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‘It really is insane:’ Ex-defense minister on Slovakia’s pro-Russian turn

by Francis Farrell June 21, 2024 6:36 PM 10 min read
Slovak Defense Minister Jaroslav Nad gives a press conference in Bratislava, Slovakia on Dec. 19, 2022. (Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images)
by Francis Farrell June 21, 2024 6:36 PM 10 min read
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Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, neighboring Slovakia, with its own experience of decades of Russian occupation in the 20th century, became one of the staunchest supporters of Ukraine.

Under the guidance of then-Defense Minister Jaroslav Nad, Bratislava became the first country to deliver fighter jets to Ukraine, handing over its MiG-29s to a badly depleted Ukrainian Air Force, along with a much-needed S-300 air defense system.

But in September 2023, Slovakia made a 180-degree turn when a coalition led by pro-Russian populist Robert Fico won the country’s parliamentary elections. With public rhetoric openly blaming the West for Russia’s war and vowing never to supply any military aid to Kyiv, Slovakia embarked on a path very similar to its southern neighbor Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Russia-friendly leadership has been a consistent thorn in the side of EU and NATO unity regarding Ukraine.

The Kyiv Independent spoke with Nad about Slovakia’s turn away from Ukraine, political processes inside the country, and the future of pro-Russian political advances across Europe.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban reacts during a conference with Baden-Wuerttemberg's State Premier in the New Castle in Stuttgart, south-western Germany, on June 19, 2024, ahead of attending the UEFA Euro 2024 football match between Germany and Hungary. (Silas Stein /AFP via Getty Images)

The Kyiv Independent: I wanted to start with the recent news about you and your government being accused of treason because of a very simple and very obvious decision to transfer your old, Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, a neighboring country fighting for survival against Russia, which knew how to use those jets already. To an outside observer, this news seems absurd to put it lightly. What was your reaction, were you surprised?

Jaroslav Nad: I wasn't surprised because the current ruling government in Slovakia consists of three political parties, and all three of those parties claimed even before the election that they consider any military help to Ukraine to be treason, and that they would like to sue us. They had submitted their proposal for us to be accused of treason and for mismanagement of state property several times already. But every time in the past it was dismissed, and I hope that justice still exists in Slovakia, and there will be the same result again. Honestly, if somebody accuses me officially of treason for providing Ukraine with MiG-29s or the S-300 air defense system that would be probably the only case in the world where somebody could be prosecuted for helping Ukraine militarily. It really is insane and I still believe that even though there is a lot of pressure from the government on police and prosecutors to find any way to accuse us officially, I don't think this will happen.

The Kyiv Independent: How can this in any way be rationally explained? Given Slovakia's history in the 20th century, who could they possibly expect to be defending against? How do these leaders explain and sell this to their electorate?

Jaroslav Nad: First of all, they won the election on being very much anti-Ukrainian and very much pro-Russian. Now they are actually paying back their voters, they're playing the same game they were playing before the election, and it is all very irresponsible behavior.

We already acquired F-16 supersonic jets so in reality, even the government that is currently ruling, during their term between 2016 and 2020, officially decided when they acquired F-16s that there will be no training for pilots on MiG-29s. We had two options: first, to help Ukraine because Ukraine was asking us for the MiG-29 planes.

We wanted to help our neighbors, our good friends; we have never had any open issues with Ukraine.

So it was in terms of morals, but also in terms of our own interests because we definitely would like to see Ukraine winning. If we have Russia on the border with Slovakia, that would be against our national interests, obviously. But if you want to sell it to another country, then you need to actually have Russian approval, and as (Slovak Defense Minister Robert) Kalinak said, he would rather sell it to some African country. That would be with Russian approval, which means that most likely, at the end of the day, those planes would end up in Russia. I'm so glad that we decided to donate those planes to Ukraine. If I was in the same place again, I would definitely again decide the same way.

Slovakia's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Robert Kalinak addresses a press conference after the meeting of the State Security Council in Bratislava, Slovakia, on May 16, 2024, one day after an attack on the Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico. (Tomas Benedikovic /AFP via Getty Images)

The Kyiv Independent: It's strange that we even have to repeat this openly, it's obvious that Slovakia should want Ukraine to win because they don't want, again, Russian troops at the border. So what do Fico and his government really want to achieve by not helping Ukraine and blocking help to Ukraine? What do they hope to happen?

Jaroslav Nad: Honestly, I simply don't understand them.

I don't want to accuse them of anything, but they are meeting on the high level with Russian representatives.

There was a meeting of our foreign minister with (Russian Foreign) Minister (Sergey) Lavrov, which is really insane. Second, there was the inauguration of the new president in Slovakia. The president comes from the current ruling coalition and he officially invited the Russian ambassador to be a part of this inauguration, which is, for me, absolutely against normal thinking. At the bilateral meeting of Slovak and Ukrainian prime ministers, they signed a joint communique, but the next day, Prime Minister Fico claimed that whatever he signed didn't have any real impact. He said at the meeting that Slovakia supports the Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine, which is good, but then he said that he actually doesn't think so, that Ukraine should not be in the EU, certainly not in NATO, and that Ukraine is the most corrupt country in the world. So I really don't understand the rationale behind it, the only thing that I see is that they would like to get this pro-Russian electorate, which they actually created in Slovakia themselves with this rhetoric. The other explanation would be that they are paying back Russia for supporting them in the election campaign.

Chairman of Smer-Social Democracy party Robert Fico arrives for a press conference at the party's headquarters after an early parliamentary election in Bratislava, Slovakia on Oct. 1, 2023. (Vladimir Simicek/AFP via Getty Images)

The Kyiv Independent: Can you, maybe talk a little bit about these processes that are going on within Slovak society; it's a country that's been known to be very polarized since the pandemic and, obviously with the war as well. Why is it that these narratives have had so much success?

