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What to expect from Petr Pavel’s visit to Ukraine?

Petr Pavel, the newly elected president of the Czech Republic, announced on March 3 that he intends to visit Ukraine in April as part of his travel schedule for his first 100 days in office. Normally devoted to an administration’s top priorities, the first 100 days of Pavel’s term, which began on March 9, will send a strong message to Czechs and the rest of Europe regarding the nation’s commitments to its neighbors and political goals. Evidently, Pavel intends to display an even stronger resolve to defend Ukraine against Russia’s invasion, reaffirming Czechia’s connections to the West yet maintaining a differing response to other regional neighbors like Hungary, which still grasps its ties to Russia amidst growing tensions with Ukraine and the EU. 

Pavel’s visit to Ukraine would follow those of various Western leaders, most prominently President Biden or Zuzana Čaputová. The Czech prime minister Petr Fiala visited Kiev less than a month into the war with the Slovenian and Polish prime ministers, in a clear sign of Central European support. Pavel would differ, however, from other Central European neighbor – Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán. 

In contrast to Hungarian president Novák as well, who visited Ukraine in November 2022, Orbán has not yet visited Kiev, despite his standing invitation, and has repeatedly urged Ukraine to end the war, causing growing tensions between the two nations. Though Orbán condemned Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine and has provided humanitarian aid, over the past year, he has opposed economic sanctions against Russia and has not sent military aid, unlike many European nations. He has also maintained economic ties with Russia and campaigned in Hungary against sanctions and the EU’s response to the war. With formerly closer ties between Czechia and Hungary, Pavel’s eager visit to Kiev stands in stark contrast to Orbán’s reluctance, and may signal that the widening of tensions between the two nations will continue under Pavel’s leadership and perhaps even accelerate. 

Along with Poland and Slovakia, Hungary and Czechia are members of the V4 group, which was originally founded to work together toward Central European common interests and European integration. However, in recent years, disagreements among the countries have weakened their bond. As Czechia and Slovakia maintain close ties to the EU and democratic support at home (Czechia, for example, having just held the EU Council presidency), they have thus stood in ideological and political conflict with some of Poland and Hungary’s policies, for instance, Poland’s judicial rulings against EU Constitutional precedence and Orbán’s anti-EU campaigning. Last year, though, Poland joined these two nations in strong support for Ukraine, and Orbán’s Hungary drifted away from its initial commitment of lasting support. 

Pavel’s Kiev visit will likely continue to build stronger ties with Poland. However, though the V4 group’s operations are by no means stalled, Hungary’s outlying position will stand in the way of a cohesive Central Europe. And because Central Europe, and primarily the Czech Republic, has often wanted to be a bridge between East and West, this lack of cohesiveness in such a time of crisis may be representative of the once again growing divide. Pavel’s announced visit has not yet received a response from Orbán, which will likely come after the outcomes of the visit are publicized. Since we can expect Pavel to increase his support for Ukraine, such as by urging the EU towards greater decisive action or military and financial support, we can also expect a negative response from Orbán; how explicit he chooses to be in this response will likely impact Pavel and Orbán’s relations, and V4 tensions, for a not insignificant amount of time. 

Overall, though Petr Pavel will not be the first European leader to visit Kiev, his upcoming visit will send a strong message to Czechs, Hungary, and the EU. In keeping his campaign promises, he will demonstrate to his supporters and opponents that his position is strong and reaffirm the Czech goal of defending democracy. Pavel will also strengthen his commitment to the EU and NATO, while simultaneously calling for them to maintain their support of Ukraine. Finally, his visit will likely contribute to the growing tensions between Hungary and the EU, the Visegrad Group, and potentially Czechia itself, as Orbán drags his feet on visiting Kiev and criticizes Ukraine just as Pavel visits and pledges support. As the war heads into its second year and momentum among world leaders begins to slow, Pavel’s visit has the potential to be a catalyst for European action.