloodshed and greater number of casualties. I recall that some time ago the Ukrainians asked for more modern tanks and they received them. Many of the German Leopards and British Challengers are already there and American Abrams tanks will be sent shortly. Later, Ukrainian leaders asked for long range missiles and modern jets. Now, some are even hinting at the need for special NATO units to be sent there. I hope that this will not come to fruition. These military units should apparently join Western specialists that are already in Ukraine (50 officers from the UK, 15 from France, with others being from the United States and the Netherlands). It seems to me that this represents a dangerous challenge to Moscow as even a relatively small number of NATO soldiers on the Ukrainian territory could represent the proverbial crossing of the Rubicon, or the red line, which divides us from the threat of World War III. All rational and sensible people throughout the world must unite to forestall such a dangerous development.
I was very glad that last month the UN Council of Presidents of the General Assembly, which met in Bahrain, also called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and for diplomatic negotiations for peace. I admit that it was not easy to reach such a conclusion and I very much appreciated that my proposal was strongly and effectively supported by Vuk Jeremić, Serbia’s former Foreign Minister and President of the UN General Assembly in 2012-2013. One should not overlook that the UN has played a positive role, not only in facilitating the export of Ukrainian grain to the developing countries that need it, but also in saving many lives in Mariupol as well as in arranging for several exchanges of prisoners.
I am personally able to envision a peace agreement, whereby a repeated referendum would take place in Crimea and Donbas under the auspices of the UN. Should a majority of Russian speaking citizens refuse to be an integral part of the Ukrainian state, then this would have to be fully respected by the international community.
I perceive that the term “peace” is today in many countries, including in my own, an extremely suspicious and even vulgar word. We, who advocate it, are labelled as a “bunch of peace-mongers,” let alone by more sinister depictions. I am proud to stress that I do want peace. The slogan of my generation was that “war is an asshole!” That is also true today. And the proxy war between NATO and Russia, between the great (and nuclear) powers, is deserving of an even juicier description! My generation also listened carefully to John Lennon. His call to “Give peace a chance” is very pertinent today. Let’s make our voices as loud as possible, so that they can reach the ears of those in power. Wars, invasions, occupations, and aggressions are not in the interest of people who want to live in peace and mutual solidarity and enjoy the prosperity created by their own work.