Jaroslav Nad: The country is very much polarized, I would say it's almost 50-50. It also depends on the educational level of the population. As a matter of fact, the Slovak population is very much under pressure from Russian propaganda, disinformation campaigns, and people have a tendency to believe in many strange things. During the pandemic, and later during the war in Ukraine, I would say we are number two from the bottom in EU and NATO countries, just after Bulgaria, when it comes to believing Russian propaganda. It really is a big problem. People in Slovakia really believe that it is the U.S. who started the war, and that Russia is only a victim. The only way to change this is to improve, first and foremost, policy on fighting disinformation campaigns and propaganda, which will not happen under this government. They actually canceled or dismissed all the structures that we created to fight Russian propaganda and disinformation.

The Kyiv Independent: A lot of people put Fico and Orban into one box. Fico only came into power now, but Orban has been in power for 14 years. Now people are discussing whether Fico will try to, by moving against independent media and the independent judiciary, in effect follow the Orban playbook. Do you see any big difference between their ideologies, their personal approaches to leadership, and their aspirations?

Jaroslav Nad: What I see in Fico is a kind of envy towards Orban because he would like to have the kind of support that Orban has. But this will not happen. Fico has the majority now, but a very slim majority in parliament. Yes, Orban helped Fico a lot during the campaign, behind the scenes, but also using Hungarian media, and social media campaigns boosted by the Hungarian government and targeting Slovakia. There is evidence that these campaigns on Facebook and Instagram reached more than 1.5 million voters in Slovakia just before the election. So yes, this cooperation between Orban and Fico is significant. Fico would like to mirror many of Orban's policies and decisions. On the other hand, I saw the misuse of (Fico’s) assassination attempt by Orban in Hungary, claiming that (it was carried out by) a leftist, and trying to use it in his own campaigning.

Prime Minister of Slovakia Robert Fico (R) and Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban (L) attend a session on the second day of the EU Leaders Summit in Brussels, Belgium on March 22, 2024. (Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu via Getty Images)

The Kyiv Independent: Hungary, of course, has really been the center of attention, the outlier in the EU for its quite bold and successful policies of hijacking independent media and judiciary. Now, with these consensus rules in the EU and NATO, we see them actually blackmailing and blockading both bodies. It was bad enough before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but now we're feeling it more and more. There's a consensus that Europe, especially the EU, was not prepared for such a scenario, and people are often at a loss to think of what needs to be done. Now, the rise of Fico doubles the size of this challenge. From your perspective, how should other EU countries deal with this in practical terms?

Jaroslav Nad: It is extremely difficult, I can tell you that. There is a rising adversity, I would say, among EU and NATO members, for Hungary, especially Hungary, to blackmail — I cannot find any other term for that — to blackmail others, with their position. Regarding the MiG-29s for donation, the reimbursement for them through the European Peace Facility was not finalized because Hungary is still blocking this payment. Both the EU and NATO are trying to find a way to communicate with Hungary. It's not an easy decision to get rid of the veto right or the consensus policy in the EU and NATO, but the more Hungary plays this game, the more probable it is that they will have to pay for it eventually.

Vladimir Putin during a meeting with workers at the Obukhov State Plant in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on Jan. 18, 2023. (Contributor/Getty Images)

So far what we see is that Hungary and Slovakia have not been invited to several high-level meetings. You can read the official position of the Czech prime minister, who officially said that he was forced to change his speech when he was traveling to Paris for a meeting on Ukraine once he learned that Fico would be there, even though he wasn't invited previously. He (Petr Fiala) was afraid that his remarks would end up in the Kremlin. There is significant mistrust towards Slovakia and Hungary among allies in the EU and NATO. The only happy person out of this reality is Vladimir Putin. But this is also the result of a democratic election. The majority in Slovakia voted in favor of Fico and his government. The only people who can change this are again the Slovak citizens in the next election. Obviously, people from the opposition, people from independent media, people from NGOs, all of us, together, we have to hold Fico and his government to account.

The Kyiv Independent: We've now had the European Parliament elections where, similarly, pro-Russian, far-right parties have been advancing all across Europe. From what you've seen in Slovakia and Hungary, in terms of what this could lead to, what do you think should be the lesson for Europe? What's the takeaway and what steps can be taken to avoid this as much as possible?

Jaroslav Nad: It is extremely difficult to fight against Russian involvement, which is illegal and non-democratic, using whatever tools it can. If you try to ban a Russian channel, or any propaganda with Russian connections on a European or national level, Russia will scream that it is against human rights and freedom of speech. But the question that we have to ask ourselves is, what is our primary goal? If our primary goal is to keep democracy, liberty, freedom on European soil, in the EU or NATO, then we have to use all the tools that we have, or we have to create new tools to fight Russia’s hybrid warfare. One of the ways you have to do it is simply to close down Russian channels of communication or false communication. In Slovakia now Fico's government is asking for freedom of speech, which in reality means that they would like to see Russian propaganda spread across the country because that means support for their parties.

Minister of Defence of Slovakia Jaroslav Na is seen at the Bucharest Nine group meeting in Warsaw, Poland on 26 April, 2023. (Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The whole of Europe should be very careful; many of those parties have clear links to Russia. For example, Le Pen's party: in the past, it was proved that they were receiving millions and millions of euros from Russia, and other parties with similar links are also present in the election campaign. There were several examples of politicians from Western European countries and also from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, and other countries, who were meeting with Russian officials. Some of them were receiving illegal campaign money from Russia, that's the reality we have to face. If we want to keep the European continent free from injustice and achieve peace, we need to fight Russian hybrid warfare as much as we can, using all the tools that we have.

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