He is interviewed by Sarah Coolican, Programme Manager, of the Central and South Eastern Europe Programme at LSE IDEAS
Sarah Coolican: In light of recent events and the turmoil waging in Ukraine at the hands of Russia’s invasion, what are some of your thoughts on how we support Ukraine at this time?
Ambassador Róbert Ondrejcsák: Ukraine is not just fighting for Ukraine and Ukrainian people. Ukraine’s fight is a struggle for the security of all of Europe and the Transatlantic community. With Russian aggression, we were hoping until the very last moment that it would not turn into conflict. This aggression has no precedent in the modern history of Europe. I believe Slovakia, Central Europe, the EU and NATO countries have an obligation to help our Eastern neighbour. There are a few reasons for this; first of all, in the moral context, a democracy is fighting against an autocratic-dictatorship; secondly, it is in our own strategic interest as Ukrainian security is heavily integrated into the Security of Europe; if Ukraine was to fall, it would negatively harm the security of the entire continent.
Sarah: In your area of expertise as an Ambassador, what are some of the diplomatic efforts Europe can take to try and de-escalate the situation, bringing all parties around a discussion table?
Ambassador Ondrejcsák: First of all, we need to make it absolutely clear who is the aggressor and who is the victim. Ukraine is the victim, and Russia is the aggressor, and our diplomatic efforts must begin from this understanding. The most important diplomatic effort is to try and create a very broad international coalition which aims to support Ukraine, and raises the cost for Russia to continue this invasion. If we are able to show unity and strength in this moment, then that will help Ukraine in the diplomatic field. But this strength must be transformed into material help, which Europe is doing well. We must also be united in terms of sanctions towards Russia; showing that ultimately this will harm Russia and its position in the international community. The consequences of economic sanctions will be absolutely catastrophic for the future of Russia.
Of course there are the direct costs of war, every war is very costly, but the secondary consequences due to western sanctions, from countries representing two-thirds of the global GDP, means we have good leverage and a chance to persuade Russia to stop this aggression. These are the pillars we have to build in our diplomatic efforts.
Sarah: You are a twice serving Minister of Defence for Slovakia, what are some things we can do as a united Europe to overcome the hybrid warfare which will rage on for the duration of this invasion?
Ambassador Ondrejcsák: Beyond the very brutal military force, Russia is also deploying other pillars of warfare – including cyberattacks, hybrid warfare and propaganda and disinformation. Fortunately, for the first time since 2014, the Ukrainians and the West more widely, have been able to react more actively on Russian misinformation. And we have been able to neutralise, to a good extent, the influence of Russian propaganda in our own countries. But we have not been able to have any impact on the Russian misinformation and propaganda campaigns towards its own nation. The Russian information space is a very closed one, domestically, it is very much state controlled and they are able to project their own narratives towards their citizens. This, of course, effects not only the strategic decisions of the Russian elite, but also the public opinion of the people of Russia.
The Russian public is fed lies, and the result is a high percentage of public support for this war. A war that goes directly against the Russian interests of its people. Russia will lose, and this will negatively affect the way of life and quality of life of Russian people for years to come.
Sarah: In your opinion, what can the international response do to manage this threat; including the EU and NATO? What are some policy options for NATO and its partners?
Ambassador Ondrejcsák: First of all, NATO is a defensive military alliance, and NATO’s most important purpose is the defence of its own members. This is why it was created, and its actions are determined by this principle. USA, Germany, France and the United Kingdom, all large members of the alliance, have declared to defend ‘every square metre’ of its territory. NATO will stand next to their partners in Central Europe. NATO has also been successful in a very robust and rapid deployment of alliance troops to Central Europe and Baltic countries. This was a very resounding example of NATO’s purpose – collective defence.
After 2014, the Enhanced Forward Presence initiative missed out some key countries in the region, including Slovakia, and so I am happy now that a new NATO battalion will be established in my country. Around 2,100 soldiers will be stationed in Slovak territory. I believe this to be the most important decision for Slovak Security policy in over 30 years.
Sarah: How are things on the ground in Slovakia? Poland and Romania get a lot of press about their efforts in handling the ongoing refugee crisis, but Slovakia also borders Ukraine. How are things domestically?
Ambassador Ondrejcsák: Beyond the military response, we are responding in the humanitarian field. Slovakia is also a host for Ukrainian refugees. So far, we have had around 230,000 Ukrainian refugees cross the border in just 2-weeks. We have tried to offer an efficient support system, from free healthcare to schooling, and I am so proud of the response from Slovak society. A huge wave of solidarity has seen people offer their houses for the refugees, and beyond the state response, the people have been proactive in helping our neighbours since the first moment. This is not an easy situation; we could never have anticipated how enormous this wave was going to be.
Sarah: I have attended many lectures on this topic in recent times, and the most prominent comment is Putin’s miscalculation about how much this would unite Europe. I think that is evident here.
Ambassador Ondrejcsák: Yes, indeed. The Russian leadership never counted on such a robust response from the West. They have tried, as always, to divide us. Divide us within NATO and within the European Union. But this war is such an important watershed moment in European security, and it will define the lives of at least one generation. That this is not something that will just ‘be over’ and ‘be forgotten’. This has initiated a systemic change. The Russian elites have changed everything now, and we had to react. They underestimated our unity, underestimated our strength. Our poor response in 2014 was definitely a pre-cursor to this action we see now, but things have changed and the steps taken will affect the daily life of every single Russian citizen for years to come.
If you would like to hear Ambassador Ondrejcsák discuss this topic further, alongside Mykola Gnatovskyy (Ukrainian Foreign Ministry), Tania Latici (CEPA), Simona Soare (IISS) and Professor Tomila Lankina (LSE)2, then click here to register for our event, New Threats and New Wars: looking to the future of Europe’s strategic and defence landscape, on Thursday 24th March 17.00 GMT
Róbert Ondrejcsák has worked in international relations for almost 25 years, moving between Slovakia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defence and the world of academia and think tanks. He’s been a lecturer at Comenius University and Matej Bel University in Slovakia on international security studies, geopolitics and European and Transatlantic security architecture. In 2016, he founded STRATPOL in Bratislava, a think tank focusing on international relations and security, particularly on strategic communication and propaganda, as well as traditional issues related to European security, NATO and Eastern Europe. He has served (twice) as Slovakia’s State Secretary for the Ministry of Defence (2010-12 and 2016-20). Dr Ondrejcsák was appointed Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Embassy of the Slovak Republic to the United Kingdom, in December 2020.