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Czech envoy: Gaza war is diverting attention from Russia’s aggression

Czech envoy: Gaza war is diverting attention from Russia’s aggression
Czech Ambassador Miloslav Stašek represents his country here since September 2022. (Photo by The Washington Diplomat)

When fellow diplomats say Miloslav Stašek is one of the strongest ambassadors in town, they mean it literally.

The Czech Republic’s envoy in Washington—a 229-pound, 5-foot-8 bodybuilder who’s been pumping iron since the age of 21— trains at a public gym at least three times a week. His maximum bench press is an eye-popping 140 kilos (309 pounds).

In September 2022, the Czech Foreign Ministry named the muscular Stašek ambassador to the United States, replacing longtime Ambassador Hynek Kmoníček, who was reassigned to Vietnam.

Stašek has sought since his arrival in Washington to strengthen US-Czech political and economic ties while defending Ukraine and Israel, both of which are at war.  One issue that concerns him, he said, is that the fight in Ukraine has fallen off the radar as the world’s focus turns to Israel’s campaign to destroy Hamas.

“Russia is benefiting from (the Israel-Hamas) conflict, because the conflict in Ukraine has disappeared from the news,” he said. “All the attention is now on the Middle East. Of course, nothing has changed in our stance, but we see that it has had some impact on public opinion. People are now more concerned about the situation in Gaza than in Ukraine.”

Czech Ambassador Miloslav Stašek says his country is solidly behind Ukraine in its war with Russia. (Photo by The Washington Diplomat)

Since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, about half a million troops on both sides have been killed or injured, the New York Times reported in late August. The war has internally displaced more than five million people and forced about six million others to flee to other countries in what has become Europe’s largest humanitarian crisis since World War II.

“In absolute numbers, after Poland, we’ve received more Ukrainians than any nation in Europe,” Stašek said, estimating that since Russia’s invasion, some 500,000 citizens of Ukraine have crossed into Czechia via Slovakia. Of those, nearly 200,000 have since returned home.

“For us, these are people running away from war. We have opened our arms to accommodate them, providing them everything free of charge including education and healthcare,” Stašek said.

Czechia opens its doors to Ukrainian refugees

In terms of Ukrainian refugees as a percentage of a country’s total population, Czechia (at 46.6 per 1,000) is outranked only by Estonia (with 50.5 per 1,000), according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The ambassador denied that the warm welcome for Ukrainians versus the cooler welcome given to Muslim refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria constituted a double standard.

“Basically, most of those immigrants from the Middle East are passing through to countries like Germany and Sweden, and are not willing to stay in the Czech Republic,” he told us. “The reality is that Ukrainians are willing to stay. They have a similar language, and it’s much easier for them to adjust.”

Fighting headwinds to ensure Ukraine aid continues

In late October, the Biden administration asked Congress to approve nearly $106 billion in funding, the bulk of it for military assistance for Ukraine. But a sizeable portion of this request was to bolster Israel’s air and missile defenses; help provide humanitarian aid in Israel, Gaza and Ukraine; counter the Chinese threat in the Pacific, and boost security along the US-Mexico border.

But domestic opposition to funding for Ukraine has been rising. Some House Republicans, in particular, have argued that US taxpayers should not bankroll Ukraine indefinitely.

“We are specifically discussing this with members of Congress. The administration is focused on continued financial and military support of Ukraine, but some pockets of Congress are opposed,” Stašek said. “One of our tasks is to explain to them the necessity of continuing this support.”

Historic buildings in downtown Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

For this reason, the Czech government plans to raise defense expenditures from 1.6% of total GDP to 2% next year, he said.

“We will do whatever the Ukrainians need. Russia is a threat not only for Ukraine, but also for Central Europe,” he explained. “They’ve openly declared several times that they’d like to reunify the former Russian Empire. If they get Ukraine, they won’t stop there.”

Extensive experience in Middle East

Stašek, 51, was nominated to his current post by the previous government of Andrej Babis. He is a former ambassador to Egypt and India.

Born in 1971 in the brewing town of Plzeň, he studied at the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague, as well as Ain Shams University in Cairo.

