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Ukraine: Deep divisions among central European nations

February 27, 2024

Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia – known as the Visegrad Four – are deeply divided on Russia's war in Ukraine. Leaders from the four countries met in Prague on Tuesday.

From left to right: Slovakia's Fico, Poland's Tusk, the Czech Republic's Fiala and Hungary's Orban
The Visegrad Four - Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia - are more like two groups of two when it comes to UkraineImage: Petr David Josek/AP/dpa/picture alliance

The prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia emerged from a meeting in Prague on Tuesday predictably split over the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine.

The four central European nations, all former communist Soviet satellites but now European Union and NATO members, form an informal political alliance known as the Visegrad Four (V4).

But while Poland and the Czech Republic are united in staunch support for Ukraine, the populist leaders of Hungary and Slovakia are more skeptical.

Poland and Czech Republic clear on 'Russian aggression'

"I think I can say there are differences among us," said Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala, who hosted the meeting in the Czech capital. "I won't keep it secret, it wouldn't make sense, that we differ in the views of the cause of the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the ways of solving it."

Newly elected Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk called Russian President Vladimir Putin a "war criminal" and said the sole cause of the war in Ukraine was "Russian aggression."

In the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion in February 2022, Poland quickly opened its borders and has since received more than 1 million Ukrainian refugees.

"Regardless of how strong a country Russia remains to be, the political, moral and historical assessment of what is going on today in Ukraine must be unequivocal," said Tusk.

Polish foreign minister: 'Russia ruled by a bloody autocrat'

Hungary and Slovakia call for 'peace talks'

Slovakia and Hungary, however, have thus far refused to provide arms and ammunition for Ukraine and their populist leaders, the left-wing Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and the Hungarian nationalist conservative Viktor Orban, have expressed understanding for Russian aggression.

"I don't believe in a military solution of the conflict in Ukraine," said Fico, who has described the West's collective approach to the war as "an absolute failure" and called for an EU peace plan.

Fico has previously parroted Kremlin narratives about the causes of the war, including Putin's unsupported claims that the current Ukrainian government is run by "Nazis" from whom ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine needed "protection."

He has said no amount of Western weapons for Ukraine would change the course of the war, has opposed EU sanctions on Russia, and wants to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO.

Orban, who has forged close ties with Putin and held up the latest EU aid package for Ukraine, has also called for peace talks — "the sooner, the better."

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Poland's Tusk: 'We would still be living under occupation'

Speaking alongside Orban and Fico, Tusk recalled the common past the four countries shared as satellites of the Soviet Union until 1989.

"If we accepted Moscow's point of view, the one Putin is presenting, then neither Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary nor Poland would be independent states, and we would still be living under occupation," he said.

The four leaders did agree that none were considering sending their own troops to Ukraine, something which French President Emmanuel Macron had controversially refused to rule out on Monday.

But Poland and the Czech Republic said they remained resolute in their support for Ukraine.

"We know who's the aggressor, we know who's the victim," Fiala said earlier in the day following a separate meeting with Tusk. "We're clearly ready to strongly support Ukraine and to look for all possible ways of further boosting our support."

For instance, Poland says it's ready to contribute to a Czech plan to acquire ammunition for Ukraine from outside the European Union.

"On Ukraine, on Russia's aggression, on the responsibility for this tragedy, we have been speaking in one voice since the beginning of this conflict," said Tusk.

What is the Visegrad Four?

The Visegrad Four alliance was established in February 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The name derives from the Hungarian town of Visegrad where the leaders of Hungary, Poland and what was then Czechoslovakia met.

The location was chosen because it had also hosted the Congress of Visegrad which brought together Hungarian, Polish and Bohemian (Czech) rulers in 1335.

After the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, the newly established Czech Republic and Slovakia became independent members of the group, and all four joined the European Union in 2004.

mf/msh (AFP, dpa)