Russia President Vladimir Putin is well on his way to reestablishing Russia as a
regional hegemon and the West has been too slow to recognize and deal with
Putin's strategy, according to the foreign minister of the Czech Republic.
"We are not going back to
Stalin, we are going back to Nicholas I," said Karel Schwarzenberg, the
Czech minister of foreign affairs, in an exclusive interview with The Cable. "It was under Nicholas that
the great part of Central Asia was conquered by the Russians and Putin is quite
successfully getting them under the control of Russia again, and the West is
The Obama administration's "reset"
policy toward Russia was not enough to influence the path of the Russian
government, a path that was set when Putin resumed power, Schwarzenberg said,
and now the West must acknowledge and deal with the aggressive autocracy Putin
has put in place.
"I have the impression we
were a bit too late and too little. We were much too slow and much too little
engaged during [former President Boris] Yeltsin's time," he said. "We
can't accept this; we can't accept that any world power is dominating his neighbors.
We shouldn't have illusions about the regime Putin has installed."
He said that Putin was now
reacting to the increasing unrest inside Russia by turning inward and isolating
Russia from the influence of Western society, for example by shutting down the
U.S. Agency for International Development's mission in Moscow.
"By kicking [USAID] out, he indicated himself
what he considers most dangerous for his autocracy," Schwarzenberg said. "He
is now afraid to meet the people and that indicates that he realizes the
opposition exists and that it has become a force in Russian society. Russia is
changing much faster than he thought. It is not as easy to be a dictator as it
was 40 years ago."
Schwarzenberg was in town to meet with Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton on Sept. 21.
He said they talked about Syria, where the Czech Republic is America's
protecting power because the United States has withdrawn its diplomatic
presence in Damascus. The Czechs protect the U.S. buildings and perform
consular services for the roughly 3,000 Americans living in Syria.
The Czech Republic is among the only Western country
that still has a diplomatic presence in Damascus. Schwarzenberg said that
decision was made for practical, not political reasons.
"I think the purpose of the embassy is for the
central government to get information and by withdrawing diplomats you lose the
source of information," he said. "If it makes sense and as long as we are
getting information, that's a good reason to stay. And the ambassador says she
is not scared, so we stay there."
Schwarzenberg said the Czech Republic does not
support a NATO-led effort to impose a no-fly zone in Syria and he doesn't think
that Western countries should arm the rebels.
"I do think they get enough money and supply from
the states backing them like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. They are better
armed each day," he said. "It is a normal civil war which is more difficult
because on the opposition side, there are many different groups, with different
aims, financed by different countries."
The Czechs also want changes in an investment treaty
with the United States that goes back decades, but the U.S. government is
resisting those changes. Clinton also made the case that the U.S. company
Westinghouse should be chosen to build the new nuclear power facility in the
Czech Republic, rather than the other two bidders, Schwarzenberg said.
Schwarzenberg was the Czech official who signed the
agreement with then Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice in 2008 to station an X-band missile-defense radar system in the Czech
Republic, an agreement that the Obama administration abrogated when it altered
U.S. plans for missile defense in Europe.
The Czech defense minister at the time, Alexandr Vondra, famously said that
this decision was indicative of the Obama administration's "enemy-centric"
policy. Schwarzenberg said he understood the decision and the Obama
administration's perceived turn away from Europe towards other regions
"I'm a realist and maybe I was not so full of
admiration of the United States as [Vondra], who lived inside the Soviet bloc.
I consider myself a great friend of the United States but I know that great
powers have their own interests and act in accord with them," Swarzenberg said.
"The Pacific basin is now more important than
Europe, it's perfectly understandable," he said. "I think in Europe we have to
learn that we have to care much more ourselves, for our own security."
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GettyImages