Stašek has considerable experience in the Middle East, where he served as deputy head of mission in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, from 1999-2004; chargé d’affaires in Kuwait (2004-05); director of the Czech Foreign Ministry’s Middle East and Africa Department (2005-07) and, from 2007 to 2010, as ambassador to Egypt and Sudan.

From 2010 to 2015, Stašek was ambassador to India, with concurrent accreditation to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. He became deputy minister at the Foreign Ministry in 2016, before his appointment the following year as the ministry’s secretary of state, a position he held until coming to Washington in late 2022.

Married with three children, Stašek is fluent in English, Arabic and Spanish in addition to his native Czech.

Czech Ambassador Miloslav Stašek at his office in Washington. (Photo by The Washington Diplomat)

In addition to the embassy in Washington, Stašek oversees consulates in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The diplomatic offices serve those wishing to visit, move to or do business with Czechia, as well as the roughly 1.5 million Americans of Czech origin—the highest number in the world. Canada, a distant second, is home to about 300,000 citizens with Czech roots.

“The US-Czech relationship is the best in its history. We have great political dialogue at the highest levels,” said the ambassador, noting that the two countries enjoy $15 billion in bilateral trade, led by the IT sector, engineering technology and the automotive industry.

He recently told the Czech Press Agency that Prague is now “on the geopolitical map of the US and is one of Washington’s two biggest partners in Central Europe, along with Poland.”

Czech-US cooperation extends across many domains, including defense, energy and space exploration.

US company Textron announced in September that it had completed a first delivery of Bell attack helicopters to Czechia as part of a defense deal to help modernize the country’s armed forces. And in late September, the Czech government approved a $6.5 billion plan to buy 24 F-35 fighter jets, to boost the country’s military capabilities and allow it to work more easily alongside NATO allies.

In the energy domain, Czechia’s state-run energy giant ČEZ signed a deal in March with Westinghouse to provide fuel for the Dukovany nuclear power station, around 120 miles (199 kms) southeast of Prague. Westinghouse is one of the new suppliers that will replace Dukovany’s current nuclear fuel provider TVEL, which is part of Russian energy giant Rosatom.

And Czechia this year became the 24th country to sign the Artemis Accords, a set of non-binding principles that seek to ensure the use of space for peaceful purposes, mitigate space debris, and other key issues. “We are joining our like-minded partners in advancing peaceful, cooperative, and sustainable exploration of space,” Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský said when he and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson signed the accords in Washington in May.

Stašek: Czech support for Israel is rock-solid

Despite his long-standing ties to the Arab world, Stašek—as well as Czechia itself—seems to be firmly on the side of Israel after the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas, in which 1,200 Israelis were killed, most of them civilians, and around 4,000 injured. Some 240 men, women and children were taken hostage during the attack, and were still, at the time of writing, being held in unknown locations and conditions throughout Gaza.

“Of course, we were all shocked. We didn’t expect such a thing could happen, specifically when new initiatives were underway to establish diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which, when I served there, would have been absolutely unimaginable,” he said. “There was new momentum and we all had the impression that everything was going well.”

Prague’s support for the Jewish state is nothing new. Months before the state of Israel was established in May 1948, Czechoslovakia, which was in the Soviet bloc at the time, had signed a contract with the new nation, pledging to provide it with 200 MG-34 machine guns, 4,500 P-18 rifles and more than 50 million rounds of ammunition.

“We are well-known for supporting Israel since 1948, and after the Hamas attack, our foreign minister was the first dignitary to travel there and show solidarity with Israel,” Stašek said.

The Czech Republic was also one of just 14 countries—and one of only four EU members, along with Austria, Hungary and Croatia—to vote against a United Nations resolution calling for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities.”

Stašek said he believes the Israel-Hamas war will “be a long conflict.”

Israel’s main target, he said, “is to destroy the infrastructure of Hamas … to be sure those attacks will not happen again.” However, other countries have criticized Israel for having killed an estimated 11,000 Palestinians—including many women and children—in the process.

“But what we are also discussing is the future of Gaza,” he said. “It has always been very difficult to unite the Palestinians, with basically two governments.”


Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.